These days, coaching is everywhere—but not all coaching is effective coaching. Research-backed coaching habits are different from old management tools repackaged with a trendy name. And if coaching is part of your growth and development strategy, it pays to know the difference.
What is coaching?
Coaching is a development method in which an experienced coach guides or advises a coachee toward a specific goal. In conventional training, the instructor creates the learning path. Coaching, on the other hand, allows for the coachee to steer the “curriculum” content by defining their goals.
Since each individual in an organization has unique professional goals, one-on-one coaching can be a useful development tool for anyone, and in fact, a strong coaching culture is associated with high performance. But because coaching is primarily driven by the coachee, it’s an especially helpful technique for self-motivated employees. (If employees require a more prescriptive approach to their learning, training might be a better option than coaching.)
- Coaching is oriented towards a coachee achieving a specific, well-defined goal
- Typical coaching engagements last 6-12 months
- Coaching meetings happen at a cadence of about once every two weeks—but this can vary depending on the schedule and needs of both parties
- Each session is focused on a specific, tactical problem that the coachee could benefit from getting help with
Coaching isn’t mentorship
While coaches and mentors both help their learners develop professionally, the two roles have different objectives. Mentoring tends to be more abstract—mentors teach by relating their experiences to their mentees. The aim of mentorship is development in its broadest sense, and mentorship might include guidance beyond the realm of the workplace.
Coaching, however, focuses on a particular goal: winning a game, winning a deal, enhancing a specific ability, etc.
- Mentorship is an informal relationship in which a mentor helps a mentee’s growth by sharing knowledge, connections, and social support
- Much less well-defined than coaching, mentorship is a complex cluster of techniques and varies depending on the setting and people involved
- Unlike in coaching, the outcomes of mentorship can be more flexible and nebulous.
- Since mentorship is not tied to a specific goal, mentor relationships can last years or decades, and meetings (which are often more social than coaching sessions) might fluctuate in frequency
Coaching isn’t management
Some managers might use coaching techniques, but being a great manager doesn’t always equate to being a great coach.
The role of a manager is to identify an employee’s unique ability and deploy that ability to the greatest benefit of the company. No easy feat! And while excellence as a manager can be just as beneficial for an employee’s growth, the breadth of a manager’s responsibility is much greater than the more targeted scope of a coach’s role.
- Management structures vary considerably by organization, but typically managers are responsible for at least some of the following core tasks:
- Goal-setting, training, administration, and organization
- Performance review, promotion, and personnel decisions
- Prioritizing and structuring work for the team
- As part of the organizational hierarchy, the manager-report relationship is defined primarily by company objectives rather than the development of the report
- Many excellent managers also incorporate coaching or mentorship practices in their management—but at most companies, these are not always listed as their responsibility
- While coaching is an explicit conversation about development between willing parties, good managers—even outside of a coaching relationship—should still be thinking ahead about their report’s strengths and how they might best be deployed
Coaching in your organization
70% of leaders and managers see development of their reports as one of their core responsibilities, and coaching is one way to bolster development. If you’re thinking about how coaching can fit into development within your organization, keep these tips in mind:
Identify your coaches
In some cases, leaders bring in external coaches, which comes with particular considerations around building trust and providing context.
If you’re planning to rely on internal coaches, think carefully about who will be coaching whom. Not all managers have the expertise or time to coach their reports, and some non-managers are exceptionally good coaches. Consider making room for coaching pairs that might fall out of traditional reporting structures.
Here are a couple specific ways to invest in coaching for your people:
- Set up a coaching exchange, a virtual space where colleagues can express interest in coaching or being coached. Coaches don’t need to be leaders—they just need to have an expertise that someone else in the company is working towards.
- Reach out to affinity groups about informal coaching opportunities. Some employees are especially passionate about coaching colleagues who share their identity—if you do try this, just make sure you aren’t adding any extra pressure or burden on their schedules.
- Find supercoaches, folks who have a special talent for or interest in coaching. Talk to them about making coaching one of their official responsibilities—if they do take on additional coaching roles, be sure to take something else off of their plate.
Good coaching depends on the trust and enthusiasm of both the coach and the coachee. No matter what you do to find coaches, be absolutely sure that both parties are excited about the arrangement—in a 2000 study of leadership styles, leaders ranked coaching as their least-favorite style. Finding willing coaches isn’t just good management, it’s also crucial for effectiveness.
Give your coaches a template
If coaches don’t have resources to guide their coaching, you’ll waste the time of the coaches and the coachees alike. Equip your people with the basics of coaching:
- Who: Let coachees set the goals. Coaching should be for the benefit of the coachee to hone the skills they choose.
- What: Listen to understand. It’s impossible for coaches to steward progress if they don’t take time to understand how their coachees are thinking about problems. Coaching requires listening first and foremost.
- Where: Meet coachees where they are. Only 26% of employees feel that the feedback they get is helpful. A good coach sets clear expectations so that both parties are aligned on what they are putting into coaching, and what they are getting out of it, right from the get-go.
- Why: Know your mission. Good coaches understand the crucial differences between mentorship, training, managing, and coaching—they understand why coaching makes sense in a particular case. (Tip: feel free to send your coaches this blogpost so they can keep those differences in mind.)
- How: Advise with trust and generosity. Coaches ask open-ended questions. Instead of “What are you hoping to learn about Python programming from this project?” a good coach asks, “What are you hoping to learn this month?” Open-ended questions are a sign of trust—they acknowledge the coachee’s ability to set their own learning objectives.
The Leader as coach
Coaching isn’t management, but increasingly, companies and employees are implicitly asking managers to act more like coaches.
Twenty years ago, technical skill was still the key to employee growth. Employees who demonstrated ability in specific subject areas would be given more responsibility and ultimately promoted to manage more people. Their value to the organization was in being a fixed source of knowledge with a 360-degree view—they understood how the whole machine worked, and they called the shots.
Today, rapid change is a constant, and many employees’ skills are so deep and varied that no manager could possibly keep up with what their reports are working on. In short, the old model of management no longer holds.
Many managers have embraced coaching as a new leadership model to better support their people, and in a lot of cases, this has been a welcome innovation—companies working in new ways need to adapt their work habits, too.
But before you roll out a coaching initiative in your organization, make sure your coaches are equipped to do the job well and that you, as a leader, understand the ins and outs of coaching. If you haven’t been a coach yet yourself, that’s a great place to start.