Exclusive Q&A: Why The Modern Workforce Needs Coaches, Not Bosses

Jim HarterRetaining today’s retail associates requires giving them a reason to stay, which calls for a manager who does more than bark orders. Their skills should be cultivated and refined, and they should feel they have an important role within the organization. It’s not just about the end-of-year review and the potential for a raise; the modern manager-associate relationship needs to be an ongoing process of communication.

Jim Harter, Chief Scientist, Workplace at Gallup, dug through data from a survey of more than 37 million people to assess how companies must align their purpose and culture with their employees and workplaces in his book It’s the Manager, co-authored with Gallup CEO Jim Clifton.

In this exclusive Q&A, Harter discusses some of the insights and best practices he has discovered in his examination of the workplace, including:


  • Why Millennials react better to “coaches” than “bosses,” and how managers can live up to this ideal;
  • How both full-time and part-time employees can be cultivated and given a future within the company; and
  • How retailers can encourage a culture that helps place employees where they can succeed and do the most good for the company.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): Your research has found that Millennials prefer their managers to be “coaches” as opposed to “bosses.” What is the difference between the two, and what makes a good coach?

Jim Harter: To put it in a nutshell, a boss is someone you think of as a delegator, while a coach is someone who involves, encourages and develops individuals by having ongoing conversations.

You might think about it as a sports analogy: it probably wouldn’t work too well to just delegate to the players and then then give them an annual review after you watch them play the entire season. It works better if you coach them by helping them know what they’re doing right in the moment, before and after they play their games, and even during their games. It’s also about providing them the right kind of critique as well.

That feedback component needs to be meaningful and needs to be ongoing and immediate. Don’t wait until the end of the year. A boss might delegate to you what you should do, and then give you feedback at the end of the year. A coach is in the moment and they’re giving you feedback continuously, and making sure that it’s meaningful.

RTP: Another thing mentioned in the research is that the new workforce isn’t as interested in “climbing the ladder” as previous iterations. Are there alternate incentives that can be used to keep these workers on board?

Harter: The primary thing that people are looking for is career growth, so they want to be able to see where they can head in the organization. That needs to start with attraction, and onboarding once they’re hired. I think a lot of organizations overlook the importance of putting clear career growth options in front of people.

I think some people are still going to want to climb the ladder, and I think one of the things that’s unique to retail is that, traditionally, if you stick around in an organization you can climb the corporate ladder. That doesn’t always result in the best outcomes, because what it means is that everybody aspires to be a manager — but not everybody is well suited to be a manager. What people really want is career growth, and you have to help them know what career growth looks like in the optimal path for them as an individual.

That starts with getting to know their individual strengths and helping them think about what their future might be in the organization and the different options that there might be. That’s where retail maybe could use a bit of a change. We shouldn’t just assume that climbing the ladder in the sense that you move up the ranks to manager, then to manager of managers, etc. is the right development for everybody. There should be individual contributor positions where people can excel and become stars even if they’re not naturally suited for managing others.

RTP: Part-time employees often have a different relationship with their employer than full-time employees. How can retailers nurture and grow their part-time associates to match the capabilities of their full-time workers?

Harter: Engagement is just as possible with a part-time worker as it is with a full-time worker if you focus on basic human needs in the workplace. That starts with clarifying expectations, what’s expected of them and their role and what the priorities are, and then getting people what they need to do that work — and when people do good work, giving them recognition for helping them utilize their strengths effectively.

Whether it’s part-time or full-time, it’s really about what you do in the time that they’re there. People tend to develop through experiences, which don’t have to be long, drawn out discussions: development could happen in a 10-minute conversation, or it could happen in a half hour to an hour. There are developmental conversations that can change people’s lives that don’t have to be really long. It comes down to having those kinds of coaching relationships with individuals where there’s clear expectation setting, ongoing conversations between the manager and the employee and some method of accountability so people know how well they’re doing. That can happen just as easily with a part-time employee as a full-time employee.

The risk of a part-timer is that they might be more likely to leave because they might think of the work as temporary, but I think organizations have to help those part-time workers see what their career might look like if they were to join permanently. You’re really competing with other organizations for the future employment of these part-time workers.

Some people want to stay part time and treat it like a gig because that fits their lifestyle best, but they’re still providing value to your organization that you can leverage both for their own development and for the organization by doing those three things: setting clear expectations, having ongoing coaching conversations and accountability.

RTP: While individual store managers set the culture for their stores, a retailer’s overall culture starts at a higher level. How can leaders create a culture that reflects the needs of their store-level employees?

Harter: The leaders of organizations really create a culture when they coach the people that they manage directly. There’s a cascade effect in organizations that we see in the data that starts with leadership, which has to set a clear purpose that says, ‘Here’s what our organization is about in a succinct way that everybody can relate back to their jobs.’

They need to make it clear what the brand represents, and they need to make it clear what kind of culture they want to develop. Then they need to coach the people that directly report to them, because that’s going to set the standard for how those people then coach others. That cascade is really important.

They also need to set a standard for what they expect the role of manager to be to start that transition from boss to coach. They’ve got to aim everything at developing a culture of coaching throughout the organization — if they do that, they begin to set the standard and then they’ve got to put the systems in place so that their managers can continue to become better coaches. A systematic process for identification of high-potential managers and continuous learning and development is essential.

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