What does a great coaching look like?

Really, what makes a great coach?

I am going to start with a metaphor often used by one of our coaches. It is about skiing and snowboarding. Skiing as a skill is a relatively easy thing to learn but a very difficult thing to truly master. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is a very difficult skill to learn but relatively easy to master (so she tells me — I have mastered neither!). Coaching is more like skiing and not like snowboarding. You can learn the basic skills of being a good coach relatively easily. It includes things like active listening, asking the right questions and helping people arrive at solutions. Doing these things at the moment with a coachee is not as easy as the skill is to learn. To be a truly outstanding coach, it takes years of practice and study. And there are some foundational tenants that all good coaches have in common and perfect.

This chapter is about the foundational tenants that these coaching skills rest upon. These are deeper traits than competencies or skills. Great coaches have these traits and coaching training hones their skills. Without these traits, no amount of coaching training will make someone a great coach. In other words, with or without coach training, what makes a good coach and how do you know you can be one? The foundational tenants of great coaching are outlined below. These tenants are traits that you should cultivate to be a great coach and are things that in some cases take years of practice to master. This is the starting point of all coaching.

These foundational tenants are important whether you are a manager coaching a staff person, a coach coaching a client or a parent coaching a child. Coaching is about helping others move forward and feel positive about taking those steps forward. That movement forward can happen in a variety of ways. It can happen through questioning, listening, silence, challenging and role modeling. These are coaching skills or techniques. We will go into these techniques in more detail in the next section.

I think the first thing that makes a great coach is a lack of ego (at least in the moments you are coaching). Great coaches get great satisfaction out of other people’s success. They are “other-focused”, not ‘self-focused’. They are not thinking about impressing others or about managing the meeting or about their next meeting. A great coach is solely focused on helping the person they are coaching be successful at that moment in that meeting or series of meetings. Related to this lack of ego is humbleness. Coaches are not afraid to be wrong or to admit they are wrong. And they are not afraid to appear imperfect. They often choose to share their struggles in order to help their coachees.

Great coaches have high self-awareness. They know what they are good at what they aren’t. The best coaches are always suspicious of their own success and always developing themselves as a person. The best coaches ensure they are subjugating their own needs as much as possible from the coaching interaction. To do that requires a high degree of self-knowledge. The more aware a coach is of their own biases and shortcomings, the more that the coach can be focused on their coachee (see paragraph above). For example, I have a great interest in helping people get promoted and work in very senior positions. When someone comes to me and asks me to help them determine if they should apply for a role or stay in their current role to better manage their personal lives, I often declare my bias. It is hard for me not to push them to ‘go for it’. I need to know that about myself and ensure that they know that about me as a coach. I need to get out of my own way in order to be helpful to them.

Although not a requirement, the best coaches usually have a variety of life and work experiences. This wide experience makes them better coaches. It’s easier to help people when you have ‘been there’. You’re better positioned to know what questions to ask and when to challenge assumptions. Wide experience also drives openness. Openness allows people to suspend judgment and bias which is important in coaching.

Obviously, great coaches are great listeners and have a great ability to be focused at the moment. To be focused on someone else is to listen and not just listen to their words but to also listen to their tone, and watch their body language to help understand what the coachee is trying to convey or accomplish. This all matters because coachees need to trust coaches in order to take chances and to move forward, and because it is the coach’s job to help. Coaches can’t help without great focus. They need that focus to get at things that are unsaid or unknown to the coachee, things that are getting in the way even when the coachee doesn’t know it.

The best coaches are both smart and intellectually curious. Coaching is really based upon curiosity. Think about a few coaching questions. I listen to a coachee and I immediately think of things like: ‘What caused you to take that action? What did you hope would happen? What do you think worked? What didn’t?’ Newly trained coaches will often ask the questions they were taught or that they are most comfortable with. But they forget or are incapable of really taking a step back and figuring out ‘What do I most need to know to help this client?’ Or ‘What do I think they most need to know?’ The best coaches trust their smarts and their curiosity to ask exactly the right question at the right time. They ask the questions that will most help their coachee at that moment. That takes both curiosity and smarts. Skiing not snowboarding and a bit intangible I know. When you have it, you know. Either as a coach or a coachee.

Related to the point above, great coaches have the ability to think forward about options and questions while focusing on the coachee and without telling coachees what to do. They can listen intently to a client and hear everything the client is saying including picking up the things that are not said. While doing this, they are engaged and focused on the client so the client feels listened to. While at the same time thinking ahead about what the person most needs to know or might be missing so they can ask the right question. That is a skill that takes time to develop. When we teach people to coach, this is the skill we hear is most difficult to learn — complete focus while thinking ahead and challenging but not leading the coachee.

The best coaches use a variety of approaches and techniques and have the ability to choose the right approach for the situation. This takes experience. They know when to challenge when to stay quiet, when to spend more time, less time. Newly trained coaches follow a fairly routine approach. The more effective coaches adapt in a way that helps the client and are true to their needs and style rather than what the coach is comfortable with.

I think the best coaches are courageous and unafraid to challenge. Some coaches are excellent coaches but so focused on asking questions that they don’t take enough risks. The best coaches are unafraid to ask questions that risk really challenging the client. They are unafraid to say things that might take the client aback. I worked with a client who is very senior and maybe one of the smartest and toughest people I have ever worked with. He had a blind spot around how he dealt with certain situations. In the midst of a coaching conversation, I spoke up and identified his blind spot. The conversation stopped. He was disturbed and clearly annoyed. He ended the conversation — politely but he was done. I left and wondered if that would be our last conversation. It wasn’t. Fortunately. That challenge helped him with this blind spot and as a coach, I am glad I took the risk.

Great coaches keep things appropriately confidential. Coachees often share things that are concerning them and that they haven’t shared with many other people (if at all). This sharing allows a coachee to move forward. It is one of the first steps to making a change. Great coaches do not share things that are told in confidence. They do not do the job of someone else and share things to “soften the blow” or demonstrate their great knowledge of the organization. And they especially don’t share things that could put their coachee at risk. Unless there is the risk to the organization or to others in the organization.

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