Nora Jenkins Townson
May 23 · 8 min read

Hint: It’s not the office snacks

Coaching: Not just for the gym. Illustration by Laura Callaghan.

Every founder we know wants the same things: to make more great hires, for those hires to be amazingly successful, and for those hires to be so happy and fulfilled that they stay (and grow) with them forever. Sounds like a dream, right?

When we speak to executives about how they’ve levelled up and scaled themselves, one of the most common tools in their pocket is a powerful coach. Executive coaching is an incredible tool- it helps leaders define their values, prioritize their time, work through conflicts and challenges, and gives them a listening ear on their side, no politics involved. Similarly, one of the most common things startup employees seek is mentorship, but either it’s not available (the company is too small) or senior team members are too busy to invest the time. The solution? A coach in everyone’s corner. Bright + Early is now offering workplace coaching! Sweet! How does it work? We sat down with our own coach-extraordinaire, Elisha Gray, to chat more about it.

Elisha Gray, Bright + Early’s resident coach

Can you tell us a bit about what sparked the idea for workplace coaching as a built-in offering?

It was actually in joining Bright + Early [and beginning to work with a roster of companies more regularly] that I identified the need for workplace coaching. I’d been working with Bright + Early for about six months when it dawned on me — we’re spending a lot of time and energy to properly build out solid HR programs for employers and organizations, but very often individual team members need support too (and in very different ways).

How does it work?

We come to your office and set up shop on a regular cadence, say, once every week or two. Employees can book in coaching time with us as needed.

What kinds of questions or concerns were individuals bringing to you?

Well, it really varied! And who it was coming from varied as well — from CEO to a person who started two weeks ago, I’d be getting individuals at every level asking to meet with me, to help them work through a specific performance issue, or just to pick my brain about some company policies.

I kept finding myself in these conversations in which I was being approached with an inquiry and I would respond with advice utilizing not only my experience with that specific organization, but also just relying on my extensive background in HR and People Ops, to help that individual out. At the time, I was calling this coaching — but we’ll get to this more in a moment.

Can you give me an example?

I worked with an individual who took a new job at a startup after leaving a larger enterprise company, where they were known as a top performer with a team under them. After joining, some of their projects were put on hold for 6 months, and the hypergrowth they were promised was going to take longer. They felt really disappointed. We explored what was most important to them about their growth, their career goals, and touched on their personal values, and they ended up creating a training program and a ton of resources that set them up for success when it was time to kick off. It totally reignited their passion for the role and company, and saved our client from losing that awesome employee.

Why might an individual seek out coaching?
There are a number of different reasons why an employee would want to leverage workplace coaching, and the time investment varies for each. (And any one individual might experience any of these factors at any time in their career). The reasons for seeking out coaching may include:

Mediation and Guidance. The individual is currently working through a workplace challenge or obstacle and require an objective third party to navigate the situation without bias.

Goal Setting and Success Planning. The individual needs to address a specific performance issue, or implement some piece of constructive feedback from their leadership, or is working against a timeline.

Transition. The individual is looking to move from one role to another, or looking to move into a leadership position.

How often do you meet with the people you’re coaching?

It depends on what they’re looking to get out of meeting with me! We could meet once about a one-off question or concern, or I could work with them on an ongoing basis to build out a plan and offer support for a long-term goal. It’s really up to the individual to get from it what they want and need. People are naturally smart in asking for what they need, and the amount of support they need. The biggest impact that I was able to experience, in these early days of coaching (before we officially called it coaching) was just being able to have someone to turn to.

Why might organizations be lacking someone internally who can offer that same level of support?

Often, especially in young or early-day startups, you’ll find one person spread very thin, taking on many different roles and unable to fully dedicate enough time to the kinds of mentorship or leadership that their employees required. Or maybe you’d have someone suddenly thrust into a managerial or leadership role without perhaps being fully equipped yet (skill set or bandwidth) to handle all that that may entail.

