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Opinion: Is There Really Less to Coaching Than Meets the Eye?


EyeLeadership consultant and executive coach Olivia Stefanino tests conventional wisdom to tease out whether current practice is in fact best practice.

As hot debate continues to rage over the thorny issue of what actually comes under the umbrella of coaching and what falls outside its remit, it's time to start being honest with ourselves.

But before we do, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's only coaches who actually care about the semantics. Our clients, in the main, couldn't give a damn – they just know that they want someone to help them move from where they are to where they want to be.

Business development guru Peter Thomson neatly summed up the difference between what people think they want, and what they actually want when he once pointed out that: "When someone buys a drill, it's not a drill they really want. What they really want is a hole!"

And I guess it's the same with coaching. Clients aren't actually that bothered over whether the right coaching questions are asked – or even whether they're asked in the right order – all they really want is a mechanism that helps them achieve their goals.

"If coaching were only about 'asking the right questions and letting the client come up with all the answers' then a robot could do the job!"

Some – but not all - coaches pride themselves on the fact that they allow their clients to come up with all the answers. The idea is that the coach simply asks good questions and the client searches within himself for those responses that will help him best.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for using intuition and inner creativity, but for my money, this approach is simply abdicating the coach from any responsibility. It would, however, explain why there are so many people on the scene who – having completed a single weekend’s coaching course – now sport business cards boasting that they too are bona fide members of the coaching fraternity.

Don't you have more to offer your client than a list of questions?
If coaching were only about 'asking the right questions and letting the client come up with all the answers', then a robot could do the job!

Within the industry, we encourage clients to feel comfortable with the coach they choose. While part of the comfort factor comes from a sense of rapport and knowing that the coach is there to act as a 'personal conscience' (reminding the coachee of their personal objectives and commitments), knowing that the coach has at least a smattering of understanding about the challenges facing them is also of high importance to the client.

Surely, the point is to bring to your clients the wealth of expertise you have – and by applying previous experience (and of course encouraging your client to do the same) to the current situation, the learning & development process for your client is streamlined. It's this level of expertise that corporate clients expect – and pay for.

To those coaches who would argue that this approach is actually better described as consultancy, I would simply say "nonsense"! When you’re brought into an organisation as a consultant, you’re there to do the work itself, or to bring specific advice to a particular project. When you’re brought into an organisation as a coach, you're there to work with the people who are there to do the work. It's an important distinction.

When we refuse to share our knowledge because 'we’re coaches not consultants', then everyone loses: the corporate paymaster, the individual coachee and ultimately the coach himself - whose credibility is soon diminished.

Of course, the focus of every coaching session must remain on the client. And when the client doesn't have direct experience of a particular situation, then the imagination becomes a powerful tool in the coach’s arsenal.

"Clients aren't actually that bothered over whether the right coaching questions are asked – all they really want is a mechanism that helps them achieve their goals."

While much can be learned from the past (isn't it interesting just how many CEOs rely on the oldest military treatise in the world: Sun Tzu’s 'Art of War'), it also worth inviting the imagination to play out a number of likely scenarios, just as Edward de Bono would encourage with his 'six hats' exercise. Engaging the imagination in this way once again enables a streamlined learning process.

Their life is in their hands – not yours!
Of course, the client remains the final arbiter and decision maker – and it’s absolutely about helping him achieve what’s right for him. It goes without saying that it’s never about persuading your client to do what you’d do in his circumstances!

But refusing to let him benefit from a wider perspective is not only cruel but bordering on the criminal. If we apply the same logic to children, while we know that kids (and indeed adults) learn from their mistakes, it’s a rare parent who would be prepared to stand back and watch a child let his hand sizzle in a naked flame. In the same way that we have a responsibility to our children, we also have a responsibility to our clients – while of course not making the mistake of treating clients as though they were children.

When we get hung up on the debate about coaching v consultancy, we allow ourselves to be distracted from the outcome – and indeed the process – instead choosing to hang our hat on semantics.

And when we get distracted in this way, we're short changing our clients. Isn’t it time instead to start focusing on delivering all of our best stuff?

Author of the internationally acclaimed book, 'Be Your Own Guru', Olivia has proven her innovative leadership and coaching programmes within both blue chip organisations and SME’s over the last ten years. To download your free tips booklet, '127 ways to harness your personal power', visit


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