A practical framework for exploring the purpose of individual coaching

Posted: 20th May 2014

Sam Humphrey, Head of Coaching Practice, Møller PSF Group

There are many phrases associated with coaching as it is applied to an increasingly broad array of topics (e.g. maternity, career transition, business, executive, life, diversity, leadership, stress). The “impact framework” looks at the purpose and outcomes of the coaching lying beneath these labels to assist clients, coaches and those buying coaching services to get to grips with what the coaching is looking to achieve.  The framework has been developed by the authors in their work as in-house coaches and buyers of coaching since the 1990s in a variety of corporate and PSF environments. We have found it highly successful in both supporting coaches as they develop and working with clients to inform the coaching contract.

Impact framework

In this framework the purpose of coaching is a key issue to understand. Figure 1 demonstrates this by mapping the purpose of the coaching by exploring the complexity of the client’s agenda (x axis) against the capability required of the coach (y axis).

Figure 1: Impact framework

coaching impact framework

Skill development like a number of authors (Witherspoon, 2000; Hawkins & Smith, 2006) we can then map different types of coaching against these two criteria:

  • Performance improvement
  • Transition
  • Transformation

Each of these areas is explored in the following sections.

Skill development

Confidence, capability, art, presence

What is it?

The purpose of skill development coaching is to help the client acquire or develop a capability. The client will often understand what skill they want or need to develop and will be looking to gain knowledge or insights to build that capability. The coach will support the client to acquire and apply the skill and there may well be additional organisational support too. The focus of the change is to support the creation of new skills and to support the client to internalise them.

In most cases, the immediate beneficiary of this coaching is the client; however, the mid/longer term benefits are reaped by the organisation.

How do I identify it?

The client may start by saying:

  • “I need to be better at…..”
  • “I’m not confident when I….”
  • “They told me that …..”

In a business context, the skill areas are varied and may include presenting, giving feedback, conducting an interview, using IT, influencing others, running meetings, interpreting financial statements, managing risk, resolving conflicts, negotiating fees, networking, managing pressure, creativity thinking etc.

The skill level desired by the client can vary greatly. For example, presenting a training session is very different to presenting to a conference of 300 plus shareholders. Managing a team meeting is very different from managing an executive or board meeting.

What are the qualities of a good skills coach?

Skills coaching can be effectively delivered with a low to moderate coaching skill set – although very skilled coaches frequently do this. The key is often in the coach’s:

  • Deep content knowledge and/or significant experience within the skill area.
  • Ability to benchmark where the client is in relation to the skill being acquired.
  • Ability to give insightful and constructive feedback to support skill acquisition.
  • Ability to offer insights and short cuts alongside their coaching technique and intent.

What are the current trends in skills coaching?

Increasingly, organisations are looking to develop an internal capability to meet this need and are only prepared to spend on external coaching:

  • Where there is a high level of skill standard required.
  • Where there is a perceived high risk or cost of error.
  • Where there is likely to be a large reputational risk to the individual of making a mistake.
  • Where the client feels working with an internal coach would raise confidentiality concerns or expose something they feel uncomfortable divulging.

As a result, organisations have developed an internal coaching faculty and encourage peer coaching. This has also prompted skills coaching to become a core part of many training programmes and a key management skill.


Pace, momentum, motivation, achievement

What is it?

The purpose of performance coaching is to increase the capability of a client to contribute to the organisation. Frequently, there is a clear consequence to the individual client of improving (or not) their contribution, ability or capability. This is often accompanied by clearly defined consequences for the organisation.

How do I identify it?

It is often identified through performance feedback or through 360 feedback. The individual or organisational client may start by saying:

  • “To get promoted I/they need to…..”
  • “To qualify for a bonus I/they….”
  • “The organisations strategy is…., so I/they …” “A stretch for my/their department is…..” “I/they need to get from good to great on….”

