What makes a great coach: Part 1

When we think about the skills of an effective coach, many things come to mind: asking powerful questions, challenging, etc. These skills are honed through training and experience. These skills are not enough. There are also foundational traits that a great coach should possess.

These attributes are both interpersonal and intrapersonal. In other words, there are qualities that relate to a coach’s relationship to the self, and qualities that involve their relationships with others. Both these types of traits are instrumental to form a successful coaching relationship.

We’ll start off with the four interpersonal characteristics of a great coach:

1. Selflessness: This is, by far, the most important trait of a successful coach. Effective coaches are “other-focused” rather than “self-focused,” channeling their skills and expertise in a way that will best serve their coachee. Related to this is a sense of humility. Coaches who possess this trait aren’t afraid of making mistakes and taking ownership of their own shortcomings. And they aren’t concerned with how they come across. Coaches often utilize their struggles to help their coachees through. This vulnerability also builds trust in any coaching relationship.

2. High Self Awareness: Great coaches know their own strengths and blind spots. And can name them. This awareness allows the coach to identify their biases that may affect a coaching relationship. 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 decide if they should apply for a more senior role or stay in their current and more comfortable role, 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.

3. Variety of Life and Work Experiences: This trait is not necessarily a requirement of a great coach, but it is certainly an enhancement. It is inherently easier to help someone when you can relate to their position. The more experiences that a coach has had, the better likely they are to be able to understand the nuances of a coachee’s situation. This experiential knowledge enables a coach to know which questions will be the most productive and when to challenge assumptions. This wide range of experience also fosters an openness, enabling a suspension of judgment and, as much as possible, an elimination of bias.

4. Focused and ‘In the Moment’: A substantial part of coaching involves listening, but the sort of listening that requires focused attention. A great coach observes multiple layers of information, from tone of voice, to body language, to choice of words. These cues enhance understanding of what a coachee is most concerned about and their emotional attachment to the issues. The more evidence collected, the better position a coach will be in to help a coachee achieve their goals. Additionally, the coachee will feel validated and trusted. This increases confidence and consequently, the willingness to change.

In reading the above, you might think these are qualities of any good leader. And of course they are. If you work for a leader like this, they are likely a skilled coach. In our next article, we will discuss the characteristics of a great coach in the context of their relationships with others.

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