Not all managers are cut from the same cloth, but the best ones have the ability to coach their employees to contribute meaningfully to the business and achieve personal satisfaction. Unfortunately, too many managers fail on both accounts, often because they haven't received proper training themselves.

Learning how to unleash the potential of individual employees and teams is what separates the middle-of-the pack managers from the great ones. Being a great manager requires strong desire, intuition, coaching skills, dedication and -- above all else -- the ability to restrain from telling employees what to do and instead asking what I call "powerful questions."

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Asking powerful questions is a way of helping employees come to their own conclusions about how to support their success and the company. And, when managers take the time to learn what’s important to their people and can connect their employees’ goals to the goals of the business, everyone wins.

Powerful questions are:

  • Open-ended: They cannot be answered in a single word, but rather elicit thoughtful responses.
  • Non-judgmental: They aren’t leading, and they don’t encompass your personal views.
  • Provocative: They challenge thinking and probe for thoughts employees may not have even known existed.
  • Respectful: They consider your workers' feelings and emotions in order to obtain honesty.

It's important to remember that a successful employee coaching conversation also requires a genuine interest in the employee. This can’t be faked. If managers aren’t interested in the growth and development of others, then they are likely going to be stuck with mediocre results.

Powerful questions fit into the three easy steps of what's called the "ASK" coaching framework:

A – Align on the topic for the coaching conversation.
Example: What is most important for you to talk about?

This question should get at what is No. 1 on your employee’s mind. This in turn should become important to the manager as well. Remember, employees bring their whole selves to work. What they want to talk about could have nothing to do with work, but may very well be affecting their performance.         

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S – Seek to understand current realities, real or perceived.
Example: What’s really happening, and what are the judgments you added to your story?

Based on the topic(s) the employee surfaced in the first question, a great manager can help him or her separate facts from judgments or opinions. A great manager listens carefully and distinguishes between facts that can be substantiated and judgments that are subjective. Your employees might even regard their judgments as beliefs. The manager’s job is to help them understand the difference.

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K – Kickstart shifts that drive action.
Example: What actions will your current thinking likely inspire?

This is a way of helping employees think about how their attitude might be affecting performance. A great manager is able to help employees create needed shifts in their approach; sometimes the slightest adjustment can open up new possibilities and improve results. A sustainable shift will occur when employees identify the need for change themselves.

As a bonus, a great manager always asks “What else?” in a coaching conversation. This powerful question is so flexible it can be used at almost any time and is incorporated often among the 12 powerful questions. It can be difficult for employees to think of everything they want to say. The question “What else?” gives them an opportunity to truly reflect and bring additional thoughts to the surface.

Note: Portions of this post have been excerpted from Gary Magenta’s book, The Un-Bossy Boss: 12 Powerful Questions to Make YOU a Great Manager (Charles Pinot, 2014).

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