The area of focus is typically very clear and highly measurable. The performance areas in organisations will vary and may include generating efficiencies (e.g. speed, quality and cost) individually or through others, delivering an organisation strategy, addressing individual underperformance and contribution, delivering a project, constructing and running a board, building teams and sponsoring someone to partnership or promotion.

The nature of performance improvement is that it is often time-bound and highly goal oriented.

What should we look for in a good performance coach?

Performance coaching requires a moderate to high coaching process capability. Coaches need to have the capability to support the client deliver performance through:

  • A good understanding of the business context and systems in place.
  • A solid approach to preserving boundaries and not becoming responsible for the performance improvement.
  • The ability to use their commercial judgement in goal setting and to test the reality of the situation.
  • Approaches to ensuring the “right” goals are clearly expressed and monitored.
  • A strong approach to contracting with multiple client groups and a strong goal-setting capability.
  • Tools to promote pace, speed and motivation.
  • A strong repertoire of skills knowledge to accelerate performance improvement.

What are the current trends in performance coaching?

While often a part of this purpose, a common misconception has been that performance coaching relates only to remedial improvements. This is now moving to a mind-set where opportunities are being grasped to create stretch in the client and accelerate their contribution.

This is an area of coaching that many organisations are choosing to develop an internal capability to meet the demand. Where areas of conflict in agenda and confidentiality can be contracted then internal coaches are a regarded as a key resource. The confusion is often between the “line managers” responsibility to create the improvement and the benefits of introducing a coach to the situation.

There is a preparedness to spend on external coaching where there is no internal capability particularly for the highest levels within the organisation and where there is a high level of performance required. Similarly, coaching is increasingly used where there is a perceived high risk or consequence of not improving performance (e.g. when others are suffering as a consequence) and where the stakes are high in the consequences to the organisation.


Better, stronger, faster

What is it?

The purpose of transition coaching is to support an individual to undertake a change to a well-articulated, if not yet fully known, future state. The approach involves creating clarity about what the desired or required future state is and working skilfully with the client as they work through the uncertainty and change process.

There is often a shared interest between the individual client and the organisation to make the transition effectively and more speedily than would otherwise happen.

How do I identify it?

The individual or organisation client may start by saying:

  • “Now you have been promoted you need to…..”
  • “I joined this team to get….”
  • “The organisation is meeting its new buyers so…”
  • “Now we have expanded into … we need you to ….”
  • “This is now your team….”
  • “Welcome to the organisation….”
  • “Now you are retiring….”
  • “I don’t like my job but don’t know what else to do”

Often, the end state of the transition is relatively well known to those around the client, although this may not feel the case to the client. Therefore, the focus is on moving from the past state (ending) and starting the new state well. The key is often in anticipating the likely concerns of the client or organisation, avoiding mistakes or exploring the learning in failures as well as paying attention to the impact of the change to the client and those around them.

The benefits are in increasing the speed to effectiveness, successfully navigating cultural or political aspects and sustaining confidence through uncertainty. The transition is also often accompanied by a time-limit and while this is not often articulated it is acknowledged that a transition cannot go on for an extended period of time.

What should we look for in a good transition coach?

Transition coaching requires a high coaching capability as the coach supports the transition process for the client through:

  • Understanding the psychology of change (e.g. motivation, preferences, styles, frameworks, etc.) and adult learning.
  • An appreciation of change management approaches and systems understanding.
  • The ability to use their commercial judgement to clarify subtle expectation shifts.
  • An appreciation of networks, inclusion, integration and support structures.
  • An understanding of potentially complex stakeholder arrangements.
  • An appreciation of career changes and professional life.

What are the current trends in transition coaching?

Where the end transition state is well known and an understanding of the organisation is important, (e.g. volume recruitment, junior promotions, lateral hiring integration, etc.) most organisations are keen to use internal coaches. Increasingly, organisations are using courses to give transition inputs and coaching to support and synthesise the transition. There is a move for some organisations to develop this repeated, planned coaching capability internally.

