How is coaching middle management different to coaching frontline managers or executives?
Summary: Middle managers are competitive, political and reluctant to admit they don't know something. How should you change your coaching style to reach them?
Written by Graeme Philipson 04 Feb 2020

Fastlead Plus brings small pod coaching to middle management. It builds on the successful Fastlead program for emerging frontline managers, extending its effective learning and coaching techniques to the next level of management.

This is not as simple as it sounds. Middle managers have a different skill set and different attitudes to individuals learning these skills for the first time. They differ in their ability to learn, their sense of competitiveness - and their reluctance to be confronted with any gaps in our knowledge.

Willingness to learn

Fastlead Plus participants are more certain of their abilities, which – paradoxically – can make it harder for them to learn. One of the reasons Fastlead works so well is because participants want to learn. They are what we might call ‘unconsciously incompetent’.

Before they do the Fastlead program they might wonder just how hard it can be to become a manager, then once they start the program they realise that it is much harder than they thought. As the program develops they really start to realize how much they have to learn.

A key aspect of small group coaching is the ‘pods’, the name we give to the three or four participants in one six-month program. When Fastlead participants meet others in their pod they are usually excited to learn that they all have similar challenges. They are not overly concerned about displaying their own weaknesses.

The dynamic is different with Fastlead Plus participants, who are already middle level managers. They are leaders of leaders. Invariably, they feel that they didn’t get to where they are without understanding how to be a leader. They are firmer in their views than participants in the Fastlead program, and they have already developed their own leadership style.

They are less open to new ideas, even if they say that they are.

They have also probably been exposed to leadership programs previously. But as every good OD and L&D manager knows, the very fact that someone has been on a management course doesn’t mean that they have deployed the skills they have been exposed to.

Fastlead Plus participants already know their stuff, or think that they do, where in Fastlead they know they need to learn.

Sense of competitiveness

In FASTLEAD Plus, participants may see others in their pod as competitors. If they are in the same organisation they may be seen as potential rivals for promotion. In FASTLEAD all participants are in the same boat, or at least have a strong feeling of wanting to participate.

Reluctance to admit to shortcomings

In Fastlead Plus the participants are not as likely to admit to weaknesses or areas where they could improve, whereas in Fastlead they know they need to learn.

Fastlead Plus participants are very good at rationalizing their shortcomings. Rather than say they don’t do something very well, they will say that their team or their situation is different, and faces different challenges.

They are typically more defensive and show a relative lack of openness.

Building on the strengths

These differences made us think we could not use the same small group design employed so successfully in Fastlead to deliver the Fastlead Plus program. At first we thought the differences between the two groups would mean that the middle managers which the Fastlead Plus is aimed at would need a different style of program and a different delivery mechanism.

But on reflection we realized that the strengths of small group coaching are significant, and that the key was to adapt that structure to the different demands of the Fastlead Plus participants.

In Fastlead Plus we spend more time ensuring that we match the participants, so as to minimize any sense of competition. We do this by ensuring that participants have different specialties or come from different departments, even if they are from the same organization.

We minimize any challenges to participants’ professional pride. If we were to ask them how effectively they would be able to perform a typical management function, they would very often say they were very proficient. They would feel challenged and would want to demonstrate their ability.

Rather, we present them with a number of scenarios, and ask them what they believe is best practice, or near best practice. We ask them to describe a situation and a solution – we do not directly test their skills.

These scenarios are critical. Participants can talk about management issues without personalizing them. If they are challenged they have nowhere to hide, but if they are expressing opinions they do not feel threatened. It works well.

Another difference with Fastlead Plus is that instead of introducing and explaining various leadership models, we discuss the different models the participants may already be aware of.

We refer them to the Fastlead e-learning portal so that they can ‘remind themselves’ of these models and the lessons to be learned from them if necessary. Again, this makes it non-threatening. They soon understand what they need to know.

We don’t ask them whether they’re deploying a particular strategy. This is a potential challenge to their skills or their knowledge.

We ask them what they are doing and how they are doing it, and the opportunities and problems they face. That way, we manage the ego problem.

Fastlead Plus outcomes

Fastlead Plus, like Fastlead, is based on outcomes. Both programs play to the participants’ strengths. Altering the dynamics in the Fastlead Plus program works well. Participants soon put their egos aside and learn to trust one another.

They think of themselves as better understanding things they already knew. They see examples from other departments and other organisations that they can use in their own situation. They think in terms of how to take things to the next level, while participants in Fastlead know and admit they have a lot to learn.

We have also made some changes to the topic areas to suit the needs of Fastlead Plus participants. Fastlead is based around ten linked topics. In Fastlead Plus there are 14 topics which build on this base, enabling Fastlead Plus and Fastlead programs to be run simultaneously, or in a coordinated manner.

It also means that Fastlead participants can move directly on to Fastlead Plus, if that suits their abilities, because the terminology and structure are similar. There is a natural progression.

Fastlead is for people new to management. Fastlead Plus is for leaders of line managers who have undertaken the Fastlead program, or who are at that level of ability.

The middle managers for whom Fastlead Plus is designed are leading a team of people with different challenges and different approaches then they themselves have developed.

They cannot do everything themselves, they have to work through the people they manage. Each program works well.

Taken in combination, they offer an integrated approach to management training, with a commonality of methodology and approach, but which take into account the key differences between the two levels of management and their learning needs.

Subscribe to the fastlead list