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Leading vs. Managing vs. Coaching

Following some interesting conversations around this topic recently, I joined forces with Peter Gandy to articulate how we perceive and enact each of them.

Many people believe that managers are leaders and are able to coach. We believe differently.

Have you ever said you were looking for the next crop of leaders for the business, only to be inundated with messages from people saying they wanted to be promoted?

This is a common misunderstanding. Leadership is not a role, it is a behaviour that anyone can display regardless of title or hierarchy.

Management is the life blood of a good company, but not all managers are leaders, and that’s ok - not everyone has to be a leader - all businesses need people able to mobilise teams to deliver a goal.

Finally there’s coaching, an art in itself, the ability to unlock potential through guidance. A real skill that takes years to perfect and requires high empathy - and we all know not everyone has that!

Let’s explain what each of these 3 areas mean to us, starting with…


Our Definition: Leaders create and reinforce direction, culture and tone.

  • Direction = a vision for where we want to go, and why

  • Culture = how we travel along together i.e. we will do this together as equals

  • Tone = clear expectations and boundaries

Anyone can lead, from the bottom to the top of the organisation. But we will only succeed through knowing, nurturing and inspiring each other.

At Reason we strive to provide an environment where anyone in any role can both experience and display leadership. For us this is about stepping back from the day to day jobs to be done, and looking at the bigger picture. It’s about transparency, experimenting, challenging ourselves to do bloody amazing work, and sharing and celebrating our successes together.

Example from Noel

My first week at Reason coincided with the monthly All-hands meeting. I was blown away to learn about the financial position of the company, to hear how team members were demonstrating company values, to read direct feedback from customers and listen to stories of the work being done by a range of different people. It was a truly collaborative meeting that had many voices, not limited the leadership team. The level of transparency and openness is not something I’ve experienced before, and showed me a deliberate act to provide and encourage leadership.

Example from Peter

Last year we co-created new company values as a team. The challenge was how to embed the values into day to day by making people aware of them, living them and celebrating them. We created a slack channel and encouraged people to post messages recognising people demonstrating the values. It started with the leadership team posting but soon became a popular channel used by the whole company to recognise each other. In addition we added a section to our all hands meetings to call out good examples and thank people. The result has been strong company adoption and celebration of the values and a genuine desire to shout out people that are living them.


Our definition: Having the processes, systems and organisation structure to solve problems, grow people, manage projects and run a profitable business that delivers our mission.

It is a ‘doing’ function, and there are many styles of management:

  • autocratic (JFDI)

  • consultative (seeks advice and consults on decisions)

  • democratic (brings decision to a vote)

  • persuasive (makes decisions and providing the reasoning)

  • laissez-faire (allow people to make decisions and take action)

  • transformational (encourages creativity and innovation)

As businesses grow, management becomes more key as the need for rigour and structure increases. Running a 50 person business is very different from running a 500 person business - the larger you become the more structure you require to mobilise effort in a common direction set by the Leadership.

The challenge is to introduce the appropriate level of management without destroying the flexibility, agility and speed of action of a smaller business.

Whilst mobilising a team to deliver a goal is fundamental to business success, the softer side of management - people development - is an area many small businesses miss. This is central to engaging people and building their commitment to the business.

It’s a key trade in addressing churn and creating belonging - “help me grow my capability and I will stay longer”. The ability to develop talent within the business, through regular, honest and constructive feedback, combined with clear investment in personal development is central to upskilling a business and creating a rich environment that people want to be part of.

Example from Noel

A key part of the Delivery team’s role is to maintain project budgets and forecasts. This is a fundamental element of ensuring that Reason remains profitable, and that we are able to flex and scale our workforce according to upcoming and existing projects. This requires close management of a defined process. Each team member has distinct responsibilities for distinct projects, and needs to run weekly checks and updates by 12pm each Monday. Some people enjoy this, others don’t. Some people are wizards at this, others are not. So the trade we talk about above involves figuring out where the strengths in the team are, what motivates people, and how to support those who need it.

Example from Peter

A fundamental need in any client relationship is management of expectations. When things are going well this is enjoyable, but when things aren’t going well it’s essential that we protect our clients by raising bad news early and honestly - citing what the issue is, how we are solving it and establishing regular communication to share progress against the corrective plan. Many people find this uncomfortable, no-one likes to give or receive bad news, but our role as a partner is to help our clients to manage expectations at their end. In my experience clients really value this - it can even become a sales driver. Clients know projects hit problems, but knowing that their agency will flag it early, give you a plan you can communicate internally, and consistently solve issues that come up, that builds trust and confidence and is the sort of partner you want to work with.


Our definition: helps colleagues to find the internal resources they have to improve and reach their full potential.

Coaching and Mentoring are often confused, but a mentor is someone who shares their knowledge, skills and/or experience, to help another to develop and grow.

Whilst I regularly offer both mentoring and coaching I work with the assumption that either must start with a desire for change. So, it's never forced on a person or a group, but simply offered and invited for. It’s a pull, rather than a push service.

Example from Noel

Through feedback from team retrospectives and attrition it became apparent that one of our project teams was losing its mojo. In order to help the team regain some energy a number of coaching interventions were offered:
  • An invitation to each individual on the team for a general 1-1 coaching session

  • An invitation to the team lead for a 1-1 solution focussed coaching conversation

  • An invitation to the team for a dedicated workshop to surface and explore their current reality

  • An invitation to the team for a dedicated team reset workshop

Example from Peter

A new manager needed to address an emotive issue with one of their team. Being new, they didn’t know the individual well, so I offered advice on how to address them. I started by asking how they planned to approach the meeting. Followed by asking how the approach would make them react if it was delivered to them. Having acknowledged that it wasn’t ideal, we then explored alternative ways to deliver the message in a more constructive and productive way.

The bottom line is this - Leading, managing and coaching are not the same thing.

There is an art to figuring out which may be best suited at any point in time, but a great starting point is ensuring everyone in your company has a common understanding of how you perceive them, and that they can then ask for the right thing at the right time for them.

So, when you find yourself entering into a conversation with a colleague, take a moment to notice what stance you adopt, and simply ask yourself or/and the other person 'what's the most helpful role you want me to take right now?"

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