What is coaching?

Coaching? 
ICF (International Coach Federation) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”. Wikipedia has a somewhat simpler definition, which says that “Coaching is a development process via which an individual is supported while achieving a specific personal or professional competence result or goal”. I have also heard experienced coaches use terms like support system, or change management to define their trade. Consider the following scenario.

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Bill and David are college buddies, who are meeting after several years. Over evening drinks, their conversation steers towards their jobs.

“Bill, I guess I can tell you…” says David in a soft voice, then pauses, looks around a bit and continues “I have been working here for over eleven years now, but am now considering quitting my job”

“Wow! Planning on something exciting, are you?” Bill says with a huge smile “What’s up?”

“Exciting, my ass. I don’t even know what I will be doing. Just not this”

Bill gently places his beer mug down, looks David in the eye and gently asks “What’s bothering you, buddy?”

“I don’t find the job exciting anymore. It is the same old routine, same old pay and an ass-hole of a boss. Going to office is a drag every morning these days”

“Boring work, inadequate pay and bad boss, eh? And you’ve kept up for eleven years?”

“Well,, the work isn’t that boring, to be honest, and the pay isn’t too bad either, though they can be better”

“So, what’s up with the boss?”

“He joined us last year and completely changed the atmosphere in the office, especially for me. He is too micro-managing, and over shadows me in every forum. What growth can I expect here?”

“So, you don’t necessarily dislike your job or salary. But you feel less empowered and don’t see potential for personal growth”

“Yeah”, David says after thinking over for a few seconds

“OK. But you are much older in the organization than your boss. What do you have that he doesn’t?”

“Oh, a lot”, David’s eyes light up “I know the ins and outs of our business like nobody else. I understand the job our organization does much better than him- he often consults me, in fact. I have a huge network in the firm, across geographies and up to the very top. And I have an impeccable track record and reputation”

“That sounds excellent, Dave” says Bill gently patting on David’s back “so, why are you quitting, again?”

“I know. I built all of that over a decade of dedicated work. But what’s the point, when the moron undermines you, and doesn’t give you recognition?”

“I understand, my friend. What options did you consider before the ‘I quit’ option?”

“I did consider staying back and putting up with the asshole”

“You don’t want to throw away everything you earned over 11 years, like you just said. So, think again and tell me. What can you do to stay and still be happy?”

“Well, stay and happy is not possible working for this boss”

“OK”

“I guess, I can talk to Brady who is my super-boss. I know him very well, but I am still not comfortable complaining about my immediate Manager”

“I agree. Complaining, like most negative actions, is risky in a corporate environment”

David thinks for a minute, while sipping on his lager.

“Perhaps, I can start by asking about opportunities outside my team. And subtly show my concerns regarding my boss. What do you say?”

“Well, you know your people and your environment better. So, do you think that might work?”

“Yes. If I feel it appropriate at that time, I might even voice my concerns. But, I won’t start with it. I will start with opportunities which is a more positive thing to start, I guess”

“Is it easy to get an audience with Brady? When do you think you can talk to him?”

“Yes, he is pretty approachable. I should give myself a day or so to go over the conversation in my head and then talk to him”

“That sounds like a plan, mate”

“Yes it does”, says David with a smile of hope

“Shall we drink again next week? May be, you can tell me how it went?”

“Yes we definitely should. And hey, thanks a ton. I am actually so used to this place that quitting it is a frightening thought. Best case scenario, Brady might help me move to a new team. Worst case, I may still decide to leave. But, now, at least I have hope. Thanks again Bill” 
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I define Coaching as a forward looking, co-creative process where the coach helps fully realize an able coachee’s potential towards a well defined goal. This is typically done as a series of conversations that take the coachee on a journey of self-discovery, deep reflection and focused evolution of an effective strategy and a concrete action plan.

Let’s look at some of the terms I used here, and I encourage you to reconcile them with the sample conversation above:

  • Forward looking: Coaching is not about understanding one’s past, but about thinking about the future within the context of the present. The moment a coachee is deep-diving into the ever increasing spirals of history, the coach would gently help get back to the present “where the action lies”, with a vision to the future “where the promise lies”
  • Co-creative: The coach and the coachee are equal partners in the process. All reflections, strategies and action plans come from the coachee, with the coach providing critical guidance and support
  • Able coachee: The coachee is fully functional, and not incapacitated by injury, disease or disorder. He or she is the expert in the field, and the coach is not filling in a gap in her understanding or skill
  • Well defined goal: Most coaching conversations begin by converting dreams to goals that are focused and tangible
  • Self-discovery: During successful coaching conversations, many hidden, suppressed or forgotten points regarding one’s ability, experience or impact come to the surface. They result in ‘a-ha’ moments that have a singular effect in defining the way forward. Without a coach, they usually remain in the sub-conscious for ever
  • Deep reflection: The coach would help the coachee reflect upon several aspects, including motivations, options, actions, and impact.
  • Focused evolution of an effective strategy and a concrete action plan: (Loaded statement, I know). Successful coaching sessions typically end with clear and precise action steps, usually with deadlines and reviews built into them. They are a result of focused thinking, followed by an unveiling of an effective strategy.

Coaching is NOT the same as Consulting

Consider the conversation between David and Bill. Bill wasn’t consulting, or advising David, right? 
Consultants fill a specific gap in skill or knowledge in their clients’ repertoire. Coaches don’t do this. Consider the following grid:

Coachees are skillful and knowledgeable in their fields. David did not have a gap in understanding of his situation, nor was Bill an expert about David’s organization. Yet, the conversation was fruitful thanks to Bill’s coaching.

Coaching is NOT counseling, or therapy

David clearly wasn’t in therapy with Bill. He was being offered support and direction as he himself worked out a strategy and action steps. Look at the following grid to understand how Guidance, Counseling, Therapy and Coaching differ.

Therapy is needed when clients are facing mental or physical distress. Coaches don’t do counseling or therapy.

However, an outcome of a coaching session might be a realization that the client needs consulting or therapy. But, consulting and therapy are themselves outside the purview of coaching.

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