“Probably my best quality as a coach is I ask a lot of questions and let the person come up with the answers.”

— Phil Dixon, Author and Historian

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has to see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you always known you could be.”

— Tom Landry, NFL Player and Coach

“The power of coaching is this – you are expected to give people the path to find answers, not the answers.”

— Tom Mahalo, Coaching Author

“I absolutely believe that people unless coached never reach their maximum abilities.”

— Robert Nardelli, former Chrysler CEO

“Executives and HR managers know coaching is the most potent tool for inducing lasting personal change.”

— Ivy Business Journal

“Coaching is an art, and it’s far easier said than done. It takes courage to ask a question rather than offer up advice, provide an answer or unleash a solution.”

— Brene Brown, Professor

“In one of the largest studies ever done on the effects of executive coaching – over 70,000 respondents – we learned that the biggest mistake coaches make is in not following up. It didn’t matter who the coach was or what method they used. Failing to follow up made any approach to coaching ineffective.”

— Marshall Goldsmith

Since this business coaching website and blog were fired up late in 2020, much has changed. What appeared to be a major but temporary COVID disruption then has since morphed into what looks like a world of permanent, continuing, big changes. The value of business coaching has greatly increased as owners, entrepreneurs, executives, and managers struggle daily to cope and succeed in this new non-normal world of constant change.

At the same time, business coaching itself is becoming more dependent on remote interactions (not “virtual”, as noted below). It seems to be a good time in mid-2021 to revisit business coaching practices and realities.

Disclaimer, sort of …

There are around 60,000 business coaches in the country right now, probably with at least 60,000 different views on how coaching should work. What is presented in this post is my own view based on decades of executive/business coaching in most of its various flavors (see below). If you don’t like my approach, you only have about 59,999 other coaches to check out. Good luck.

Business coaching vs. executive coaching

While these are not quite the same in practice, the term “business” coaching will be used in this post for brevity:

  • A business coach deals with business issues broadly on behalf of an individual client or a small group. Focus may range across many business aspects as needs evolve – but concentrating on the business itself rather than an individual.

  • An executive coach deals with clients in senior positions – owners, entrepreneurs, C-suite executives, and senior managers – but the focus is more toward the individual client and the client’s specific concerns and interests. Leadership development and strengthening are among the most common major issues addressed here.

The new world of business coaching

Business coaching and executive coaching have changed dramatically since COVID days began in 2020. Remote coaching is rapidly replacing face-to-face coaching, as with so many other interactions. Even medical telehealth is moving strongly to remote/virtual interactions, with over 95% of health centers now offering telehealth services.

While this trend has been ongoing for at least two decades, COVID lockdowns and restrictions have greatly accelerated the transition. It is likely to be a permanent change.

Remote coaching is here to stay

Remote coaching – “virtual” coaching seems to be an increasingly inappropriate term today – offers far greater convenience, much lower delivery costs, and more frequent interactions. It is in fact changing the nature of much of business coaching practices.

The adjective “virtual” is used to describe something that exists in essence but not in actuality. Business coaching delivered remotely indeed exists in reality – that is, exists in fact, not just “essence” (whatever “essence” is in this context).

Teaching, telehealth, and a whole host of other interpersonal services are being delivered remotely these days, thanks to an exploding array of technological advances. Remote delivery of services is not only easier in many cases but often far more effective and time-conserving.

A coach can be described as a mentor, a teacher, a leader

I strongly disagree. It is none of these. You can call a cat a dog but it is still just a cat in reality. Same with “mentor”, “teacher”, “leader”. While important and valuable in their respective roles, they are not fundamentally “coaches”. Why?

Let’s look at these “helping” professions a bit more broadly in order to briefly explain their differences:

