Winning the Talent War #7: Turn Managers Into Coaches (Just Like the Marines!)

The Marines are painfully methodical about building leaders: Each corporal is in charge of a “fire team” of three Marines. At each new level, an enlisted leader’s sphere of supervisory authority is expanded and he or she is trained aggressively to take on that role.

In every organization, in every industry, there are lots of people who move into positions of supervisory responsibility because they are very good at something, but often they are not good at managing people. So there are lots and lots of skilled people in the workplace (I really hope you are not one of them) who find themselves in charge of other people, but without the skills to manage those people effectively.

All the time, when I go into a company, I’ll start asking around, “Tell me about the people here who are really good at managing people.” Of course, everybody names the same names: Mark, Carolyn, and Joe. Then I’ll ask, “Are there people who are not so good at managing people?” Just as fast, people start ticking off names (usually in a careful whisper): Betsy, Peter, and Harold. “Oh,” I usually continue, just for fun, “So Betsy, Peter, and Harold aren’t allowed to manage people?” After a confused silence, somebody says, “Oh, they manage people. In fact, I have to deal with Peter all the time and…” Even though they are not so good at managing people, they do it anyhow. And everybody knows it.

How could this be allowed to go on?

What would happen if the accountants were great at math, but not so good at doing financial statements? If the surgeons knew anatomy inside and out, but were not so good with a scalpel? If the landscaper was great at flowers, but not so good with shrubs? Everybody would say, “But that’s an important part of your job. You have to be good at that, too.” And the accountant and the surgeon and the landscaper might respond, “Well, that part of the job just doesn’t come naturally to me.” Everybody would say, “Then you’d better learn how to do it and practice, practice, practice.”

Don’t Let Them Off the Hook

Once people reach the point in their careers where they are given enough institutional authority that they are asked to supervise people, they must take that part of their jobs as seriously (or more seriously) than any other part. Failing to do so is nothing but an act of personal indulgence that comes at a great cost. Human talent is the most critical resource in your organization. Managers should not be allowed to squander it. Anyone who is managing human talent must be required to leverage that talent.

That means you have to turn mangers into coaches, at every level, in every part of the organization.

Tell me this: Who’s going to manage a programmer but a programmer? Who’s going to manage an engineer but an engineer? Who’s going to manage a plumber but a plumber? Just about all work today requires esoteric skills. To manage somebody with those skills, one must have those skills, too (or similar ones), and have a real understanding of the work that person is doing. That’s why it’s not enough to say, “Just have the ‘people-people’ do the managing and let me go ahead and do what I do best,” be it accounting or welding or landscaping or teaching.

Don’t let anyone (including yourself) in a position of supervisory responsibility off the hook. Hold yourself and others accountable for managing people as well as you all do every other part of your job. If you don’t know how, learn. If it doesn’t come naturally, practice. I promise you, if you work hard at it, you will be great.

Everyone Has a Chance to Be a Leader

You probably are asking the same question leaders and managers ask me almost daily, “Is coaching style management something that can be boiled down into a methodology and taught to any person, regardless of natural ability?”

That’s a problem one of my clients, the United States Marine Corps, tackles on an ongoing basis. With a 1:9 ratio of officers to enlisted people, the Marine Corps depends a great deal on leadership throughout the enlisted ranks. People move up and out of the Marine Corps quickly, with only 25 percent allowed to remain after their first term of enlistment. If a Marine is on track, within two years, he or she will attain the role of corporal, the lowest level of leadership in the Corps. At any given time, there are nearly 23,000 corporals out of a total force of 174,000 Marines. In the Marine Corps, “everybody has a chance to be a leader,” says Sergeant Major William Whaley. Why? There is no other option. The Marine Corps simply must be able to transform an ordinary person into an effective leader.

Sergeant Major Whaley is an extraordinary person and a great Marine who has been decorated many times for his courageous service. Among the many roles he has played in his career, Sgt. Maj. Whaley has been a leader in the training of enlisted Marines. “The product I am giving the Corps is better, more capable enlisted leaders,” says Sgt. Maj. Whaley. Like everything else they do, the Marines are painfully methodical about building leaders: Each corporal is in charge of a “fire team” of three Marines. At each new level, an enlisted leader’s sphere of supervisory authority is expanded and he or she is trained aggressively to take on that role.

The competencies stressed most in that ongoing leadership training look a lot like coaching. Sgt. Maj. Whaley says: “We teach them: Get out of the office twice a day, minimum, and talk to people. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Your Marines don’t want to see you forever, but they do want to see you every day. Make your presence felt. Take the pulse of your Marines. Get to know them. Gather information. See how things are working first hand. Carry the message down to the lowest levels yourself. Your Marines want to be an important part of something special. It’s that back-and-forth exchange, coaching, and persuasion a leader has to use to get the best out of people.”

Isn’t it true still, at least in the Marine Corps, that people will obey you because of your rank and position? Yes. But, according to Sgt. Maj. Whaley, “people will only respect you and give you their best because of who you are as a person and how you treat them… That’s how we turn ordinary people into leaders in the Marine Corps.”

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,



Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.