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What, Exactly, Is Coaching? I’m Glad You Asked!

We’ve been looking at coaching from every angle in this CONNECT2Lead miniseries. We examined the differences between coaching vs mentoring, coaching vs managing, and coaching vs training. To underscore these differences, we still need to dive deeper in defining coaching and answer the question: what, exactly, is coaching?

Graphic Showing Personal TrainerMost managers are surprised by the answer because it reveals that what they’re doing when they think they’re coaching isn’t quite coaching. Many self-proclaimed coaches (uncredentialed) take umbrage at these fine distinctions because it delegitimizes their well-intended but misplaced efforts. Any many L&D, HR and other professionals focused on people development are frustrated by the blanket term “coach” because they have to wade through a lot of mislabeling to find quality coaching for employees.   

What, Exactly, Is Coaching in the Workplace? 

Coaching is NOT managing, mentoring or training! Coaching is its own unique discipline with its own set of benefits and outcomes. 

Sir John Whitmore, said to be the founder of workplace coaching, starts with this definition: “Coaching focuses on future possibilities, not past mistakes.” 

That’s a pretty good start! But there’s more from Whitmore’s classic book, Coaching for Performance, and from others. Let’s lay it all out for a well-rounded picture of workplace coaching at its best.

  • “Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance.” Whitmore
  • Coaching is helping people “get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results.” Mary Beth O’Neill
  • “Coaching is process that fosters self-awareness and that results in motivation to change.” David Dotlich and Peter Cairo
  • “Building awareness, responsibility, and self-belief is the goal of a coach.” Whitmore
  • “The aim of coaching is to improve the client’s professionalism by discovering his/her relationship with certain experiences and issues… to encourage reflection… to release hidden strengths… to overcome obstacles to further development… to investigate the extent to which aspects of the client’s behavior are causing or prolonging the issues.” Erik de Haan and Yvonne Burger
  • “Coaching is helping people learn rather than teaching them.” Whitmore
  • “A coach recognizes that the internal obstacles are often more daunting than the external ones.” Timothy Gallwey
  • “The coachee does acquire the facts, not from the coach but from within himself, stimulated by the coach.” Whitmore
  • “Good coaching should take the coachee beyond the limitations of the coach’s own knowledge.” Whitmore
  • “Coaching is about positively impacting one person’s mindset, heart, and behaviors so that person is never the same again. It is about helping one person make the contributions only he or she can make in the world.” Michael K. Simpson
  • “Coaching leaders help employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and tie them to their personal and career aspirations. They encourage employees to establish long-term development goals and help them conceptualize a plan for attaining them… these leaders are willing to put up with short-term failures if it furthers long-term learning.” Daniel Goleman
  • “Coaching requires expertise in coaching but not in the subject at hand. Whitmore
  • “Coaches are neither born nor made. Great coaches choose to be great coaches.” Stephen R. Covey



Why I’m Glad that You Asked 

Coaching delivers benefits that exceed what you can achieve with managing, mentoring, and training alone. The coach, coachee, and organization all derive positive outcomes and personal growth when coaching is offered in its purest form (that is, when it’s not something else that’s been mislabeled as coaching!). To read more about what coaching is and is not, read this miniseries on coaching from the CONNECT2Lead Blog

Among the many benefits of coaching are:

  • Unleashing an individual’s full potential, which results in higher levels of performance. 
  • Higher levels of employee engagement as employees are given voice and choice in their own development. (Note: higher levels of engagement are proven to increase employee retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, top line revenue, and bottom line profit!)
  • Accelerated learning and growth of employees.
  • Higher levels of confidence and competence that lead to innovation, incremental process improvements, and a cascade of business benefits.
  • More independent thinking, problem-solving and decision-making as people learn from the coach’s example how to process information and access what they already know.
  • Managers have more time to spend on other managerial work once team member are operating more autonomously.
  • Self-sustaining coaching culture as peer coaching is the natural outgrowth of consistent and quality coaching. 
  • Organizational capacity expands as engaged, developing employees become better more independent and better able to perform their jobs and contribute at higher levels. 
  • Competitive advantage as employees are more engaged, employee retention levels improve, and organizational capacity expands. 
  • Strong workplace relationships with happier employees who find deeper levels of meaning and satisfaction in the work they do as a result of taking ownership and accountability when ennobled to do so. 


Coaching Is Worth the Investment Because…  

There isn’t enough talent to go around anymore. HCI reports that the number one concern about human capital for CEOs and HR leader is that they don’t have enough talent in the pipeline for executive succession planning. 

Since so many other organizations are concerned about this, it means that you can’t easily find the talent you need. Everyone else sees a lack of talent development, and they’re all going to be competing with you for the talent you need to bring into your organization!

Your best option, then, is to develop the talent you already have AND to retain those people with that talent. Coaching can do both (and more!) in one fell swoop. Coaching:

  1. unleashes people’s potential, 
  2. causes people to have stronger feelings of loyalty to employers who provide coaching (thereby improving retention rates), 
  3. strengthens the organization and performance in both the short-term and the long-term,
  4. has the multiplying effect of some coaching leading to more coaching (along with more benefits!), and
  5. equips you for strong succession planning and business continuity. 

Simply put, a lack of quality coaching is a surefire way to limit your organization’s success.