Informal Coaching – A Must Have Skill for Managers

This is what happens when you become a manager.

You get robbed.

“Do you have a minute?” When you’re a time-strapped manager, these 5 words become your nemesis. You give up all your time and end up with none for yourself.

You become a firefighter.

Each day is comparable to an episode of MacGyver. Employees seem to have the uncanny ability to present you new problems to solve.

You learn the phrase ‘herding cats’

You’re not just responsible for your personal KPIs, you’re responsible for the team’s KPIs. As hard as you try, it seems impossible to get everyone to work in sync towards achieving a common goal.

The transition from managing yourself to managing others is one of the most difficult transitions in an individual’s career.

Managing others requires a shift in mindset and the mastery of new skills.

Of the many skills a manager needs to have, I have found the ability to coach your team to be a particularly useful and often, life-saving skill.


What is Informal Coaching

The growing number of coaching certification programs seem to have created a sort of elitist reputation for the humble activity of coaching. There is no doubt professional coaching requires a formal structure and approach. However, for day to day people management, you don’t always need to be formally certified in coaching.

Informal coaching, sometimes also known as a check-in, a one-to-one or a catch up is a lighter version of the formal activity of coaching.


Performance vs. Development

Many managers may feel they already do plenty of informal coaching at work. For a few of us this might be true. However, it’s more likely that most of us are having performance focused conversations instead of development focused conversation (which is the essence of informal coaching).

To illustrate the difference between the two, I’ll paraphrase Michael Stanier from his brilliant book ‘The Coaching Habit’

“Performance focused conversations are focused on addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge at work. It’s everyday work stuff which is no doubt important, urgent and necessary. This is the type of conversation most managers are used to having and it happens regularly at the workplace.

Development focused conversations turn the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue. This is the coaching conversation.”

The focus on development is the big difference between informal coaching and regular employee work conversations.

The easygoing nature of informal coaching means it should happen casually and frequently.



Informal coaching should happen in the car on the way to a client meeting or when a manager and employee cross paths at the office pantry. While some managers may want to have it scheduled it’s preferable for informal coaching to happen on an impromptu basis.



Informal coaching should happen fairly frequently. Depending on the nature of work and the seniority of the employee, it can happen as frequently as daily or weekly. There should also be a sense of continuity to the conversations.


How do you run an informal coaching conversation

Inspired by the work of Michael Stanier, here are some key elements to a solid informal coaching session

  1. Ask Great Questions
  2. Actually Listen
  3. Curb the Problem Solver


Ask Great Questions.

A great way to start an informal coaching session is to start by asking,

‘What’s on your mind?’

It’s a great opener that skips the useless chit chat and get’s to the point. And because no one ever really tells you what’s on their mind, a great follow up question is,

‘And What Else?’

As you dig for all the things on your employee’s mind, zoom in on the core problem by asking,

‘What is the Real Challenge Here for You?’

These 3 questions are all you need to get a great informal coaching session going.

Actually Listen

How often have we been introduced to someone new only to forget their name the second we hear it? We may deceive ourselves by blaming it on their pronunciation or our bad memory but in truth, it’s simply because we weren’t actually listening.

It’s the same when coaching. We have a tendency to ask a question and then we habitually bob our head as we hear the answer (think of the Bobble Head dogs you find in cars). The problem is, we don’t actually listen. Next time, listen.

As you listen, remember to allow for silence. We seem to find silence uncomfortable and awkward. However, silence is where the real conversations start to happen. I used to have a senior manager who’d ask me ‘What’s on your mind’. I’d start by telling him about some client or another and he wouldn’t say anything. He’d just sit there and smile as if to say he’s waiting to hear more. So then I’d think a bit more and tell him about the problem I had with my direct manager or the concern I had about my promotion. Silence can be a powerful tool to get to the real problem and is easy to practice. All you need to do is keep quiet.


Curb The Problem Solver

Finally and most importantly, stop problem solving. It’s easier to problem solve than it is to coach but in the longer term it’s more useful to develop your employees so that they can problem solve by themselves.

Next time, you feel like giving your employee an answer to a problem, ask them,

‘What do you think is the best way to tackle this?’ or

‘If you had to tackle this, what would you do?’

By simply turning the problem solving responsibility to the person you’re speaking with, you go from having a performance focused conversation to a development focused informal coaching conversation.



Getting good at anything requires practice and so does informal coaching. As you practice, you’ll find what works for your unique situation and personal style.

While it may not be the end all solution to the challenges you face as a manager, informal coaching will most definitely help reduce your problem solving responsibility. When employees start to realise you care for their personal development and that the channels for communication are wide open, things will start to change. They’ll start taking responsibility for problem solving and for their own KPIs.

All this results in less firefighting and more time for you to focus on other issues at the workplace.