At the end of the day, everyone is really focused on “how do I do the best work possible, how do I best do my job”, and this usually is limited to the task list at hand — it doesn’t give a lot of room for big picture thinking. And that’s where I come in to help out. Knowing that there was somebody dedicated to thinking about this kind of leadership and employee growth was monumental. And, to further this point, as soon as individuals knew that they could come to me for support on their own personal developments, that’s where all my time on-site started to go — so it was a no brainer that we would roll out this offering at B+E. And it really reaffirmed, for me personally, that this was what I wanted to spend my time doing.

“At the end of the day, everyone is really focused on “how do I do the best work possible, how do I best do my job”, and this usually is limited to the task list at hand — it doesn’t give a lot of room for big picture thinking.”

So what makes a coach?

It wasn’t what I thought initially! What I had been doing at the beginning was giving a lot of advice. Coaching is not, actually, advisory — as I learned from the coaching school I attended and eventually became certified through. I’m still working on the best language to describe the process, but what it definitely is is an explorative partnership. It’s working one on one with someone to help them figure out what their possibilities are. I still do offer some advice, so what I do is more so considered a “blended approach” to coaching. I’m fortunate enough to know that this is what makes my offering particularly unique — it comes with my own personal wealth of experiences, and I don’t want to lose out on that with a more “pure” form of coaching. In both instances, however, it’s support that is ultimately decided upon and driven by the employee who is being coached.

Using the practice of guided psychotherapy as a loose reference point is a helpful tool in understanding coaching. Whereas therapy might use past experiences to shine new light or provide a deeper understanding on the now, coaching is focused on future goal-setting, and building the appropriate steps and frameworks to ensure its — and your — success.

When does somebody “graduate” from your coaching?

There isn’t really a “done” in my eyes. Just as your goals, wants, and needs continue to change and evolve, your relationship with coaching may grow or wane accordingly.

“It makes me smile just to think about the immediate change and impact that these sessions have not only on the individual, but on the teams and people and environments all around them.”

What would you most like to communicate about the coaching experience?

As a coach, I was trained to end each session with the question “what was the value that you got from our conversation today”, or “what new awareness did you arrive at”, or something to that effect. Very solutions-oriented. However, people often have a hard time putting into words what they get out of coaching sessions — sometimes all they can offer up is that “something great has shifted within them”. They now have the clarity and direction they needed; they know exactly what their next step needs to be. And to be clear, this isn’t a clear next step that I’ve personally delivered to them — it’s a next step they were able to work out for themselves with my help.

There are results at the end of every conversation. It makes me smile just to think about the immediate change and impact that these sessions have not only on the individual, but on the teams and people and environments all around them.

Last but not least: why should an organization seek out coaching for their employees?

I believe that the way we’re thinking about company “perks” is shifting and expanding. Free t-shirts and happy hour beer and free lunches are fine, but talent is increasingly flocking to organizations who invest in them long-term.

Employees are demanding leadership opportunities, mentorship and growth opportunities, career path options, and more. Organizations, historically, have not understood how to satisfy these demands and employees, historically, become frustrated and look to leave. We can’t guarantee that with the right leadership and support your employees won’t still leave, but by elevating and growing your individuals, you are ultimately elevating and growing your organization. Each month or quarter, we anonymously report on common themes brought up by employees. If ten out of fifteen conversations in the past month have touched on burnout, for example, or increased stress, we’ll bring that back to the organization. As the employer looks for ways to elevate or support their teams, they’ll have a bank of data points to start from, ultimately helping to build out smarter (and more human) business decisions.

Coaching is a no brainer solution to many of the common demands brought to employers by their employees. It helps put the power back into the employees’ hands: you are responsible for your career development. Our responsibility is to provide you with the opportunities, resources and guidance to help you fulfill it.

Interested in bringing coaching into your workplace? Get in touch via 🚀

About us:

Bright + Early is a modern HR consultancy on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces. We partner with early to mid-stage companies who need to scale fast but stay friendly. Nothing in place? Don’t know where to start? No problem.


A collective of modern HR experts on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces.

Nora Jenkins Townson

Written by

Founder @ Bright+ Early, former head of people ops @wealthsimple, startup HR veteran. Into food, books, weirdness and creating the future of work.


A collective of modern HR experts on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces.

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