Why Manage the Good, When You Can Coach the Best?

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By Janet Choi

kawhi coach

“Thanks for pushing me.”

That’s what Kawhi Leonard — at twenty-two, the third youngest Finals MVP in NBA history — told his coach, Gregg Popovich, during the celebratory hullabaloo of this year’s Spurs championship.

To developer Kevin Lamping, Leonard’s simple utterance of gratitude is a meaningful example of the power of coaching, the difference between “managing the good” and “coaching the best.” Their multimillion-dollar salaries, Kevin observes, isn’t quite enough for players to motivate and develop themselves. It’s that critical outside perspective that helps push, challenge, and support you to improve, which is why elite performers from Olympic athletes to opera singers at the top of their fields still have coaches.

Of course the best bosses take time to develop their people. It’s even been proven by Google with its extensive analysis of over 10,000 observations about managers across over 100 variables. Their first and foremost evidence-based rule of good management? Be a good coach.

Then why isn’t coaching more often treated like part of the manager’s job rather than a nice extracurricular activity?

The Tough Choices Managers Face

At Wistia, they run a Code College, where employees who want to learn how to code can pair up with an engineer and work on real-life issues and projects. When we talked to Jeff Vincent and James Zhang about how they make the school work within the pressures of a regular workweek, they pointed out that they have to fight the inherent tension in one’s role as both manager and coach — the temptation to let short-term business costs concerns dictate your decisions.

When you face a choice between getting an engineer to come up with a quick solution versus the tougher, more prolonged approach of teaching a customer champion to get to the technical root of an issue and come up with a fix — it can seem perfectly rational to just assign the engineer a ticket to solve the problem, end of story. Fostering a culture of improvement and development requires extra time for failures and detours while people are learning. Going for the apparent time- or cost-effective solution is where the teacher or mentor role can break down.

That presents a tough decision for most managers, whose performance isn’t necessarily measured by their efforts to coach and develop their team. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, writes in Creativity Inc. that the choice given to managers between deadlines and developing their people isn’t really a choice at all. It’s a setup to ignore that first and foremost important rule of management.

Managers will always go for the deadline — because that’s how they’re incentivized. He writes:

By necessity, the message companies send to their managers is conflicting: Develop your people, and oh, by the way, make sure everything goes smoothly because there aren’t enough resources, and the success of our enterprise depends on your group doing its job on time and on budget….[W]e must acknowledge the rock and the hard place we often place [managers] between. If they have to choose between meeting a deadline and some less well defined mandate to “nurture” their people, they will pick the deadline every time.

Even when you understand the value of coaching and teaching for building up both the people you manage and the company as a whole, they never seem like priorities when you’re facing more urgent concerns like the prospect of losing customers or failing to hit an important milestone on time.

The Power of Mission-Driven Motivation

When one of your motivations for doing a certain job involves financial returns, it can be surprisingly counterproductive to your ultimate success, according to recent research by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz.

Their study honed in on two kinds of motivation — internal and instrumental — and their impacts on the trajectories of over 11,000 West Point cadets. An internal motive is when your goal is inherently related to an activity (like wanting to become a doctor because you want to help heal people) while an instrumental motive has no inherent connection with the activity (like wanting to become a doctor to earn lots of money).

Wrzesniewski and Schwartz were surprised to find that the cadets who had both strong internal and instrumental motives performed under par — turning out to be less likely to graduate, to excel as officers, and to stay in the military. The cadets’ instrumental motivation to improve their career and earning prospects ended up detracting from their internal motivation to improve themselves through leadership training.

To counteract the harmful effects of instrumental motivation, the researchers advise emphasizing those internal motives — concentrating on purposes beyond and more meaningful than profits:

Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.

In explaining why Wistia created Code College in the first place, Jeff and James told us how one of the company’s main beliefs is that the people closest to the problem should be empowered to fix it. Anytime there is friction or obstacles in the way of understanding the root problem someone faces — that often translates into less awesome results and lower engagement.

Having this reasoning in place at an organizational level, connecting how people work to a real “why,” allows Wistia employees to proceed and make choices outside the realm of instrumental motives.

* * * * *

Time and financial pressures are an inevitable part of work life, adding to the stress and decision fatigue that make short-term choices based on instrumental motives too easy. Focusing on the meaning and impact of work is exactly how companies like Wistia choose nurturing and coaching their people over deadlines. Simply put, they live their values every workday.

This extends to how they hire, putting up front their belief in long-term growth and development in job postings, explaining that they’re pretty stubborn about: “Do[ing] it right. We focus on the long term. We love to be productive, but deadlines are the first thing to be sacrificed in the name of quality!”

When a company actually has values that it puts into practice, it helps guide long-term decision-making and inform people’s understanding of what their job entails. The choices, then, between making a deadline and a learning opportunity, or pushing people to improve themselves rather than pushing just to improve the bottom line, open up beyond the rocks and hard places.

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