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Can Any Fool Coach?


Unregulated with a plethora of qualifications and permutations, its not hard to understand why coaching comes under criticism. But in spite of its critics, this is an area of development that continues to expand. Rus Slater defends coaching as a profession and offers his take on what it takes to be a good coach.

This is an extract from a comment about a news item that appeared in these pages recently and it got me thinking:
“Coaching is a particular bug bear - because a large chunk of its current practitioners believe that coaching is nothing more than an amateur version of psychoanalysis (let the coachee discover their inner path - do not give them guidance or advice) and any fool can call themselves an executive coach. I am yet to see a coaching qualification aimed at the executive market that requires a broad base of business skills (let's say 5 -7 years senior management/board level experience or an MBA) as a starting point for the qualification. Ironic isn't it that footballers get highly qualified coached to kick a bag of pigskin around but the business leaders of today are coached by any idiot off the street.”

The author of the comment seems to be disparaging about any “coaching” that doesn’t come in the form of first-person experiential advice. This caused me to stop and think about the issue of coaching and the degrees in which coaching can operate.

The beginning Of wisdom
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names” according to the Chinese proverb so let us first take a couple of published definitions about coaching;
A coach is a person who supports people (clients) to achieve their goals, with goal setting, encouragement and questions. Unlike a counselor or mentor, a coach rarely offers advice. However, the term coaching is often misused in situations where the "coach" provides expert opinion and "how to" answers and advice. Coaching does not include the given solution for the problem but will energize the coachee to solve the problem. Typically, a coach helps clients to find their own solutions, by asking questions that give them insight into their situations. A coach holds a client accountable, so if a client agrees to a plan to achieve a goal, a coach will help motivate them to complete their plan

This version tells us what coaching is not:
‘Executive coaching’ is not the same as management consulting, mentoring, counselling or short-term psychotherapy. Management consultants often come in to ‘fix a problem’ and they may offer a defined solution to the problem. In coaching, it is essential that the client comes to his or her own conclusions about the best way to go forward. I believe that an executive coach should be a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on a stage’ although there are certainly a number of ‘executive coaching gurus’ in the marketplace these days. Executive coaching should go beyond the traditional idea about ‘mentoring’ (i.e. an internal, older manager who helps you to expand your networks and gives you career advancement advice).

So the executive coach isn’t there to be a “sage on the stage” but aims to use “goal setting, encouragement and questions” to help people achieve their goals.

A precedent for this “coaching” approach
If we consider Hersey & Blanchard’s theories of Situational Leadership, we see parallels between the definitions of coaching above and a leader taking a Coaching approach to leadership. The other three styles are Supporting, Directing and Delegating.

The relative effectiveness of the four styles is linked to the relationship between Commitment and Competence amongst the followers:-

  • The lower the Commitment and Competence levels, the greater the need for a leader to provide advice, instruction and direction. Most of that advice and instruction will be based on the leaders experiential knowledge.

  • The higher the Commitment and Competence levels of the followers the more a coaching style can be used, here the leader asks, seeks opinions, listens and delegates.
  • Leader or coach?
    The difference between a leader operating in coaching style and an executive coach is that the leader is still the manager responsible for the outcomes of the followers, whereas the coach is not - responsibility remains with the coachee.

    Assuming that an employer takes on an executive coach to act as a support to their managers, rather than to take an active responsibility for output, then it is appropriate for the coach to question and challenge the manager to reach his or her own decisions based upon complete and comprehensive thinking, rather than to make decisions based on the past experience of the coach.

    Since most employers are engaging an executive coach to provide a service to their competent and committed executives it should be the case that a coaching style rather than an advisory style is appropriate.

    But shouldn’t coaches be very experienced anyway?
    Generally speaking the perception of the person who has “say five-to-seven years senior management/board level experience” is that they could run a company with their eyes closed/in their sleep/with one hand tied behind their back. In other word they have reached a stage of “unconscious competence”.

    Below is a commonly recognised caveat about people in this state:
    The person might now be able to teach others in the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it - the skill has become largely instinctual

    The guardian of the question
    So coaching isn’t about advising and having answers, and therefore it isn’t necessary to have an extensive grounding in successful business management before you can even think about being a good coach.

    It has been said that the coach is the “guardian of the question” and certainly I have seen young, inexperienced trainees on coaching workshops, help older and more experienced managers to reach their own major decisions solely by skilled questioning and listening. No one felt spoon-fed, patronised or “taught”.

    There is always a place for the mentor, advisor, guru or wise owl but that place is not carrying a business card that describes him or her as a coach.

    A final word
    The comment that started this article says “Ironic isn't it that footballers get highly qualified coached to kick a bag of pigskin around but the business leaders of today are coached by any idiot off the street.”

    Below is a brief extract from the write up of the Level 1 Certificate in Coaching from the FA’s website:
    “Who should enrol?
    Anybody over 16 years of age with regular practical experience of participation in football, who is looking for an introduction to the vocational area of coaching Association Football.
    How is the qualification assessed?
    Candidates will be assessed via oral and written projects, assignments and assessments of their practical coaching during the training. Candidates will also be assessd by an external examiner on their delivery of a 20 minute practical coaching session on a topic chosen by the examiner from the Level 1 Football Practical Syllabus.

    What is the duration of the qualification?
    This qualification should be structured over a period of between 24 and 40 hours, likely to be spread over a number of days or a weekend.”

    Yes, this is Level 1, and there are higher Levels for the top clubs but the above goes to show that you don’t have to be that “highly qualified” to be a football coach.

    And just like the football coach, the business coach who isn’t doing the job well will soon get fired!

    About the author: Rus Slater is a professional learning and development specialist and business coach, see


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