External coaching is mostly used where the transition state is not well understood, particularly around senior leadership positions, and the assignment or context is complex. Similarly, external coaches are used where there are tangible benefits to accelerating the transition process. Examples include fast and focused integration of a lateral hire, where the track record of the organisation is to not handle transitions well (failed promotions, bouncing out lateral hires) or where there is a high degree of sensitivity in the individual client about sharing their concerns around the transition.

There is also a move towards ‘niche’ transition coaching in areas such as maternity returners, career transitions and work/life balance.


Re-invention, patience, back from the brink

What is it?

The purpose of transformational coaching is to support the client explore their world view and belief systems in order to determine what changes they want to make and what subsequent behaviour this will involve.

This can arise from external influences, (e.g. feedback, economic change, organisational change, etc.) and/or from internal drivers, (e.g. an aspiration, dissatisfaction, crisis, etc.).
The focus can be wide and includes beliefs about:

  • What the client is there to do, e.g. I’m a professional not a cold caller, people manager or strategist
  • Where or whether they fit in an organisation, e.g. ‘not what it used to be’, business development emphasis, changes in power dynamics, redundancy, etc.
  • Who they are, e.g. I’ve always led this way, this is how I cope with depression, I don’t like conflict, etc.
  • Adjusting to life-stage changes, e.g. first job, marriage, children, affairs, divorce, mid-life, retirement, etc.
  • What they want to achieve, e.g. bring about fundamental change in approach, becoming the leader in the field, etc.

There is often a shared interest between the individual client and the organisation to make the transition effectively and more speedily than would otherwise happen. Immediate benefits include retention, arresting a downward spiral and longer term benefits are far wider reaching.

How do I identify it?

The individual or client organisation may start by saying:

  • “I/they are stuck…..”
  • “Can I/they really do….”
  • “They said I have to ….. and I fundamentally disagree”
  • “I don’t see how I can fit in with this….” “I ought to…..”
  • “What do I do now I have…”

While some transformations can be quick, many require significant time to explore the nature of the transformation, the motivation to change, the development of new skills and approaches and the failures that often accompany such changes. For all involved, it frequently requires living with uncertainty, feeling out of depth and resisting everyone’s need for immediate action.

What should we look for in a good transformational coach?

Coaches should be highly skilled to build and contain the safety, trust, vulnerability, uncertainty and expectations that transformations often require:

  • Deep understanding of personal change processes
  • Sophisticated contracting with the client and organisational stakeholders who will not always understand what is involved or the length of time involved
  • Commercial judgement to understand the speed, nature and consequences of transforming (or not)
  • The ability to “be” with the client and to use themselves as a tool in the coaching
  • The capability to provide feedback and insights in the moment to benefit the client
  • A wide repertoire of tools and techniques that can be used and the wisdom to know where this is appropriate

What are the current trends in transformational coaching?

Traditionally, this work has sat in the therapeutic world (Zinker 1978; Mezirow, 1991) where an understanding of individual change and therapeutic techniques applied to coaching have been invaluable. Increasingly there is a trend to combine sophisticated coaching and psychological capability with business empathy (Marsden et. al., 2010) so that an appreciation of the organisation and system can be made available to the client. This has been borne of the experience where a lack of business empathy has produced low chemistry with the coach or created blind spots where the coach does not feel equipped to follow their client.

Very few organisations have developed the skills and capabilities of internal coaches to operate at this level safely.


Experienced coaches will recognise that not all coaching engagements are easy to categorise. What initially appears to be a performance engagement can change into skill development or transition. Similarly, many transformational engagements can result in skill development sessions as the client moves into a change process.

The impact framework is not intended to be a panacea or rigid categorisation system, rather it provides a common language for exploring the purposes of the coaching arrangement and the type of coach best suited to working with that client. From this shared understanding improvements can be achieved in matching a coach and client, selecting coaches, developing internal capability and monitoring the impact of the coaching.