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What Is Business Coaching?

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

Here’s my simple definition of business coaching:

A focused conversation that facilitates learning and raises performance at work

The business coach can be either a manager or an external consultant. The coachee (yes, I know it’s a horrible word, I’ll avoid it as much as I can) can be anyone who wants to get better at their work.

While coaching sometimes takes place in designated ‘coaching sessions’ it is also used by many organisations as a style of management, and takes place via informal discussions between managers and their staff as they go about their daily business. In Eric Parsloe and Monica Wray’s words, this is coaching as “the way we do things round here” (Coaching and Mentoring: Practical Conversations to Improve Learning).

There are many other definitions in the business coaching literature. Some focus on coaching’s collaborative, conversational style:

Coaching is a collaborative, solution-focused, result-oriented and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of individuals from normal (i.e. non-clinical) populations.
(Anthony M Grant, Solution-focused Coaching: Managing People in a Complex World)

Other definitions emphasise the dual function of coaching – improving performance and facilitating learning. For example:

“A manager’s task is simple – to get the job done and to grow his staff. Time and cost pressures limit the latter. Coaching is one process with both effects.”
(John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance)

“Coaching is an approach to management – how one carries out the role of being a manager
‘Coaching is a set of skills for managing employee performance to deliver results
Being a coach means that you see and approach the role of a manager as a leader: one who challenges and develops your employees’ skills and abilities to achieve the best performance results.”
(Marty Brounstein, Coaching and Mentoring for Dummies)

Here are some of the distinguishing characteristics of business coaching conversations.

A collaborative style

The words ‘coach’ and ‘coachee’ are slightly unfortunate in implying that the coach is a senior person who is there to dispense wisdom and advice. In fact, coaching can take place between peers and even ‘upwards’ with a more junior person coaching a senior, as well as in the classic manager-team member relationship.

Coaching is a collaborative process, in which people have clearly defined roles: the coach is responsible for keeping the conversation focused on a clearly defined goal, facilitating the other person’s thinking, keeping track of progress and delivering constructive feedback; the coachee is responsible for generating ideas and options, taking action to achieve the goal, and reporting progress.

One of the commonest ways for coaching to get stuck is when these responsibilities are confused – for example, if the coach becomes attached to a particular way of doing things, and starts to tell the coachee what to do.

Focusing on goals rather than problems

One definition of coaching is that it is a ‘goal focused conversation’ – the goal is defined as quickly as possible, and the rest of the conversation is directed towards achieving it. Throughout the conversation, the coach will be keeping the following question in mind: “How is this discussion helping this person achieve their goal?”. If the conversation loses sight of the goal, it is the coach’s responsibility to bring it back on track.

Even when the conversation begins with a problem, as quickly as possible the coach and coachee work to define what the solution will look like. Coaching then focuses on how to reach that solution. This can take a bit of getting used to – our habitual tendency is to spend a lot of time analysing problems to work out what caused them and who was to blame. A coach does not assume this is necessary – often all you need to do is clearly define what you want to happen differently in future and work towards that.

Listening more than you talk

A good business coach is not a bigmouth. While sports coaches often need to shout at players and ‘fire them up’ for a game, business coaching is very different. Watch a business coach or manager during a session and you are likely to see him doing most of the listening and creating space and time for the other person to talk. It will be obvious that the coach is giving the other person their undivided attention.

For the person being coached, this can be a powerful experience – when was the last time someone in your workplace put everything aside and made it clear that they were 100% focused on listening to you and helping you reach your goals? Being the focus of attention in this way can make a refreshing change – it also makes it clear that you will be expected to deliver on the commitments you make during the conversation.

Asking questions instead of giving advice or instructions

Even when a coach ‘knows’ the answer to a question, s/he will typically ask the other person for his ideas rather than tell him. This is because one of the main aims of coaching is to facilitating someone’s thinking and get them to use their own creativity and initiative. If you tell someone what to do, you take away a learning opportunity, while conditioning them to rely on you for guidance.

This can be difficult for new managers, or those who have a lot of expertise in the area in which they are coaching – the temptation to tell someone how to do it or even do it yourself can be irresistible! The ability to act as a facilitator rather than a performer or instructor is one of the hallmarks of an outstanding business coach.

Giving observational feedback instead of making judgments

Coaches have a low tolerance for poor performance, so they deliver feedback in the way that is most likely to effect a change in behaviour. This often means avoiding pronouncing judgement in favour giving specific, observational feedback that helps people examine their own performance and come up with better options for the next time.

So a coach would be unlikely to say “You didn’t handle that meeting very well” – this is a vague judgement that could mean anything and immediately puts the other person on the defensive. Instead, the coach might ask “Did you see the look on the client’s face when you told her we couldn’t change the text at this stage?” – which draws attention to the consequences of a specific action and invites reflection on whether it would be better to do things differently in future.

Next in this series – Coaching Is Not Training, Mentoring or Counselling


  1. Mark, I have been wallowing in isoltaion as a Brit here in sunny Florida writing my Blog most days just for the fun of it when I stumbled across Googles Blog Search (I know, I know, I am not exactly on the cutting edge of technology here). From there I trawled a few Blogs by ‘coaches’ and must say that yours is by far and away the best. I’m even thinking of sending people to read this when they ask me where coaching differs from couseling (US spelling there) beacuse I think explaining 1,000 times is enough for one life time.

    Anyway. I don’t want to let this degenerate into a ramble, just thought I’d say I like the Blog.

  2. Hi Tim, glad you like the blog, looks like you’re writing some good stuff yourself. Yes, I know what you mean about putting stuff on the blog so you don’t have to keep repeating it!