The Differences Between Coaching and Managing


Fred Perrotta
[Y]our role as a manager is not to solve problems. It’s to help others solve problems, themselves. – Claire Lew

At Tortuga, we use the same words as Help Scout does for managers and individual contributors: Coaches and Players.

We call our managers "coaches," not just because words matter but because coaching is their job.

My Experience with Managers

Before starting Tortuga, I'd had mixed experiences with managers. My first job out of college was at Google. All of the managers on our team were former individual contributors who became managers because the company was growing so fast. Yesterday's associates became today's managers as a fresh batch of college graduates took their place. Some people adapted to and were great at their new management role. Others were clearly not suited or ready for management.

When we started hiring at Tortuga, I became a manager out of necessity. I worried about becoming that unprepared manager that I'd once reported to and that everyone complained about.

The idea of a coach, rather than a manager, made sense to me. As the first coach at Tortuga, I didn't have the breadth of experience nor the time to micromanage everyone. They would have to "manage" themselves with my guidance. That seemed doable.

Bad Managers and Good Coaches

We've all had experience with bad managers: They know all the answers and how everything should be done. You have to do the work and do it exactly how they would have done it themselves. They micromange you every step of the way but still aren't satisfied with the results. You're constantly working towards their expectations but never really know what they are.

Contrast that style with a coach.

A coach’s role is to serve players, to help them seek excellence, and to ensure their team is greater than the sum of its parts. – Nick Francis

Tortuga's description of a coach is best summarized in this paragraph from the job scorecard for our General Manager (Head Coach).

A coach’s role is to support players, not to tell them what to do. You are not responsible for solving every problem. You are responsible for helping players solve their own problems and for removing roadblocks so that players can do their jobs well. You will enable players to spend their time in deep work, not in meetings and administrative hell.

A coach helps the team – and the individuals who make up the team – do its best work.

Coaches use goal-oriented communication. They communicate what must be done and why we're doing it. Then you figure out how to get it done. A manager tells the team what must be done and how to do it but omits why it must be done at all.

Telling your team how to do their jobs strips them of their autonomy. Removing autonomy creates a frustrated, unmotivated team.

Coaches decentralize decision making. Managers make themselves the bottleneck to decision making.

Coaches create psychological safety so that the team can take safe risks. Managers create a culture where people tell them what they want to hear.

This table neatly summarizes the differences.

GOOD COACH BAD MANAGER
Bottoms up Top down
Servant leader Autocrat
The coach supports the team The team supports the manager
Tells WHAT and WHY. Team figures out HOW. Tells the team WHAT and HOW. Skips WHY.

How are you helping your team succeed? By coaching them to be great and providing autonomy in getting there? Or by telling them what to do?

Further Reading

For more on coaching instead of managing, read these articles.

Organizing Teams with Players and Coaches (Nick Francis, Help Scout)

Do I Truly Want to Become a Manager? (Claire Lew, Know Your Team)

Don't solve problems if you want to be a great manager. (Claire Lew, Know Your Team)

Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management Part 1 and Part 2 (Julie Zhuo, Facebook)