Setting the foundation for a successful coaching relationship

I recently asked a coaching client whether or not their coach helped grow their business. Their answer surprised me a little. “No, I grew my business” they replied matter-of-factly. After further reflection and discussion with the client, I soon realized that this was the work of a great coach. When an individual can appreciate the help of a coach (whether a professional coach, manager or mentor) but inherently believes that they have changed in a way that makes their actions more effective, that’s when a coach has truly succeeded. So what does it take to be a great coach?

In our previous articles, we’ve discussed some of the benefits that coaching produces for individuals, teams and bottom lines. But how can you improve your skills to inject coaching into your management style? Maybe more important than the how is the why: why should you improve your ability to coach others? What’s in it for you? First, good business coaching is one of the best ways to build skills, change behavior, and maximize potential. It is a great way to develop talent, and your people will thank you for that. Second, coaching can and will make you an exceptional manager. According to a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, recent research suggests that the single most important managerial competency separating highly effective managers from average ones is coaching.

We have put together a three-part series on How to Coach which is modeled around top tips from our years of coaching experience and the core competencies set out by the International Coaching Federation. Our first article will focus on setting the foundation and outlining specific things you can do to establish a successful partnership right from the start.

Are you actually coaching?

First, it is important to talk briefly about what coaching actually is, as many people think they are coaching when in reality that is not the case. What many people often do is share their own advice or experience and chalk that up to a successful coaching conversation. While there is definitely a time and a place for mentoring, advising, and consulting, coaching is different; it involves a unique skillset and sets out to meet an entirely different objective. Ask questions, be curious; you don’t need to have all the answers, but rather let your employees arrive at a solution that works for them. Think about it this way: would you rather be told what to do, told how to solve your problems or how to “fix” whatever needs fixing, or would you rather come to a solution yourself? Different circumstances may warrant either response, but if someone is investing time and energy into a coaching relationship, they likely want the latter, even if they don’t realize it yet. It is your responsibility as their manager to help them come to this realization because of the feelings of empowerment and confidence that they will get from “figuring it out” far surpass the temporary feeling of achievement when someone else tells them the “right” answer. Great coaching leads to sustainable behavior change which allows individuals to perform better. And isn’t that really what we are all after when it comes down to it?

Set the record straight

A key to any successful coaching relationship is an agreement between manager and employee on responsibilities and expectations. Why do expectations matter so much? It’s like any partnership – not being on the same page invariably leads to a misunderstanding which in this case, gets in the way of effective coaching. It’s as simple as having an honest discussion at your first meeting. Think about the following questions:

  • How often will you meet and for how long?
  • Will your meetings be in person, over the phone, virtual, or a combination of methods?
  • How much advance notice is required to cancel a meeting? How many cancellations are permitted before either party begins to question commitment?
  • What are the parameters around confidentiality?
  • What is the expectation around preparation for meetings, and contact between meetings?
  • What do you expect from each other in terms of upholding responsibilities?


Both the manager and employee should be involved in defining the terms of the agreement by using a collaborative rather than directive approach. For example, rather than defining what you as a coach will be responsible for, ask your employees for their input (“What specific responsibilities do you expect from me as your coach?”). This approach will lead to both parties feeling invested in upholding the expectations moving forward. That being said, if you are working with an individual new to coaching, be prepared to do a little more explaining around roles and responsibilities to help them understand what is expected.

Establish trust and intimacy

Creating a safe space that promotes open and honest dialogue is imperative to a successful coaching relationship and should be a top priority when setting the foundation for coaching. While trust is built over time, efforts to establish it should be made from the very beginning, as the level of trust in a coaching relationship has a significant impact on the quality of conversations. Practical tips for building trust include the following:

Conduct an initial meeting to really get to know your employee. The first meeting doesn’t have to be a coaching meeting. Take the time upfront to understand the individual’s aspirations and their hopes for the coaching process.

Believe in the future potential of your employee. And don’t just believe it; tell them you believe it. People need to know that you recognize their potential and are committed to seeing them succeed.

Don’t let status and expertise get in the way. A great coach lets go of the need to be the expert. They are curious and don’t let judgment get in the way of expressing their curiosity towards those they coach. To be a great coach, understand that your people are the experts in their own lives.

Follow ethical guidelines to maintain the integrity of the coaching process. Refer to the International Coach Federation’s Code of Ethics for more information.

Another great way to establish trust is through effective communication which includes things like asking powerful questions to encourage reflection and connecting with your people on a regular basis to keep up with coaching momentum. More on this in our next article.

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