What exactly is coaching?

How do you develop and lead your team right now?

To what extent are you already coaching?

Do you have a strong sense of your own strengths as a coach?

Or are you unsure if what you are doing with your people can be described as coaching?

This page will give you a good sense as to what coaching is, how it fits with your own style right now and how it is different to other development opportunities in business.

As with many things in business, there are a number of different definitions of coaching.

  • The art of guiding a person towards the development of their own skills and behaviour
  • Unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. (from Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore)
  • Like having your own personal navigator for the journey of your life: someone who will help you find your way and stay on course. (Co-active Coaching, Laura Whitworth)

Nowadays there is a whole host of niche coaches available. Just look on the internet and you will find:

  • Executive coaches
  • Life coaches
  • Health coaches
  • Sports coaches
  • Creative coaches
  • Motivation coaches
  • Sales coaches
  • Financial freedom coaches.

And the list goes on. Yes, there’s a bandwagon and no, it does not mean coaching is just a fad. In business, coaching is proving remarkably effective – in many areas.

Many organisations are discreetly giving their best people what sportsmen have had for a long time: a trusted resource to help them reach their goals.

So we know that the term ‘coaching’ covers a broad spectrum and definitions can vary greatly. There is still no clear consensus about the roles and tasks attached to specific labels, such as ‘coach’. Here are practical examples of different ways in which coaching can be used.

  • To help individuals learn defined tasks and processes. The coach is likely to be an expert in their field. This is sometimes referred to as ‘on-the-job coaching’.
  • To help individuals go through a period of change or growth, or to address specific challenges. The coach’s role will be to help the coachee work out the best solution through posing questions and facilitating the process.
  • To help senior executives and managers work through critical organisational issues that are likely to have a big impact on the health and wealth of an organisation.

The new genre of business coaching started with Tim Gallwey, who first applied a new approach to coaching tennis players and then started using the same principles in business. John Whitmore extended Gallwey’s ideas in his book, Coaching for Performance, and now management and leadership book sections are awash with coaching titles.

Coaching, at its best, can work towards positive and sustainable behaviour change in any environment.

The emphasis on coaching in business in the 21st century is on:

  • Producing action
  • Improving relationships
  • Delivering results
  • Improving performance
  • Empowering individuals to make decisions for themselves
  • Increasing retention
  • Reducing stress
  • Solving problems.

It is a real challenge to be both a manager and a coach. Nowadays, most coaches in business are also managers (there are exceptions – internal coaches and specialist coaches are beginning to become established). So for most the challenge is to lead, manage and coach, and the boundaries are becoming less easily defined.

Some coaching distinctions

It is sometimes easier to understand more about what coaching is really all about by considering what coaching is not. So let’s look at a comparison between what coaching is and what it is not. See if this fits with your own idea of coaching

Coaching is not about Coaching is about
  • Telling someone what to do
  • Giving instruction
  • Demonstrating your own expertise
  • Solving problems
  • Asking leading questions
  • Advising
  • Having expertise about how to do the job
  • Forcing someone to do what you want
  • The same as training, mentoring or counselling
  • A belief in the potential of your people to grow
  • Letting go of responsibility
  • Encouraging responsibility in the coachee
  • Holding the coachee to account
  • Asking challenging questions
  • Allowing the coachee to decide the best course of action
  • Future possibilities, not past mistakes
  • Finding ways to facilitate change in behaviour to create positive results
  • Helping the coachee develop the right attitude to succeed
  • Changing behaviour

So what are some distinctions between a trainer, a mentor, a manager, a therapist and a coach?

  • trainer offers instruction to build skills and capabilities.
  • mentor sponsors an individual and offers advice based on professional expertise.
  • manager ensures goals and results are achieved in the time allotted and with the resources provided.
  • therapist attempts remediation of a health or psychological problem, usually following a diagnosis.
  • coach helps someone to learn, rather than teaching them, and helps actualise a person’s potential.

A coach helps the coachee to learn and facilitates a sense of their own worth through using the following simple and yet powerful skills.


This is the number one skill in coaching. Asking someone a question can open up new options and possibilities, and focuses the possibility of a resolution on the coachee (see Questioning Skills)


Listening is an underrated skill and one which all good coaches have – that ability to just sit and actively listen to what is happening with the coachee. (See Listening Skills)


This may come in a variety of forms. It’s about challenging beliefs, underlying assumptions and attitudes to accomplishment. The coach is there to help protect the coachee’s capacity for greatness.


As a result of a coaching session or indeed a quick interaction at the coffee machine, the coachee may agree to do something (a task). The coach can help the coachee dissect the task so that it is manageable and real.

The objective of coaching is to raise responsibility and awareness in the coachee. It is to help them learn and develop rather than to simply teach them. Coaching is about increasing choice while retaining personal accountability for action.

There is a very pragmatic emphasis on improving performance in coaching. But what exactly is performance?

Performance is the carrying out of any work

Now, of course, it is true that you can help someone carry out their work by training, mentoring or managing. But the emphasis with coaching is on allowing the coachee to remove or reduce the internal obstacles to their performance and thus improve their performance using their own natural abilities. So the coachee is able, with effective coaching, to carry out their work in a way that produces better results.

Directive and non-directive coaching

Recently it has been recognised that there are two styles of coaching that can be utilised within any environment – directive/telling style coaching, and non-directive coaching. Here is a definition of each, with examples of how they might be used:

DEFINITION The coach directs both the process and the agenda (push) The coach facilitates the process, the coachee directs the agenda (pull)
  • Working with a new recruit
  • Imparting product knowledge
  • The manager intervening in sales call
  • Setting guidelines or procedures
  • Giving feedback.
  • Reviewing a piece of work
  • Working on personal performance objectives
  • Follow-up to any learning intervention
  • Dealing with specific personal or business challenges
  • Encouraging self-generated feedback.


Giving advice is a doubtful remedy but generally not dangerous – since it has so little effect.

Carl Jung


The subject of this topic is non-directive coaching, and throughout, this is what will be referred to as coaching. The other – directive – style is referred to as ‘telling’.


You now have some distinctions in your mind about the differences between coaching and other learning interventions.

The great thing about coaching is that it is about letting go of being right. It can be very liberating, because so much of our management time is about problem-solving. With coaching, you can just focus on getting your employee to work out what to do for themselves. And then help them to execute the plan.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And actually coaching can be easy. To find out just how easy, and yet powerful, coaching can be, read some of the other pages in this topic.