Expert Manager or Coach Manager?

Advantages and limitations… What do you think?

For a long time I’ve been advocating the advantages of coaching management, but recent experience has made me reconsider my position on the subject and add a few limits and nuances. This article is open to debate, and your experiences are welcome to enrich it.

“An employee who doesn’t count the hours because he’s passionate” or “A manager who remains focused on objectives while empowering employees, in particular because he knows nothing about management and his only skill is management”?

Which model do you favour in your company?

Below is a non-exhaustive but fairly well-founded reflection on the 2 subjects. If you’re interested in the subject, we can discuss it at greater length in person, as I’m passionate about it! 😃

The Expert Manager is the most widespread model in French companies

It’s based on expertise, which legitimises the manager in his or her position in front of the teams, in order to take decisions, put in place the right models, develop the skills of his or her colleagues by relying on know-how… In fact, it has many virtues, since a manager with expertise will be able to analyse a situation with full knowledge of the causes, and will find it easier to ask the right questions, which will prevent him or her from steering the teams in the wrong direction.

So you might say: there’s no contest, the expert manager is the right model for the manager coach!

The expert manager is the “knower”: holding the recognition through his knowledge, he is often attached to certain beliefs inherent in this mode of recognition: he may go so far as to believe that he must hold the sum total of his colleagues’ skills, always being one step ahead. He sets the bar so high for himself that he may become his own workaholic if he really wants to achieve this goal, putting in hours of work beyond reason. Whether they’re passionate or demanding, they won’t always see a limit to the amount of work they can put in to ensure they always deliver.

Some company bosses will happily say: “my goodness, this is the dream profile! An employee who doesn’t count the hours because they’re passionate about what they do, or because they need to control and secure their decisions”. Indeed, it’s a profile that offers real advantages… with certain downsides that I’ve observed on many occasions, and in which many of you will recognise the comments below.

Promoted to the rank of manager for his technical knowledge, the expert is not necessarily a “born manager”:

  • They may have difficulty in trusting and delegating, ultimately limiting the development of their teams’ skills.
  • He may also set the bar quite high, which has the effect of limiting the confidence of his employees, who never or almost never achieve the level of quality expected by this expert manager. For some, this is motivating because the manager becomes a kind of ideal to be attained. For others, it is totally demotivating, especially if they operate on a more relational basis and are not sensitive to expertise (the yellows for those familiar with the neuroscience model).
  • Relying on their expertise, they have a clear vision of the methods/products/services to be implemented and can therefore involve their teams in a fairly directive, albeit not authoritarian, management style. The effects of this management style can also demotivate certain employees who need to learn from experience. Learning from experience means being prepared to make mistakes. But expert managers are so demanding that they are reluctant to make mistakes. This situation can put some employees in “procrastination” mode: they no longer dare to do anything, because no matter what they do, it won’t be good enough.
  • Finally, he can quickly become indispensable in the team, sometimes being the only one to link the different work done by the members of his team. They often work a lot and their departure from the company can be a strategic loss that weakens a company or a department until their skills are replaced, when this is possible.

To sum up:

The expert manager potentially has the following limitations: lack of delegation, lack of “trust in”, difficulty in accepting mistakes in the learning process, risk of demotivating certain employees, natural tendency to adopt a directive management style, can become indispensable, which weakens the company if he or she leaves.

On the other hand, they offer the following advantages: control and security of decisions, potential for innovation if they are the driving force behind change, natural legitimacy with teams, strong involvement, privileged interlocutor on the issues they deal with.

The Manager Coach is becoming more widespread in some companies, but there are also certain limits to be identified, as in any model..

The manager coach is a management style that is more widespread in large companies, which position a manager with no business knowledge, considering that management is a business in itself and that it can stand on its own if the managerial skills are there.

Expert skills then take a back seat on the manager’s side, since the team in place is made up of experts and the manager-coach is ultimately there to reveal talent, to “grease the wheels” of collaboration within his team and with other teams.

His lack of expertise enables him to adopt a distant stance that makes it easier to identify obvious shortcomings that others would not see, as they are too invested in the details or the “doing”. Their view of the system puts them in a different position to help their teams move forward.

The manager-coach has objectives to reach and relies on his teams to achieve them. They use a delegative and participative management style to involve their teams in achieving results, calling on their expertise and asking them for advice on the methods to be implemented. By asking the team to think about “how to do it”, he involves them and gives them a sense of responsibility by sending out a strong message: you’re the one who knows, what do you think is the best way to do it?

In this way, the team can be empowered and motivated, because they feel that the company trusts them and values their expertise. Each member of staff can clearly identify their added value in achieving results, and can easily articulate the meaning of their work.

An ideal model too! Finally, many models have their advantages..

If employees lack knowledge, rather than asking how to do things, they will be more inclined to research, take charge, learn and take the initiative. The learning company is then quite naturally on its way, since the manager will not be providing the key, but can at best work with the employee to find out how he or she can go about finding the resources to grow or do something.

As the manager’s role is more focused on “getting the team to work to the optimum of its resources to achieve results”, he or she is more concerned with regulation, questioning, interconnection and enhancement.

