Everybody is talking about coaching these days, but what does it mean? Isn’t it what football managers do? Well it might be, but these days football managers seem to have an army of separate defence coaches goalkeeping coaches and so on, so that’s not a helpful comparison. Perhaps you’ve seen a Life Coach on daytime TV or read a life coaching, self-help type book. There might be a useful definition to be extrapolated from life coaching, but in a business context we’ve rarely the time or the expertise to delve into personal, lifestyle issues. Becoming a manager who coaches must require us to use coaching in a very different context.
Before we can begin to develop our coaching skills we must have a clear understanding of precisely what coaching is, but this is not as easy as it may seem. Coaching is an emerging area of Human Resource Development (HRD), it draws upon a very wide range of influences from psychotherapy to sport and is continually evolving. We must arrive at a working definition which helps you to recognize exactly what coaching is and what it isn’t and how you can weave coaching into your existing set of management skills.
I will not be inviting you to discard what you already know about managing people, but I do hope to offer concepts and techniques that give you fresh options and new ideas when things seem difficult or the going gets tough. Similarly, I hope to illustrate how you can take your team’s development to new heights, in the words of one of my course participants:
“I’ve turned to coaching because I’ve taught them all I know, but I know they’re still capable of more”
Coaching defined
My little Collins English Dictionary defines the verb to coach as ‘to instruct by private tutoring, to instruct and train, to act as a coach’. This is too loose a definition to be useful, and is contaminated by references to training and instructing which might prove confusing as we’ll see later on.
Let’s instead turn to a couple of well known writers in the coaching field for their views:
“Unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their performance” John Whitmore
From this definition we can see that coaching is an activity designed to help improve someone else’s performance. A comparison can be drawn with the world of sport, where coaches try to get the best out of their team without actually being on the field of play. In modern organizations, coaching must also involve turning work situations into learning opportunities as this is increasingly seen as an important part of what it is to manage.
“Developing a person’s skills and knowledge so that their job performance improves, hopefully leading to achievement of organizational objectives. It targets high performance and improvement at work, although it may have an impact on an individual’s private life. It usually lasts for a short period and focuses on specific skills and goals” Jessica Jarvis
Some definitions suggest that coaching is purely the support and guidance provided for individuals to enable them to apply their existing skills more effectively and thus improve their job performance at work, but most include the learning theme by suggesting that coaching aims to enhance the performance and learning ability of people at the same time. A good number of definitions cite techniques such as motivation, effective questioning and deliberately matching our management style to the coachee’s (person being coached) readiness to perform a particular task. We can conclude that coaching is based on helping coachees to help themselves, but that it does not rely on a one-way flow of telling and instructing.
It appears that coaching is a means of systematically increasing the capability and performance of people at work by exposing them to work based tasks or experiences that will provide relevant learning opportunities, and ensuring that this learning is available to them later on. It is about performing and learning.
As far as the learning part is concerned coaching is very different from teaching or instructing. The coach encourages people to learn for themselves; the coach usually takes a ‘back seat’ role, while still being able to give guidance and help when people really need it. Coaches help their teams to regularly review experiences so that they understand what has been learned.
It seems there is no universally accepted definition of the term coaching and, as described below, when it is placed alongside other ways of developing people an exact definition becomes even trickier.
However, a synthesis of the numerous definitions out there identifies three elements that can constitute a working definition for further exploration:
Coach and coachee establish a relationship based on trust that has the intention of improving the coachee’s performance at work
Coaching thus becomes a process that is centered on the coachee but focused on performance
Coaching is a learnt skill and an essential element of the managerial role in these changing times

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