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Managers and individual contributors take different approaches to coaching

January 27, 2022 - 8 min read

Managers and ICs seek out different coaching topics

With growing uncertainty in the world, professionals of all stripes are seeking out coaching more than ever before

While top performers have long recognized the power of coaching as key to reaching their goals and maintaining their edge, in the business world non-remedial coaching has largely been reserved for elite members of the C-suite. Virtual professional coaching — first introduced by BetterUp — has changed that.

From up-and-comers to seasoned executives, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe are experiencing the career boosting and life-enhancing benefits of having a professional coach.

As more individual contributors (ICs) sign up for coaching, we were curious if the topics they were interested in differed from those in managerial positions. What similarities exist between the topics managers and ICs are drawn to? What’s different? And what’s the reason behind these differences?

subscribe-ctaTo answer these questions, we used natural language processing to surface coaching themes from over hundreds of thousands of comments of members during coaching. We analyzed two types of comments:

  • Comments that were collected during onboarding in which members wrote about the areas in which they wanted to improve.
  • Comments at reflection points during the coaching process, which likely corresponds to areas our members and coaches actually worked on.

We then compared the coaching themes which managers vs. individual contributors were initially interested in and actually engaged in.

What the data say:

After analyzing the comments, we uncovered three key insights:

1. Managers and ICs care about different things (both initially and during the coaching process).

Diving into the data, we see that ICs seem to be more interested in topics that focus on individual well-being and career advancement like career planning, purpose and passion, self-confidence and career transition. 

Comments from managers highlight team-focused themes like empowering others, mentorship, being an inspiration, and strategic planning.

IC vs manager layer 2theme

One reason for this difference may be that many individual contributors are at earlier stages in their careers and are seeking ways to advance and find work that gives them more purpose. On the other hand, managers are generally farther along in their careers. Their focus is centered around growing the skills and capabilities of their teams and working sustainably.

When we look at the interests of more senior managers, those that manage other managers, we see a slightly more interest in strategic planning. This likely corresponds to the changing responsibilities of executive leadership which is generally focused on setting a strategic path forward over directly managing a team.

During coaching, we see changes in the percentage of interest in each topic within each group but the difference in topic interest between groups remains relatively similar.

  1. There is a lot of overlap in the trending themes between these managers and ICs both in initial interests and during actual coaching from 2019-2021.

    Although they have different base rates, both managers and ICs have been undergoing  similar shifts through the pandemic era in terms of where to focus. Across both groups, we see a shift toward work-life balance, career transitions, and emotional intelligence.

Manager trends (initial interest):

manager growth initial interest - layer 2

IC trends (initial interest):

IC growth initial interest - layer 2-1

Manager trends (during coaching):

manager growth RP - actual

IC trends (during coaching):

IC growth RP - actual-1

For both managers and ICs, it’s clear there has been a shift from thinking about coaching less as a way to advance one’s career and more as a way to lead a more balanced, fulfilling, and happier life.

  1. ICs and managers care about different aspects of well-being, at least in their  initial coaching interests.

After analyzing the data, we uncovered notable differences between the importance of purpose and passion for ICs versus managers. Over the last three years, we see 1.5X growth in purpose and passion for ICs versus 1.1X growth for managers.

In 2021, initial interest in purpose and passion by ICs was 50% higher than that of managers. This may indicate a greater desire to find meaning and purpose in work for ICs than managers. It could also reflect that ICs were lacking connection to purpose and passion in their current roles more so than were managers, potentially a function of role and work design.

We also saw a greater interest in work-life balance among ICs. With work moving into the home, personal lives have been disrupted for everyone but it seems to be felt more acutely by the ICs. The topic saw 1.9X growth among ICs versus 1.6X growth for managers. 

Most strikingly, physical health themes are 56% more common among IC than among managers. We saw over 3X growth in physical health for ICs versus 1.6X growth for managers, from 2019 to 2021.

We see two potential explanations for these discrepancies that are supported by our data.

  1. ICs start out less interested in these themes compared to managers and are just now catching up (thus growing faster).
  2. ICs have greater desires and needs for coaching in these areas.

Why this matters

Across roles, workers are facing unprecedented challenges. They need new tools and  frameworks — an entirely new mindset — if they are to successfully navigate an increasingly complex and uncertain future. 

But the interests and needs of people can vary greatly, and not just along manager and IC lines. And the uncertainty we all face at work and home means that it’s hard to predict what type of support an individual will need day to day or week to week. For any new tools to be useful, they must be able to be personalized to the individual. 

The solution is personalized coaching that helps people of all backgrounds address their specific improvement areas and formulate tailor-made strategies to help them reach their goals. Virtual coaching and other supports enable this personalized growth and development  at scale, providing what each person needs, dialed in to when and how they need it. And the results speak for themselves. Our members report a 90% reduction in stress, 149% increase in resilience, 181% improvement in focus, and 130% increase in job performance. 

Generating more impact should be a goal for everyone in your organization. It’s hard work that takes time — there’s no shortcut to leveling up professionally. But a BetterUp coach can help everyone in your org, manager and IC alike, put in the work where it matters and make quantifiable improvements and consistent progress.

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Published January 27, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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