Regulation in the sense that a team is experiencing tensions potentially linked to relational, organisational or structural difficulties: technical skills are not necessarily the best resource for getting out of the crisis in the face of such difficulties, whereas managerial skills may be more useful: questioning, reformulating, helping to see things more clearly, rationalising, listening to difficulties, questioning about possible solutions, are all resources that the manager can bring to his teams in such a situation.

  • A relational difficulty arises: the manager coach can take charge of the situation. What are the intentions, what has led you to the current situation, what can everyone do at their own level to help improve the relationship, etc.?
  • An organisational difficulty arises: the manager coach can also intervene. What is the back-planning, where do the difficulties arise, what are they due to, what are the options for resolving the difficulties, what have you already put in place, etc.?
  • A structural problem emerges: inter-departmental conflicts of interest or objectives, various forms of interference, lack of basic technical skills, lack of resources, etc. The “external” viewpoint helps to rationalise the issues, and to intervene in a dispassionate way by remaining focused on problem-solving in a dispassionate way: facilitating, challenging, refocusing, rationalising, obtaining evidence to demonstrate.

Those who are new to this management style may say: “But of course, this is the management style I need to implement. Staying focused on objectives, giving responsibility to employees and encouraging them to develop their skills – it’s the perfect solution!

The manager coach has many advantages, particularly for a “manager of managers”. The nuances are more marked at a level of responsibility in operational management.

  • In both cases, this model is only viable if the manager coach knows how to give credit where credit is due, and does not take credit for the work of his team. He is the conductor of the orchestra, and under no circumstances should he pass himself off as something he is not. This is the difficulty experienced or felt by teams when faced with a manager-coach whose personal ambition is high or misguided. When the manager does not externally value the work of his teams and indirectly takes credit for the team’s successes, the feeling of injustice or betrayal among employees is difficult to regulate, and the teams’ distrust may then take over, causing them to lose some of the benefits of the system put in place. The teams’ objective may then become sabotage, in particular to highlight to the outside world the manager’s lack of skills, which is perceived as an “imposter”.
  • In both cases, we can see that the relevance of the manager coach’s questions may be limited by his ability to understand the intrinsic and technical difficulties of his teams. Employees may sometimes have the feeling that they are dealing with a manager who positions himself as a “just do it, we have to do it” and who does not necessarily realise the efforts made by the teams to achieve results. He will be able to see the efforts being made, but will not necessarily be able to feel them because of a lack of intellectual empathy with the teams, not necessarily having the capacity to grasp the subjects being dealt with if they are highly qualified.
  • In both cases, too, the employee is not always aware of the technical limitations of the solutions he is proposing. As a result, they see themselves as the custodians of their own choices, and may feel that they have no safeguards in the thinking they have put forward. They can sometimes feel that they are missing out when faced with a manager who is not in a position to question them on technical issues that can have a major impact. No matter how competent an expert an employee may be, if they are not challenged by someone who speaks their language, they may feel insecure and find this situation difficult to cope with, reduced to a feeling of solitude with a burden of responsibilities beyond what they are prepared to assume.
  • Finally, the manager-coach must know how to protect his teams in the event of a mistake. These are all the more likely when technical skills are highly individualised and personalised, and not challenged by the manager or colleagues. Here we can see the importance of a matrix organisation, which can sometimes alleviate this problem. The risk is that the manager who is recognised by an employee becomes more of a cross-functional manager than a line manager.

To sum up:

The manager-coach has the following potential limitations: lack of intellectual empathy on fundamental issues, lack of technical support to secure decisions, employees’ impression of being over-responsible or isolated in their areas of responsibility, risk of a feeling of injustice in valuing the achievement of departmental results if the manager-coach takes the “ransom for success”.

On the other hand, it offers the following advantages: conflict resolution, optimisation of organisations by taking a step back, empowerment of teams, enhancement of their expertise, involvement through a sense of work and awareness of participation in a wider objective, inter-departmental coordination, increased skills through greater autonomy.

While each of these 2 models has real advantages and also significant limitations, it is clear how important it is for managers to have a wide range of skills.

In the end, perhaps the greatest skill of today’s manager is adaptability..

  • For the expert manager, to evolve towards new managerial skills by adopting forms of management other than those linked to expertise. They will be looking for situational and emotional adaptability, over and above their technical skills.
  • For the manager-coach, we will certainly be expecting him to be able to immerse himself in the culture and technical content of his colleagues, to better support them and show an interest and empathy for their day-to-day issues, to also challenge them on aspects that the manager-coach would find harder to grasp when he is very distant from the subjects being dealt with. This is where the coach’s intellectual adaptability comes into its own, so that he can get to grips with the issues of a variety of people.

Why am I telling you all this today?

As I said at the outset, it’s a recent experience that has made me analyse things and see the shortcomings of the manager coach in a magnified way. And of course, it’s an opportunity to introduce our solutions to those who haven’t yet had the Assess Manager experience!

Our job is first and foremost to make managers aware of their individual management styles – both the good points and the areas for improvement. It’s a real performance accelerator, often equivalent to 3 or 4 coaching sessions in terms of effectiveness.

Reading this reflection may have enabled you to recognise certain operating patterns in your company. If you’d like to discuss any of these topics, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re passionate about what we do!

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