It comes as a surprise to many that I am not Tony Robbins, the larger-than-life founder of the American coaching industry.
Lots of folks have no idea what coaching is, which is bad if you’d like some but aren’t quite sure what you’re getting yourself into, or don’t know how to describe it to your staff, colleagues or budget area. So here’s a primer: in the interests of getting over Mr Robbins, coaching is about reaching your full potential.
On the hop, you might borrow a phrase from the American NFL: coaching is all about your inner game. Applied to work, it’s all about breaking down your basic and often unconscious professional moves (too much of this, too little of that) until they’re deeply familiar, and helping you show up on the job with more real and powerful mindsets and behaviours. This last sentence is full of nouns and verbs that are the opposite of touchy-feely, and should satisfy the hardest nose in your business.
If sporting analogies don’t inspire, you might use words like “self-awareness”, “authenticity”, and “purpose”. Hence the craze for mindfulness, which drives your capacity to engage with all three. In a sense, the word choices don’t really matter. What coaches and purchasers of coaching really care about is impact: happier people, higher engagement – greater productivity.
Coaching clients have the same concern: they want to get better at work. Women in particular want to know how to juggle better (which often means learning to say no, even to something that’s dazzling), how to excel in masculine environments, and how to ask for what they want — especially if they feel they don’t deserve it.
Does coaching work? Yup. Big tick. Almost two decades on, there’s plenty of research out there about the impacts of good coaching – including offering a greater capacity to reflect on your own performance, to communicate with colleagues, and to develop others toward improved performance. Because coaching is a series of conversations over time, these capacities grow and are sustained over time. Coaching clients don’t unlearn their greater self-knowledge and professional capability: in fact, coaching has a momentum that can keep the work going well after the coaching conversations are over.
The increasing corporate interest in coaching means that lots of folks now train as coaches because they want to be better leaders, rather than professional coaches. Here’s the case for that. Personally, I first qualified as a coach because I wanted more confidence in developing my own staff – and I wanted to be able to better unpack the contradictory feedback I was getting about my own performance. As most of us know, feedback can be a truthful reflection of your supervisor’s limitations, and finding the grain of truth in all that dang chaff can be a trying business.
So what makes a good coach? According to a study by Hill and Schloss, coaching clients value a coach’s listening skills, undivided attention or “presence” – and, most of all, the sense of trust that comes when a coach offers unconditional positive regard and deep listening. A coach has no agenda: s/he helps you know what yours is. This trust is the elixir of coaching: it ramps coaching progress up to light speed and makes all kinds of internal breakthroughs possible. As is the case with the best supervision, an element of devotion appears: the coach’s trust in the client’s possibility is unmistakeable. Provided the fit between coach and client is right (an elusive thing that either works or doesn’t), the client feels this devotion – it’s like rocket fuel for the coaching work.
A happy client doesn’t necessarily mean that the coaching has been effective: in fact, a level of challenge – and discomfort – are required in order for the client to engage to full coaching effect. Any evaluation approach to measure your corporate return on investment needs to be designed with this in mind.
Finally, without ripeness, no client in history made a breakthrough in coaching: in other words, you can lead a coaching client (or staff member) to the water of self-confrontation but you can’t make them think. Coaching challenges self-protective behaviour. In coaching, all conversations begin and end with you. To adopt more of that hard-nosed language, willingness to drop blame, shame and entrenched patterns and gently have a good hard look at yourself is a threshold test for doing well in coaching. It certainly won’t suit everyone, and the timing also has to work.
Your sense of your own, or someone else’s ripeness for coaching will have been tested over time by how well they take feedback and how serious they are about their own professional development. If the client’s ripe, and the coach is skilled, magic can happen.