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What Do Coaches Do to Support Professional Development?

As we wrap our CONNECT2Lead miniseries on coaching, we’re calling out the specific behaviors of coaching to answer the question “exactly what do coaches do?”

Graphic Showing Sharing StarBroadly speaking, coaches support the professional development of the people they’re coaching. But that statement is too broad and subject to much misinterpretation. So we’re going to break it down into observable behaviors so you’ll recognize coaching when you see it… and, more importantly, you’ll recognize the absence of coaching when these behaviors are not apparent.

These behaviors apply to both internal and external coaches. They apply to people who don’t have the word “coach” in  their job title but who are responsible for talent development. These behaviors are needed in all types of non-athletic coaching – executive, personal, career, development, business, leadership, etc. Many do apply to athletic coaching, but it is not covered here because the job of a sports coach often entails crossover activities and metrics.     

What Coaches Do and What Coaches Don’t Do  

These ten contrasts will help you see how coaching is unique. Expressed behaviorally, these are intended only for showing the differences and are not meant to suggest that coaches behaviors are superior to the alternatives listed. Depending on the situation, either option could be a suitable response. 

The reason to pinpoint the coaching behaviors is that many do not understand the value of these responses as alternatives to managerial or mentoring responses… so they exclude coaching responses and miss out on the benefits these could produce for some employees in some situations.   

Coaches stay on the sidelines. They don’t step into the game.

Coaches observe. They maintain objectivity. They look for cause-and-effect correlations so they can diagnose gaps and, later, bring awareness to those gaps AND to the drivers of success. 

Coaches don’t hold the same job role that they’re coaching. They don’t take over a player’s position because they aren’t as qualified as the person currently doing the job. What’s more, they know that learning primarily comes from doing… even when doing includes making some errors (the very best way to learn NOT to make those errors again!). 

Coaches make it safe to admit gaps and failures. Coaches don’t penalize poor performance. 

Coaches listen and empathize when hearing about real or perceived obstacles. They remain open and neutral as they seek to understand what a coachee is experiencing. They discuss gaps and failures as data points and opportunities for growth. 

Coaches don’t judge, condemn, or make coachees feel badly about mistakes they’ve made or about gaps in their skills and knowledge. They avoid shame and blame, focusing instead to foster understanding so coachees can self-discover what might work better for them in the future. 

Coaches focus on the future. Coaches don’t focus on the past or the present. 

Coaches accept (and encourage others to accept) that things are the way they are. That’s the starting point, regardless of how it came to be. The focus of coaching is to get forward motion from the here-and-now to the desired state in the future. 

Coaches don’t try to diagnose why things are the way they are. They don’t indulge bemoaning about the present. They don’t invite speculation about the past, and they don’t stop at excuses or justifications. 

Coaches look at individual potential. Coaches don’t look at collective norms.

Coaches seek to understand and unleash the potential of people, often a potential that’s been previously undiscovered or under-developed. 

Coaches don’t measure one person’s performance against another’s. They don’t set standards based on KPIs or other metrics. The individual’s own goal is the measure of achievement when coaching. 

Coaches listen and reflect back what they’ve heard. Coaches don’t tell their own stories. 

Coaches ask questions and listen to responses. They process what they’re hearing and ask more questions to reflect back what they’ve heard and to drill down for more insights that will promote self-discovery. They create two-way dialogue but are listening more than they are talking. 

Coaches don’t dominate the conversation by telling war stories from their past or by jumping in to offer solutions. They don’t lecture or go into teaching mode.  

Coaches facilitate goal setting and action planning. Coaches don’t set expectations. 

Coaches dignify others by ennobling their own ideas, goals, and plans for reaching their goals. They show confidence in others by giving them latitude to make their own choices. 

Coaches don’t tell people what to do, how much to do, how to do it, or the timeline for completion. Instead, they ask questions to guide people through their own goal setting and action planning, knowing this is the best way to ensure deep-level commitment to and ownership of these goals. 

Coaches create autonomy and independence. Coaches don’t foster dependency on others. 

Coaches strive to help others see themselves in new ways, access new problem-solving and decision-making approaches, and tap into tools they already have within themselves. 

Coaches don’t set themselves up as long-term resources that are constantly needed. They measure their own success by the success of coachees who grow during the coaching engagement and no longer feel a need for ongoing coaching on the same issue(s).  

Coaches give people choices and voices. Coaches don’t tell people what to do or advocate for them.

Coaches extract others’ thoughts, opinions, and ideas. They also draw out others’ reservations, perceived barriers, and honest feelings about options. They ask questions to brainstorm and generate options. They liberate ideation, autonomous decision-making, and self-advocacy. 

