What is Coaching?

What is Coaching?

Managers are accountable for employee performance, and coaching is one of the most direct methods of helping employees improve their performance.

To be competitive today, managers must coach far more than employee performance (productivity). Managers must coach employees on a broad and balanced set of drivers of individual and organizational performance, including strategic focus and alignment, employee engagement, adherence to core values, and continuous skill development.

Coaching in business is an emerging field with many variations. There is no one right way to coach, and no one magic practice or style. New coaching associations, certification bodies, and paradigms are still being established. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of research and experience that is already beginning to separate effective from ineffective practice and add rigor to many of the different approaches.

In this blog, I am going to do two things:

  1. Offer a practical definition of coaching.
  2. Share other definitions of coaching I have found useful or inspiring over the years.

These definitions should be relevant for both executive coaches and for managers who coach their employees.

 Practical Definition

Note first that for working managers coaching is a subset of performance management. Coaching is one of the key activities within the performance management cycle. I argued in an earlier blog that performance management “is all about helping employees set and achieve meaningful goals, and coaching is the most direct method of supporting employee achievement.”

Here is a definition of coaching that I teach in my introductory workshops. This definition is practical and direct, it highlights what makes coaching a unique and powerful activity, and it provides a nice foundation for the kind of coaching managers do most often.

“A key objective of coaching is helping someone do something new or do something better and to accomplish this by helping that person learn how to do it on their own. A core coaching practice is helping people reflect on and learn from their experiences in order to deepen their knowledge and accelerate their learning. ”

For example, if I do my son’s homework for him, he might get a good grade on the assignment, but the coaching will have been a failure, since he did not learn how to do the work on his own.

The exact same logic applies in business. If I am always telling my employees what to do and how to do it, if I answer all of their questions for them, if I am constantly finishing off their projects, closing their deals, and cleaning up their mistakes, they will never learn to think, decide, and act for themselves.

An overly hands-on style of supervision discourages initiative and ownership, trains employees to be unthinking yes-men, and robs employees of crucial opportunities to learn. The temptation to over-supervise is so great because it is usually faster to do something yourself than teach someone else how to do it, and most managers are better doers than educators.

There are times, of course, when it is important to take charge and tell people what to do. If the building is on fire, you don’t stand up and say: “Oh, what a great opportunity. Let’s call a committee meeting and get the youngest member of our team to facilitate so they can learn how to deal with a crisis.” No, when the building is on fire, you tell people to get out, take the stairs, and call 911 only AFTER they are outside the building (as per your safety protocol).

Too much hand-holding inhibits learning. Conversely, not enough direction and support can set people up for failure. Either way, talent and resources are wasted. I will write about finding the balance between these two extremes in future blogs. For now, let’s say this: command & control supervision is very important but, if it is your only way of supervising, then you are doing yourself, and your team, a dis-service. Unlike physical assets which depreciate over time, human assets can appreciate in value over time if you invest in learning and development.

Almost everyone agrees with the old cliché: “Make your employees part of the solution.” Well, we make our employees part of the solution by involving them in our decisions and actions, and investing in their learning and development.

In addition to being good business, teaching your employees how to do their jobs well also enhances your own learning and upward mobility in a very significant way: instead of getting stuck doing your subordinates’ jobs, you have more time to learn how to do the strategic work required of you at your level, and invest in learning skills that will be required at the next level.

Other Definitions

Here are some descriptions and definitions of coaching that give you a sense of the range of possibilities. Some are very practical and some are a little more blue sky, highlighting the art of coaching, as it were.

“Coaching is any discussion between you and a subordinate where the aim is to help him/her maintain and/or improve his/her performance. Coaching takes place on the job and assumes that people can learn from everything they do. Coaching is not issuing instructions, telling someone what to do or prescribing how to do it. It is about helping, guiding, encouraging, allowing space to perform and do things differently.” (Peter Honey)

“Systematically increasing the capability and work performance of someone by exposing him or her to work based tasks or experiences that will provide the relevant learning opportunities, and giving guidance and feedback to help him or her learn from them.” (Redshaw)

“Coaching is a process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve. To be a successful a Coach requires a knowledge and understanding of process as well as the variety of styles, skills and techniques that are appropriate to the context in which the coaching takes place.” (Eric Parsloe)

“The release of talent and skill, previously untapped by training, through a process of self awareness initiated by the coach.” (Priority Management)

“In general, coaching is all about bringing out the best in people so that they can be more engaged in their work and career, add more value to their organization, and more fully achieve their potential. What the coach offers the client or employee, however, varies greatly according to the situation. Depending on what is needed, coaches can offer direction or encouragement; support prioritization or execution of job goals; solve problems or remove obstacles; assess skill-sets; correct weaknesses or build & leverage strengths; develop new skills or apply current skills in a new way; prepare for career moves; teach good process; align thinking and efforts with the big picture; re-craft one’s leadership brand; build social and emotional intelligence; create more balance; etc.” (Joel Shapiro)

“Executive coaching is…designed to help the individual better fulfill her potential in her leadership roles and life more generally. Key elements include expanding self-awareness, setting specific developmental goals, and executing an action plan for realizing goals.” (Kaplan DeVries Inc.)

“Coaching started off as helping dysfunctional managers. Then it started helping people improve their game. Now it is often about helping people find their game.” (Jay Conger)

“Shell recognizes / uses four different types of coaching: (1) Management Coaching: for specific performance-related issues. (2) HR Coaching: for one-time job-related incidents. (3) OD Coaching: used in conjunction with specific LD/OD interventions. (4) Executive Coaching: used for behavioural change typically related to leadership competencies or for development planning.” (Mary Dececchi Baros)

“Coaching gives executives the tools they need to better achieve their dreams… Coaching helps others more fully achieve what they are capable of achieving.” (David DeVries)

“Coaching helps people find their genius.” (Dianne Young, Conoco Phillips)

“Coaching is not a destination but a process of change and renewal; you are cultivating the soil for ongoing and self-generating renewal; you are helping people enlarge their choices and confront their freedom to choose. Coaching becomes sustainable when the process is internalized (they own it and they live it long after the coach is gone) and you have sparked a commitment and ability to self-development. Coaching is ultimately about self-generation and renewal.” (Dianne Young)

“Coaching can be used to help people learn from experience—both their success and failures—so that they end up with 20 years of experience instead of one year of experience repeated 20 times.” (Unknown)

Let me leave you with these questions:

  1. Track record: Which of the definitions describes you when you are at your best as a coach; which most reflect your track record of success?
  2. Practical needs: Which of the definitions do you find most practical, i.e., which ones help you define coaching in practical terms, relative to what you most need to accomplish with your coaching efforts in your current role?
  3. Values & Passion: Which of the above definitions most aligns with or suits your unique style and values; which do you find most meaningful? Which do you find most inspiring; an ideal to which you would like to aspire; something you could be passionate about?
  4. Skill assessment: In the context of the kind of coaching you will do: what are your biggest strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement? (Remember that an opportunity for improvement can involve building a strength; it is not always about correcting weaknesses.)

I plan to offer a very different kind of definition of coaching as my work on “narrative” progresses. Narrative is one of the leading edges of coaching, leadership development, and organizational culture (getting involved).

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