What is Coaching?

Posted: 2nd January 2019

At its simplest, coaching is a different way of having a conversation. But it’s much more than that. Many leaders and managers have been schooled in and had many years of experience through more traditional leadership. Expert leadership; directive; when the manager knows ‘best’. The responsibility remains with the boss.

In my view, coaching provides a dynamic relationship that enables the coachee to reflect more clearly upon practice. Through this raised awareness, the coachee is better able to create enhanced relational and performance-enhancing choices than might otherwise have been the case.

Acquiring coaching skills often involves changing habits acquired over many years: not rushing in to solve problems, give advice or tell someone what to do. Of course these all have a place, but they have become so over-used that it just led to learned helplessness and dampened the opportunity for co-workers to add real value to the business. At its worst its legacy was unsustainable, toxic, dependent cultures.

In contrast, coaching distributes leadership through the organisation. Everyone can become a leader.

Coaching does this by:

  • Emphasising personal and organisational performance
  • Creating a culture that is dynamic, agile and supportive
  • Encouraging accountability at all layers of the business
  • Replacing a ‘blame’ culture with a learning culture
  • Enhancing the quality of thinking among co-workers
  • Distributing leadership in a way that enables senior leaders to focus on key leadership issues, rather than becoming embroiled in endless management fire-fighting.

Coaching in action

I worked in a fast-paced media company that, in the space of 20 years, grew from being a regional printer to becoming listed on the stock exchange as one of the UK’s largest 100 companies.  It was a dynamic culture, which had strong emphasis on leadership, engagement and personal responsibility.

Three stories stand out for me from those experiences:

Firstly, when I joined the company as a manager, I told my new boss that I had never seen any of the directors in my previous company. I didn’t even know what they looked like! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when, three months later at our annual management conference, I was seated at dinner next to the CEO! That told me a lot about my new company and the CEO spent the evening asking me lots of questions about me, my role and my background. His approach was very engaging and motivating. I later learnt that he took a similar interest in everyone in the business.

Secondly, several years later I attended a board meeting chaired by the same man – who by this time was Chair of the company. What struck me in that meeting was that he only asked questions. In that particular meeting he never once told or directed people what to do. It was very powerful: a mixture of support and challenge that helped sharpen everyone’s thinking.

Finally, a colleague of mine who made a decision against the advice of others. He made a specific decision that was borne out of his conviction. It was a chastening experience for him as it damaged sales in the short-term. But what was really interesting was that he took responsibility and learnt from his mistake. He then went on to develop new areas of the business in a very impactful way that provided long term benefits. The business culture allowed people to make a mistake – the emphasis then was on not repeating those mistakes.

Overall, the coaching culture enabled people to perform at their best: and it was those people’s innovation, energy and passion that was the engine room for phenomenal commercial growth and success.

The coaching journey

For many organisations, the coaching journey starts with the CEO and senior directors receiving executive coaching from external coaches. These have often been transformational learning experiences for these business leaders.

They have benefited so much that they were then determined to extend coaching across their businesses. Some have even had coach training to develop their coaching skills. But there are two blocks:

  1. Their time. They don’t have much, if any, capacity to coach beyond their direct reports
  2. Resources. Hiring executive coaches is a valuable investment for directors, but it is not cheap and budgets don’t allow for the widespread use of external executive coaches.

As a result, more and more businesses have sought to develop internal coaching capability, which led us to introduce the Cambridge Business Coaching Programme.