The other day, I wondered what the most common definition of coaching might be these days. When I talk with people of different walks of life, I always found it interesting that the word coaching felt more like a projection canvas..different people use the word with their own interpretation in mind. So I whipped out my phone and asked her.

“Hey Siri, define coaching”

This was her opinion, delivered with the expected confidence:

What becomes immediately obvious is that Siri sees coaching as quite synonymous with training and instructing..probably ‘coach’ is just another word for tutor or teacher. I asked Siri to let me run through further definitions, but affordable classes of travel or other transportation-related options were even less helpful. I was a little disappointed. ‘That can’t be all‘ I thought. ‘Let’s try one more thing‘.

“Hey Siri. What is Coaching?”

Curiously enough, when asked this way, Siri pulled up the first paragraph of the related Wikipedia entry as a blob of text:

At first sight, this looks more interesting. A form of development. I can agree with that. I read on. The key to this meaning here also seems to be that the coach ‘has more experience than the other and offers advice and guidance as the latter learns‘ and it focuses on ‘specific tasks or objectives’. Hm. That’s not a big difference to the first definition after all. Very clearly, from what we read so far, coaching seems to involve a hierarchy of some sort between coach and coachee. The coach takes the leading role and helps the coachee from a higher ground of knowledge, experience, and seniority and they achieve that impact mostly through training, advice, direction and guidance. This is probably the most accessible and common definition of the word. It is closely related to the very traditional type of sports coaching:

  • Directing, instructing, training of a sports team or individual sportspeople to help them adopt specific techniques or mental mindsets
  • Motivation and Inspiration. Think of stretch assignments, pushing harder and harder. We also expect that a great sports coach can do nothing short of miracles with locker-room pep talk like this: Locker Room Pep Talk!

If you are like me, then all this will triggers a picture such the one below in you. Someone on a higher ground (take that as a metaphor for seniority) builds capability in someone more junior and pull them up through their skill and experience. 

And indeed: Do a google picture search for ‘coaching’, you will get lots of variants of the same picture and idea. No wonder, this has become one of the main ideas what coaching might be like.

So far so good. What perplexed me: Despite Siri’s modern looks and method, her definition and google’s picture association are, in fact, decade-old and very much limited to sports-related coaching. It is not in sync with the modern, empowering knowledge worker coaching practices that have started to transform companies around the world in the past years. Very possibly, you might think that if you hire an Executive Coach, what you get is a glorified trainer. Your expectation is likely not met.

So what is this ‘Executive Coaching’ then?

While a sports coach is similar to a teacher and guide, an effective executive or life coach is more akin to a co-pilot or car passenger. It is the person next to us, not above us. They are at their best when they are NOT in the leading role in the situation. It is the coachee’s job to drive, believe it or not. In fact, if an executive coach leads the coachee, it is usually counter-productive in the long run for the person being coached.

In that manner, a coach is not in your way but also does not help directly by giving advice that we can simply follow. Instead of pulling you up, they help you find your own path to the top. They ask you lots of powerful questions, make you think and let you find your own solutions.

‘Why is that better’ you ask? ‘Why should I do all the work’ and ‘What do I need a coach for if I do all the work’?

These are good and fair questions. A good executive coach likely won’t just tell you what to do. That is a path that is too easy for the coachee. It does not make you think and tap into your own experience and resources to find solutions. You will hire a consultant if you want to purchase advice. So how does coaching work? In a nutshell, by offering a thought-provoking and creative partnership.

What does a good coach do? They will have conversations with you that you don’t want to have but that you know you need to have. They will enable you to do things you don’t want to do but that you know you need to do. They will help you grow to more than what you thought you could become.

So, in my view, a better way to present that earlier picture would be something like this (excuse my limited photoshop skills!), with the coachee leading, while being supported by the coach.

Would you like to see an example how coaching works? My oldest son loves the ‘How to train your dragon’ movie. There is a great coaching moment in it:


(Source: Youtube

What did you notice? Did the coach tell the coachee what to do? Quite the opposite. She mostly used questions as a way to impact deep thoughts and ideas in the other person. The final snap breakthrough came from himself, all she did was facilitate the thought process. Did you notice the excitement of the coachee when they had their own realization? Powerful, isn’t it?

Coaching is faster than telling!

When we tell people what to do (as Coach, Leader or even parent) and how to do them, things get done seemingly quickly. We tell others how to solve a problem, everyone is happy, no? The ‘solver’ feels great (Wow, I am smart) and the receiver should also be happy (Thanks, got my problem fixed by you). However, what’s the price? Telling others what to do reduces their opportunity to find own solutions and owning them. That’s a simple fact and necessary implication. However, the moment we step back and don’t tell others right away how to perform a detailed task, things get interesting. It is then that the opportunity for own thinking emerges, which creates space for learning. Executive Coaches take a very positive worldview, in that they simply believe in the fundamental capability of people. They believe that

  • people are capable (any good sports coach will likely believe that, too)
  • if given the chance, people will find their own solutions to their situations. The coach’s job is to help the coachee explore as many areas as possible to generate solutions.
  • a solution developed by a coachee is much more likely to lead to follow-through and long-term accountability. After all, it is their own idea, not the coach’s.

This shows that the style of interaction will likely be very different. As the Venn diagram below shows, traditional Sports Coaching and Executive Coaching both have in common that they are intended to build motivation and to improve performance. However, they are very different in HOW they get there.

Are there only these two extremes?

By seeing the question alone, you probably guessed no. And this is where in my view, theory meets reality. There is a uniqueness to every coach, coachee, and situation that demands a suitable approach. It is also very realistic to assume that a typical coaching interaction falls somewhere on a continuum between purely asking questions and purely providing advice. For simplicity, I am shining a light on 4 points of this continuum, and give them names:

  1. The Coach: Someone who is mostly relying on powerful questions; gives very little advice and direction.
  2. The advising Coach: Someone whose style is a blend of moderate guidance, mixed with lots of powerful questions.
  3. The coaching Advisor: Soemone whose effectiveness originates a lot from their own experience and guidance to others. However, they use powerful questions to ensure that coachees really follow through in their own way.
  4. The Advisor: The traditional consultant/advisor role relies on deep expertise, functional domain credibility and laser-focused solutions..sprinkled with powerful questions to ensure coachee’s comprehension.

Summary, TL;DR

In this article, I drew a deliberately sharp line between what I  call traditional sports coaching and current Executive Coaching practices.

Traditional Sports Coaching: The coach is effective because of their functional knowledge, domain credibility and teaching techniques. It places the coach in a more senior role than the coachee. The coach is successful when the coachee understands and follows the coach’s direction to become successful.

Executive Coaching: coach and coachee partner on the similar level. The coach’s skill lies in asking powerful questions, to help the coachee explore areas of discomfort or remove blind spots. The coach is successful when the coachee generated their own solution and gained self-motivation to move forward with clarity. Neither approach is wrong and has its rightful place depending on the need of the coachee. In fact, the modern Executive Coaching actually originated from Sports Coaches who experimented with exactly that approach. Practical interactions are usually a blend of the two styles, based on the developmental and situational needs of the coachee.

Cheers, Maik

Further reading? HBR – You can’t be a great manager if you’re not a good coach HBR – How Google sold its engineers on management (you can guess how!)