what is coaching?  
  Personal Development
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The second in a series of three articles originally published on (adapted)

In my last article I explained how the business environment had changed and how that created a world where business success was unteachable. I argued that we are now in an uncertain and ever-changing world where we all need to be explorers.

This article asks the question: "What is coaching?". As with the first article, it's a personal view that you may disagree with. My intention is to get the main issues across so that you can decide for yourself.

What is coaching?

Let's have a look first at definitions. There are more definitions of coaching than you can shake a stick at. Pick up any book, article or even coach (if you're feeling athletic) and you'll be given slightly different versions. Do a search on the internet and there are more.

I have read many many books, articles, websites and spoken to dozens of practicing coaches about what they do. To save you the trouble, here is a flavour of what consistently comes up:

  • The goal of coaching is the enhanced effectiveness of the client.
  • Coaching is about the learning/growth/development of the client.
  • A coach is a helper.
  • The coach's focus is on the client's agenda.
  • A coach might be a sounding board, or act as a critical friend.
  • A coach challenges the client's thinking.
  • A coach helps the client to explore.

Without going any further, we can already see potential benefits for people managing or leading businesses. Who does the boss get to talk to about the decisions and choices they need to make? Who helps them prioritise? Who helps them stay alert and on the ball? Who is stimulating their thinking?

But let's press on. Now I said this was a flavour of what consistently comes up. When we get onto actually how coaches approach this, there is much more variation. It's useful to look at one or two areas of difference because it helps us to understand what is being offered.

The question of expertise

One of the most important differences is whether or not the coach is offering expertise in a specific area. This is a field of some heated debate, but I'm going to save you the trouble. The key is to get the right person for what you want to happen. So if you want someone to tell you what to do, get an expert. If you want someone to help you do things your own way, get an expert coach.

In my first article in this series I said there was no text book any more for business success and that this is why coaching is important. Somebody who sells their expertise - who has done it all before - is offering you reliability and predictability. You may well need that help in certain areas of your business. But that same person may not be the best person to help you find new ways of doing things, or of finding new things to do. These are coaching benefits. A coach can support and develop the creativity and entrepreneurialism that got you started in the first place and that you need to maintain to survive in an ever-changing marketplace. An expert is a safe pair of hands. A coach helps you to explore. An expert keeps you on your feet. A coach gets you running.

Specialist coaches

The second big difference between coaches is how they describe their market. You will come across business coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, relationship coaches, coaches for specific groups of people and coaches for specific problems. What do we make of this? Well, I make two things of it.

Firstly, you've probably read the same marketing advice as I have and as most of the coaching and consulting community has: "be specific about your target market - don't try to be all thing to all people".

Secondly, as I mentioned before, an expert coach has expertise in coaching.

My conclusion: there's less difference than there seems (I've probably just made myself very unpopular with some coaches! I said it was a personal view.) Now, you may find it easier to build a good working relationship with someone who is able to pick up your business issues quickly. Someone who regularly works with people like you may be better able to develop this relationship and there is no doubt that a good working relationship is extremely important to the success of a coaching relationship. So if the coach's specialism means you can develop a stronger relationship more rapidly, that's a good thing. But that's about empathy, not expertise. Of course, if you want advice, get an expert.


Finally, it's worth mentioning that different coaches do use different tools. Some coaches use psychometric testing. Some focus on goal-setting. Some use a lot of visualisation. But these are just tools. There's more than one way to skin a cat. My own research suggests that coaches select tools either because they have experience of them working for themselves or because they can easily see how they apply to their clients. What are the best tools? Really good coaches are at ease. They are adaptable and their personality doesn't get in the way. They can use their experience to select the best tools for the job. I sometimes get the feeling that someone really wedded to a particular tool is someone with a solution looking for a problem.

I hope this article has given you an idea of what you would be getting from buying coaching services. In the final article of this series I will look at what it's actually like to be coached. What do coaches do? How does it work?

  Next article: How do coaches coach?

  Previous article: Why coaching matters.