Coaches don’t become advocates, champions, or mother hens to others. They don’t over steer people into pre-determined courses of action or make decisions for others. They don’t do things for other people. Instead they help people build confidence to do things for themselves. 

Coaches maintain confidentiality. Coaches do not share what is said in coaching conversations. 

Coaches treat everything said in coaching conversations with the strictest measures of confidentiality. They might encourage a coachee to share information but don’t see sharing as a part of the coaching role. 

Coaches don’t report to others about a coachee’s progress (or lack of it). They don’t repeat what’s been said in coaching conversations. 

Coaches abide by professional standards of the coaching profession. Coaches don’t violate these standards. 

Coaches understand and follow the high standards set by the International Coaching Federation, a global organization dedicated to advancing the coaching profession. They continually learn, developing critical coaching competencies that reflect these high standards. They adhere to the ICF’s code of ethics so that they serve coachees’ needs rather than their own or third parties’ interests. 

Coaches don’t make exceptions to these ethical and professional standards. 

You may notice that some of the competencies and ethics are behavioral while others are about qualities or characteristics that coaches work to develop. 

What Qualities Do Excellent Coaches Have in Common?    

Coaches display:

  • Self-awareness. Able to be separate self, interpretations, judgments, and emotions from coachee interactions without becoming clinical or dispassionate. 
  • Curiosity. Genuine interest in coachees, their perceptions, their progress, and anything that inhibits their progress toward their stated goals.  
  • Listening skills. Able to focus without being distracted, to hear emotional context as well as content in the conversation, to “read between the lines,” and to comprehend what the coachee is trying to convey. 
  • Questioning skills. Asks thought-provoking questions to promote self-discovery and heightened awareness. Uses open-ended phrasing to stimulate thinking and draw out coachees’ ideas and thoughts. 
  • Empathy. This includes sensitivity to coachees’ emotions and unique situations, an ability to be seen as a safe and neutral resource, and being responsive to coachees’ needs. 
  • Discernment. Observing what people say and do, noticing discrepancies, creating awareness for coachees about the interplay of thoughts, words, and actions. 
  • Expectations for accountability. To help coachees make continual progress toward their goals. 
  • Praxis. This is the implementation of knowledge and skills vs. theory and concepts.  
  • Entelechy. This is the discovery and unleashing of potential. 
  • Discretion. Maintaining confidentiality and holding back to avoid over-sharing with and about coachees.  


You may wish to use this list as a self-assessment and/or as an assessment of coaches you’re considering for engagement. 

Note what’s not on this list: functional expertise. Because coaches don’t teach, advise, or measure performance, there’s no need for a coach to be skilled or knowledgeable in a particular function. You’ll want a skilled and experienced coach rather than a subject-matter expert. This is one of the key distinctions between coaches and other support roles.   

What Do Coaches Do That’s Different from Managers, Mentors, and Trainers?   

To sum up this mini-series on what coaching is all about, let’s recap how coaching is different from managing, mentoring, and training. Coaching is a unique discipline. Confusing it with other instructional activities results in missing out on the benefits of pure coaching. Understanding these differences will better enable you to be an effective coach.   

Managers manage the work that needs to get done, usually through the oversight of others’ efforts. This includes setting expectations, monitoring performance, providing feedback, and using tools for rewards/recognition or discipline to drive desired results.  

Mentors share knowledge and experience, helping those with less experience by telling them stories, demonstrating how work is to be done, helping them navigate organizational politics, and so forth. 

Trainers teach people how to meet job standards. They offer an established curricula to bring all members of a group up to a pre-determined and common standard.

Coaches extract what people already know and facilitate self-discovery about how to cross-apply that knowledge to reach goals they’ve set for their own development and success.

It is possible (and desirable!) for an individual to be all four – manager, mentor, trainer, and coach – as the situation warrants. It’s not possible to be all four at once. Developing skills in all four disciplines and knowing when to show up in each of the four roles is a better strategy than winging it.

Most organizations choose to supplement the manager role with credentialed trainers and coaches. They set up mentoring programs where anyone can be a mentor, and there are merits in this approach. 

The worst-case scenario is when organizations expect managers to be all four supports but fail to provide training in what it means to mentor, train, or coach. Without teaching people about these roles, it’s unfair to expect them to perform well in these roles. Ultimately, that deprives all employees of a full support system and opportunities for growth that would benefit the organization.   

Coaching is a proven and highly effective approach for professional development. It accelerates individual growth because it dignifies employees’ own ideas and gets them more committed to the goals they set and actions they develop for themselves. It’s worth looking into and trying in your organization! 

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