Google’s Best Managers Excel at Coaching?!

In 2002, Google took a bold step and got rid of its engineering managers. According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, the idea was to allow its engineers, who didn’t see the value of managers, to focus on the tech and “not communicating with bosses or supervising other workers’ progress.”

The short-lived experiment wasn’t successful. Founder Larry Page was inundated with problems and questions from the company’s engineers that had nothing to do with technology; issues a manager typically addresses.

Page and co-founder Sergey Brin quickly saw the value of managers, but realized they needed their employees to see it as well. As a company founded on data and analytics, it decided to bring in a team of experts to prove it “with the same empirical discipline Google applied to its business operations.”

The team’s initial research found the proof they needed. Statistical evaluations showed that “high-scoring managers” had lower turnover. They also found “a tight connection between managers quality and workers happiness.”

The next step was finding out what made a “good” manager. Based on their data, they uncovered “eight key behaviors demonstrated by the company’s most effective managers.” Number one? Being a good coach.

The full list of behaviors:

He or she…
1. Is a good coach
2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
4. Is productive and results-oriented
5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
6. Helps with career development
7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team

The problem, according to a related HBR article, is that managers often lack the time and skills to be more effective coaches. “Yet 70% of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training programs,” the author notes. “So if line managers aren’t supportive and actively involved, employee growth is stunted. So is engagement and retention.”

How to drive the change

Not all companies have the resources available to Google to study effective management, but they can apply the results. Healthcare organizations in which managers are trained on (and expected to use) these behaviors and skills can gain a competitive edge when it comes to hiring and retaining workers. It’s particularly important when it comes to frontline employees, where turnover is high and engagement can be low.

In an article on “The Balance Careers,” executive coach Dan McCarthy notes that “Coaching is the skill and art of helping someone improve their performance and reach their full potential.” He emphasizes that it takes practice, but “it’s an investment in people that has a higher return than just about any other management skill.”

When managers become more competent coaches, McCarthy explains that everyone reaps the benefits. “People learn, they develop, performance improves, people are more satisfied and engaged, and organizations are more successful.”

At Google, the information drawn from its multi-year research was used to help identify ways in which managers could improve. A manager who didn’t score well on coaching “might get a recommendation to take a class on how to deliver personalized, balanced feedback.”

Offering courses that help managers build the coaching skills they need is a sound investment in your employees and organization. Even short sessions can help managers significantly improve their skills. The experts on the invitation-only Forbes Coaches Council (FCC) also recommend formal training, but they encourage managers to develop their own coaching skills.

Forbes Coaching Council (FCC)

Based on their experience helping companies such as Nike, Johnson & Johnson and Mattel integrate coaching into their management framework, the FCC experts share their collective coaching wisdom with Forbes’ readers. Their suggestions include:

1. Know your employees and help them succeed
Several of the experts emphasized the importance of this. “Show interest in an employee’s life and how it affects their performance,” suggests one. Another says ensuring the success of every employee should be a top priority for every effective manager.

2. Practice active listening
“As a manager, you can practice this skill by simply being quiet and letting your associate talk without agenda or interruption,” advises one expert. “Resist filling an awkward silence — that’s where the gold is.”
The key is to stay focused on the person, and not the ever-present distractions of calls, texts, or emails. One coach recommends heading outside for one-on-one discussions.

3. Don’t tell, ask
Allowing employees to have input and make suggestions helps them develop critical thinking skills and builds confidence. A question such as “Why is that the best solution” is a better approach than telling employees what to do. It “allows the employees to take ownership of their ideas and think through the outcomes.”

Another expert recommends asking some questions regularly. “What’s going on with you right now? What’s going well? What’s not going well?” He solicits their input on what happens next and asks one last question.”Finally, what can I do to set you up for success?”

Research shows, and the experts agree, that successfully managing frontline employees isn’t based on telling them what to do. It’s about providing guidance and support, and removing the barriers that prevent them from doing their jobs well. Managers that excel in coaching employees instead of micromanaging them tend to have better performers, and that makes the organization stronger overall.


“How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management.” Harvard Business Review. David A. Garvin

“You Can’t Be a Great Manager If You’re Not a Good Coach” Harvard Business Review. Monique Valcour

“10 Ways To Lead Like A Coach.” Forbes. April 6, 2018. Forbes Coaches Council.

“How Managers Can Become Effective Coaches of Employees.” The Balance Careers. December 14, 2018. Dan McCarthy.