What do you think of when you think of the word “coach”?   

Most people think of a sports “coach”– the person who trains a sports team over time to become a winning sports team. 

Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word in the context I ask about above as “one who instructs or trains”.  Using that definition, we can find coaches to instruct or train us for just about everything now.  Weight watcher type organizations have weight loss coaches.  Universities have enrollment coaches.  Investment firms have money coaches.  Hospitals have health coaches.   Wannabe singers on the popular show “The Voice” have celebrity, singing coaches. We now use the word “coaching” as a synonym for individual training.  We solicit someone who knows how to, or the process to do something, to help us do something.

 This way of looking at “coaching” as training assumes that someone else has the answers and all we have to do is listen to the “steps” or techniques and emulate them.  It places the center of “power” on the coach as the all-knowing expert ready to transform you if you just do and practice what you are told.

Those of us who are extensively trained as professional coaches know that this definition we all have in our heads of “coaching” is not only a cop-out, it is also disempowering.   

Here’s how we look at the world of development and learning.

If you need someone’s expert advice to tell you what to do, so you can follow a step-by-step formula, you probably are looking for a consultant.

If you want to follow someone else’s path to success or garner wisdom from their experiences, you are probably looking for a mentor.

If you want step-by-step instruction to build a particular skill or understand a process, you are seeking to be “trained” on how to do something.

“Coaching” may incorporate a bit of all of these modes into the process.  But the big difference is that professional coaches are operating on another basic assumption as the foundation to the development work they do with you.

Let’s take for example a leader who is transitioning to higher levels of leadership responsibility and wants to delegate more.  He/she can be “trained” on the steps to take to effectively delegate.  Techniques to practice can be provided, and he/she can learn them.  This learning is “horizontal”, as it expands one’s existing repertoire of skills.  The catch, however, is that in order for the leader to really embody the spirit behind what it means to delegate versus micro-manage, something deeper has to shift in his/her own mindset and approach.  A transition in his/her own needs for control, trust of others, attachment to personal achievement, and assumptions about self-reliance need to shift.  His/her personal validation needs to move from a “me” to a “we” focus, and he/she must learn to operate with an entirely new identity as leader vs. individual contributor. 

A seasoned leadership coach understands that this development is not just horizontal, or just about adding a new skill, but is instead vertical in nature.  This vertical development refers to a shift in one’s own thinking and mindset that needs to take place in order to “operationalize” a new skill.  A whole new paradigm of assumptions and thinking patterns must be used for this to happen.  A transition occurs in not only what the person does, but also in who he/or she is “being” while doing it.

That transition space is where good professional coaches serve as partners to help guide you to self-discovering those fundamental shifts.  Using keen listening and astute questioning skills, they help you discover and uncover the internal shifts in your own thinking, assumptions, and mindset that will allow you to transition to your desired state.  All the while prodding you towards action and holding you accountable for your own, self-created results.

So while coaching can certainly provide you with tips and techniques in a certain field or area, its real value lies in helping guide you to discover the internal work you must do to transition to a new state that enables true practice of those “techniques” you have learned.

Working with a professional coach is hard work.  To quote a line from Socrates, coaching is “not the filling of a vessel.  It is the kindling of a flame”.   And to add to that, it helps you create your own fire.  But your thinking and mindset about the purpose of the fire changes from its initial state.

I’d love to hear your comments and experiences about coaching.  As always, leave a comment or drop me a note with your thoughts…