by Chris Johnson
As professional coaches, we are sometimes surprised by the assumptions that are made about coaching. This series of posts is dedicated to exploring those myths.
The acceptance of coaching at an individual and organisational level in support of professional development has never been higher. We are aware that the idea, or offer, of coaching, even when well-intended, is not always perceived positively.
The definition of coaching according to our governing body the International Coaching Federation is:
“Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
Professional development coaches, therefore, hold the belief that you are not broken or require fixing.
The word ‘partnering’ is critical. Your coach walks beside you to help you develop increased awareness and responsibility for moving forward – they are not there to tell you what to do. They will ask searching questions, explore what is holding you back, review how you can address situations and help you focus your efforts. Your coach is 100% on your side and will help you design actions you are motivated to take.
In contrast ‘mentors’ have a particular skill set, or experience to share. They are there to tell you how you could do it.
Consider for a moment the people in the media that are called ‘coaches’. The first image that comes to mind is often a high profile manager of a sports team. Studio pundits and retired sports stars often talk about the player-management skills of the best sports coaches and I have no doubt that they use skills close to the ICF definition (although normally that is felt behind closed doors). The view we often see is of them on a training ground issuing commands or demonstrating a technique. In games, they pace up and down the touchline pointing and shouting advice. They are directing and mentoring.
A similar phenomenon is present in corporate culture. Leaders are expected to fluidly coach, mentor or direct their team based upon the situation. Firstly, understanding the definitions of these skills is foggy. Secondly, no one holds up a big sign saying ‘coaching is about to begin’, ‘mentoring coming at you’ or ‘I am about to tell you what to do’. It can be hard to recognise when coaching is being used, let alone good coaching.
I have also seen corporate initiatives unveiled with ‘coaching programme’ nestled deliberately in the title. Whilst some are genuinely well intended, others are thinly veiled audits and process implementation projects. The word ‘coaching’ is there to oil the wheels of acceptance.
Is it any wonder we may be slightly sceptical when we are offered a coach? That they are simply going to tell me what to do or point out where I am going wrong. We need to be more precise about what good coaching is and is not. Why coaching is being offered and the impact it can have.
Critically, coaches work to YOUR agenda. If you retain a coach for yourself, you will get to choose your focus areas.
So how is this different when your company is offering you a coach? Here we move from a ‘system’ of 2 people (you and your coach) to a ‘system’ of many people (you, your coach, your manager, mentor, HR representative, L&D representative, etc.). The key is setting things up correctly at the start. Making sure the expectations of each person in the ‘system’ are understood, assumptions are clarified, and a clear direction is agreed.
As a company that provides coaching programmes for individuals and companies, we are happy to hold a companies broader leadership development agendas and themes. Where the alarm bells start gaining volume is when we hear phrases like ‘we’d like you to work on Chris’s confidence during presentations’ or ‘Kathi needs to lead her team meetings with more authority’.
These may be true, and when they are requested by someone other than the coachee, we have an agenda that the coachee has NOT agreed to. Coaching then risks becoming manipulation. Being able to choose how you achieve your or your company’s goals is fundamental to coaching. This is why we adopt processes to review and align regularly:
As a coachee, you should listen to feedback from people that can inform your choice of goals, and you should choose your goals.
Consider Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Exceptional tennis players whom, at the time of writing have won 39 tennis grand slams between them. They have achieved similar results and yet their styles, or how they play the game, differ markedly. One is elegant, balanced and displays an extreme economy of effort: the other smashes opponents into submission by dishing out brutal passing shots and endlessly chasing down seemingly lost points. Telling one to play like the other would not help either get the most of their individual strengths.
That is a great example of what coaches want for their clients. Whilst certain competencies may need to be brought up to a minimum level for a role, the primary focus is on amplifying strength. Focusing on strengths creates fulfilment and engagement, both of which can contribute to a better personal life and increased company performance.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency is often to gravitate towards weaker areas. Give someone a list of feedback from their colleagues and most people will focus on the single growth area before the 10 strength areas. When we help companies develop their strategic approach the same thing occurs. People are naturally drawn to addressing low performing areas and you should still consider ‘dialling up’ what you are good at. Coaches help keep a healthy balance on the good stuff and how to step into the best you.
We started the blog with the question ‘I have been offered a coach. Is there something wrong with me?’ So what if we turned that around?
Michelle Poler speaks regularly about facing your fears and how to approach them. Google her, she is incredibly inspirational. On a podcast recently she spoke about that little voice in our head that when we are about to embrace change asks ‘what’s the worst that could happen here?’ The problem is this can create a slick self-justification not to act. It will probably sound really good too (after all, it is you talking to you! Surreal I know.). She simply encouraged people to ask:
‘What is the best that could happen?’
So, let’s imagine we re-phrased our initial question to ‘I have been offered a coach. My organisation clearly values me.’ The new belief helps shift the perspective. It creates permission to embrace the situation. Coaching as a gift. So when you are offered a coach embrace the positive. The new experience. A creative thought partner. Your coach holds the simple belief that you are an amazing human being. Coaching is an investment dedicated to bringing the best out of you.
Chris is an international trainer, facilitator, consultant and accredited professional coach (PCC). He owns Caboo Learning and is co-founder of 20 Rock. His passion is helping leaders and teams maximise their natural strengths to fulfil their potential and actively engage in their work. He believes in creating experiential learning that takes you one step out of your comfort zone and actively promotes building the eco-system to support learning transfer to give it the greatest opportunity to be applied in the workplace. For over 18 years he has designed and delivered projects for SMEs and blue-chip corporations, working with 10,000+ participants in 30+ countries (Europe, North & South America, Middle East, Asia).