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What Is Coaching?

At its heart, coaching is about change. And as most organizational learning professionals know, goals for learning and change go hand in hand. So how can coaching advance the goals for workplace learning? Recent research in the neurosciences has shown that it doesn't take as long to neurologically create new thinking patterns and new habits as we previously thought. Positive feedback and continuous reinforcement make a tremendous difference in helping people hardwire these desirable changes in the brain and sustain them over the long term.

Numerous change strategies are available to the workplace learning and performance professional at the individual, team, and organizational levels. It is important to understand how coaching compares to these existing strategies. Some of the different strategies overlap, yet there are important distinctions. These distinctions will help you ascertain whether your coaching client can truly benefit from coaching or perhaps needs another form of development. The definitions and examples in Table 1 compare coaching to the following change strategies: therapy, training, mentoring, and consulting. As you can see from Table 1, coaching differs from other related behavioral strategies and yet overlaps in some ways. You may find that coaching easily pairs with some other strategies. For example, coaching is an excellent follow-up to some training programs. And many leadership development programs include training, mentoring, and coaching. Keep in mind that coaching has more guidelines than hard and fast rules. Consider how you can make coaching work in your organization.


Once you have distinguished the uniqueness of coaching in relationship to other organizational change strategies, you should begin to define exactly what coaching means to you. Given the explosive popularity of coaching, you can find numerous resources, definitions, and models. You will find it useful to start your own library of coaching resources, tools, and references. Different authors have different perspectives and theories. Develop your own way of thinking about coaching by integrating several approaches and adding your own ideas.

Table 1. Coaching vs. Other Behavioral Strategies

Coaching Therapy
  • Focuses on goals, results, and development
  • Is future-focused and action-oriented
  • Builds on a person's strengths
  • Is based on assignments that forward the action toward objectives
  • Involves a balance of inquiry to encourage thinking and advocacy (making evidence-based statements)
  • Focuses on problems and pathologies and understanding the past
  • Is based on personal discussion and insights
  • Emphasizes feelings more than reasoning
Example: LeeAnn participates in her company's leadership development program. One of the program's tools was an emotional intelligence assessment that gave her feedback on her strengths and challenges as they related to her leadership competencies. She set goals with a leadership coach on how she could leverage her strengths and improve in her challenge areas. She now knows what she needs to do to achieve her career goals in the next five years. Example: Pat could be a candidate for a leadership position in her company. However, she has developed a reputation for being a loose cannon. She easily becomes angry and volatile and has embarrassed herself and others on several occasions. Lately, she has developed a drinking problem. She can't seem to get control of her problem on her own and doesn't know why she gets so angry so easily.
Coaching Training
  • Is individualized, tailored, and customized to the individual
  • Is based on gathered data on one particular individual or team
  • Requires individual progress and measurement
  • Involves an ongoing timeframe, using powerful questions for learning
  • Addresses generic skills and expectations for the client organization
  • Involves a shorter timeframe than coaching
  • Measures progress toward generic skill sets offered in the training
Example: A team asks a coach to help it transition to working with a new software system. The team has to develop new ways of working together and across team boundaries. The coach gathers data from team members, as well as stakeholders, to help the team set objectives and create an action plan. Example: A team is adapting to a new software system. They attend a two-day training class on the new system, which includes both technical and application protocols.
Coaching Mentoring
  • Balances individual and organizational goals
  • Requires powerful questions
  • Can occur between peers
  • Focuses on learning
  • Emphasizes organizational goals
  • Occurs between a senior and a junior employee
  • Focuses on career development
  • Involves the giving of advice
Example: Walter has a career coach who helps him identify his strengths, weaknesses, interests, and needs. They explore various areas for a career transition. Example: Patricia has a mentor in her field of wildlife damage management, and he is helping her identify what certifications and training she needs to advance in her organization.
Coaching Consulting
  • Uses data to set goals
  • Deepens learning to forward action
  • Emphasizes personal change
  • Moves toward making the client accountable for results
  • Focuses on problem solving
  • Uses data to diagnose problems
  • Emphasizes group or organizational change
  • Accepts the consultant as the expert
Example: Li's coach conducts an image study to determine how she is perceived by members of her team. The data will either confirm or disconfirm Li's belief that she provides excellent development and participative opportunities to her team members. Example: Yusuf hires an information technology consultant to determine why the various systems are not providing the kind of data the chief executive officer needs to make certain financial decisions.

Adapted with permission from Bianco-Mathis, Nabors, and Roman 2002, 5.

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