Should your manager be your career coach?

A friend of mine works for an organization that places an emphasis on employees’ career management.   Many members of their management staff act as informal career coaches for the employees who work there. My friend’s manager recently approached her and offered to be her informal career coach.

Concern about objectivity

While my friend appreciated the offer for help, she was worried the arrangement wouldn’t work out as her manager might not be objective. She put her objections aside and decided to begin her coaching sessions with her boss.

During one of her first sessions, she mentioned to her boss that she would like to learn a new software tool. On her prior project, someone else had taken the lead in using that software and she would like a chance to learn it. She noticed her manager began to frown as soon as she said it.  Her manager then told her, “well you know that Matt and Staci learned that tool last year.” Staci moved off to a new opportunity on another team and Mark left the organization. Her boss then said, “you aren’t thinking of ‘pulling a Matt’ are you?”

Career coaches must not have conflicts of interest

Her boss was smiling when she said that, but the words carried weight. Her boss was concerned about attrition on her team. That is a natural reaction from a manager. The manager is responsible for ensuring the work on the team gets done. However, it is not the objective reaction you need from someone acting as a career coach.

A manager cannot be 100% objective when working with employees on their personal and professional development. On one hand they may truly want to help you with your development. On the other hand, they can’t “un-hear” something. If you mention you are considering getting an advanced degree, but aren’t sure if you will go full-time or part-time, your manager’s brain will begin looking at the impact to the team. She will need to plan her strategy for back-filling a position. If you decide that you will pursue your education on a part-time basis, she still may unconsciously believe that you aren’t someone to count on in the long-term. This may carry weight on project assignments, annual reviews, etc.

A coach who is designed to help your long-term personal and professional development cannot be attached to the outcomes. The coach must be an objective 3rd party who is not impacted by your choices.  Even managers with the best of intentions cannot be the truly objective coach you need.