What coaching is and isn’t – an article for those seeking executive coaching certification

Following is an excerpt from our textbook about what coaching is and isn’t. If you want to learn more about executive coaching certification, please review our programs and reach out anytime.

Coaching has many definitions, and many coaching associations have their own definitions of coaching along with sets of core competencies. The following definition of coaching a primary focus on coaching leaders, managers, and up-and-coming talent in organizations:

Coaching is an efficient, high-impact process of dialogue that helps highly performing people improve results in ways that are sustained over time.

Unlike traditional consulting assignments, coaching is efficient because it does not require invasive processes, large outside teams, or lengthy reports and analyses to get results.

It is a high-impact process because coaching typically gets results in short meetings, which can often last only a few minutes and are rarely longer than an hour. During this time, the coach and the individual being coached can generate important insights, gain clarity, focus, and make decisions to improve performance

Coaching is a dialogue. The coach and the person being coached are working together to make things happen. When you are coaching, you might speak 25 percent of the time, while the other person speaks 75 percent. Even if you are an expert in your field and know all the answers, you hold back to let the person being coached express concerns, challenges, and feelings. The dialogue allows the other person to determine their own answers and action steps, allowing the individual to not only solve immediate issues but also develop the capacity to keep improving.

Third, coaching works with high-performing people. It is not therapy meant to fix a person. As a coach in an organization, you work with people who are already highly functioning and successful. Like any of us, these professionals need support from time to time to perform better. Some might have serious blind spots, such as a leader who comes across as too abrasive, but coaching assumes that people have tremendous talent and potential.

Finally, your goal as a coach is to improve results in ways that are sustainable over time. The point of coaching is to achieve some sort of valuable outcome, usually related to improved performance, higher profits, career success, organizational effectiveness, or career and personal satisfaction. If you aren’t helping people get results through coaching, you aren’t coaching well. At the same time, coaching is about helping people improve their own capabilities and effectiveness so that the results and performance improvements last. To use the time-worn and famous quote, you are teaching people to fish, not feeding them for a day.

You can incorporate coaching into almost any role.

If you are a manager, coaching becomes a crucial skill to develop your people, improve performance, and gain leverage on your time.

Likewise, if you have a training role, coaching provides a way to sustain results. It makes common sense that following up after a training event reinforces learning and results. For instance, the coach can help the other person deal with specific challenges that might be preventing the training from having its full impact.

Similarly, if you are a management consultant, you probably already provide coaching as part of what you do. Coaching is the part of the engagement where you work one-on-one with clients to encourage them to make difficult decisions, step out of their comfort zone, stop destructive behavior, embrace change, and shift performance. For me, a long-time consultant, coaching is the fun part. Coaching lets you stop doing the analyses (and most of the time the client already knows the answer anyway), stop revising the PowerPoint presentation, and sit down face-to-face with the client to help them improve results. It’s the part of the engagement where the client turns to you as their objective, trusted advisor—as a colleague and confidant.

It is also important to be clear about what coaching is NOT.

As noted before, coaching is not therapy. You are not fixing anybody. You are not delving into traumatic pasts. Good coaching certainly gets underneath the surface to look at perceptions, but the emphasis is on helping a healthy individual overcome challenges and be more effective. If you do work with someone who might need therapy, refer that person to a licensed professional.

Second, coaching is also not the same thing as management. Coaching is one tool that a manager can use, but it is not the only tool. Sometimes a manager needs to direct, tell, mentor, and/or teach. Coaching is a powerful skill but not the only thing that a good manager does.

Third, coaching is not consulting. Your primary focus is not to analyze and make recommendations. When appropriate and when you have permission, you can add a lot of value by sharing your own observations and insights, but coaching is more about having the other person develop their own insights and then take new actions to improve results.

Put another way, your job as a coach is not to be a “crystal ball” that magically provides an answer. As a coach, you will intervene and provide advice when appropriate. Successful coaches engage in dialogue with their clients and then customize a tool or solution that works for their unique solution. Sometimes there is no easy answer, and your value will be to support your clients in making decisions with incomplete information.

Fourth, coaching is not training or teaching, which focus on sharing knowledge and best practices and also helping people develop and hone skills. Learning usually occurs in a classroom setting, and the trainer or teacher leads the session. A coach might include teaching and training in the session, and good teachers and trainers coach, but the primary activities in each discipline are different.

Fifth, coaching isn’t mentoring. Mentors are typically seasoned professionals within an organization who show less senior and experienced people the ropes. Mentors are great at pointing out how things work in an organization along with some of the hidden keys to getting things done and being successful. They also make introductions and sometimes pull strings. Again, there is overlap with coaching. The best mentors typically coach, and many coaches have years of experience to share with the people they are coaching.

Finally, coaching is not progressive discipline. Many organizations confuse the two, which sometimes causes coaching to be seen negatively. Progressive discipline, or probation, is a process of working with employees who are not performing, with the intent of documenting their poor performance and terminating their employment if they don’t improve. In the past, this process was conflated with coaching. The word coaching was—and still is in some organizations—a euphemism for the last resort before firing someone. Today, coaching is seen as a standard leadership development tool. It is an investment in the talent the organization wants to develop and retain. Coaching should be separated from anything related to progressive discipline or probation.

Confused? Join the club. There is a lot of overlap among these different disciplines, and not everyone agrees on where the boundaries stop and start. My advice is that you not spend too much time obsessing about definitions. You can go online and see all sorts of self-appointed coaching police telling people what is and isn’t coaching. Instead, do two things: First, practice and keep getting better at coaching. You will learn firsthand about coaching and what it can do. Second, and most importantly, if you focus more on having impact and helping the people you coach get results, everything will work out great.


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