Coaching vs. Training
  • Training is aimed at skills-building. It often has a teaching component. You train people to do specific tasks more effectively.
  • Coaching in this context may include some skills development activities but it is generally aimed much more broadly at an area of a business or organization or at the particular concerns of a senior leader.
Coaching vs. Therapy
  • Therapy is its central sense deals with psychological and health issues. It is typically very specialized and involves practitioner licensing after extensive professional education.
  • Coaching stays carefully away from client psychological needs since very few coaches have the necessary training and credentials. Coaching deals with external issues in general except where a leadership focus can get very close to the therapy line.
Coaching vs. Consulting
  • A consultant is an expert resource who does things for you. A deliverable or product of some sort is the main result of consulting. Consulting processes involve expertise, diagnosis, solutions, and resolution (closure).
  • A coach helps you do things that make you more effective, productive, and successful. You do the heavy-lifting, such as may be required. Coaching processes involve development, insight, direction, and accountability.
Coaching vs. Mentoring
  • Mentors are typically unpaid resources who assist you by leading and by example. A mentor provides advice based on personal experience.
  • Coaches almost always deliver fee-based services and are external to the business or organization.
Coaching vs. Teaching
  • Teachers impart knowledge and ways to use knowledge. They don’t use knowledge for you but help you develop your own abilities.
  • Coaches may provide knowledge and even advice at times and where appropriate but these are typically minor aspects.
Coaching vs. Leading
  • Leaders generally do not need to be led, especially by a coach. They may need to improve various aspects of their leadership skill set, which can be an important part of a coach’s assignment.
  • Coaches are mostly facilitators, not part of the client’s business or organizational processes.
Coaching vs. Advising
  • Advisors are typically experts in some narrow field of interest to a client and are engaged to provide advice and guidance.
  • Coaches may provide “advice” as part of their process but the real goal is to help clients reach their own conclusions and directions.

Obviously, a business coach’s efforts can overlap in minor ways any, or even most, of these separate roles but it is not the principal coaching role and responsibility. Coaches simply help clients get closer to their goals and to become more effective in their particular business roles. The keyword here is “help”. Clients themselves do the heavy-lifting.

A business coaching process …

If you are not familiar with how business coaching typically works, here are a few of the more important aspects:

  • Asks the hard questions: Most leaders normally cannot get “hard questions” input from their direct reports or from anyone else in the organization.

  • Offers fresh perspectives: Coaches are outsiders with very different and often broader bases of experience. They are able to provide insights and reference points based on this experience that are rarely if ever available from an organization’s internal resources.

  • Helps clients focus, focus, focus: A good coach will keep a process on track despite frequent opportunities for digression. Process effectiveness usually depends on maintaining a clear, sharp focus.

  • Does not solve problems: Clients solve problems. Coaches provide options, insights, examples, experience.

  • Provides motivation from a positive outlook: Good coaches are typically very positive and optimistic. While they may address serious problems and situations, they nearly always do so from a solidly constructive viewpoint.  

The underlying goal is, or should be, to help the client work through specific concerns, interests, situations, and needs and for the client to reach an effective resolution personally. Coaches are primarily facilitators.

One-size doesn’t fit all – e.g., webinars and podcasts

A pet peeve of mine is the number of otherwise good coaches who fall back on webinars and podcasts to deliver what is often valuable input. Great, but not for all or even many. Leaders’ needs and concerns are normally unique in many respects to the actual person involved. Coaching is most often directed at client specifics. One-on-one.

So many “coaching” webinars and podcasts are primarily marketing tools. They may well carry good insights and information but the sales pitch tends to detract from these in too many cases.

Face-to-face vs. remote coaching

Traditional business coaching was almost entirely done face-to-face in meetings. Lots of time-consuming and costly travel, scheduling and rescheduling hassles, and a strong tendency for sessions become mainly talk.

Remote coaching gets rid of travel and its associated costs but still involves scheduling of sessions. This is a synchronous process that requires participants to arrange for a common session schedule. Video meetings lose much of the body language communication available with in-person interactions but they can be just as effective in many cases.

My preference has changed over the years, thanks to some great advances in technology, to “asynchronous” coaching that is based on written interactions. Think Slack, in which interactions are captured as topic-specific message sequences.

Documenting the coaching process via narratives

Over many years of coaching within a consulting context, I learned the importance of documenting the process. Some of the most valued products of my efforts, according to clients, were my process notes or narratives.

It is so easy to forget critical points, or fail to follow-up on these, unless they are written down as addressed. This is very hard to do in a face-to-face meeting. Even better is to have each party generate the process narratives using message sequences. This is done asynchronously, giving as much time as needed for thoughtful notes as well as extensions that often do not come up in conversations.

Post-meeting notes are useful if they are all that is available but much better communications can be developed if the process itself is in narrative form. I have three examples of what this looks like in practice – here, here, and here.

A narrative approach will not work for everyone. It works best for those who can express themselves effectively in written interactions and who value the ability to think through responses carefully and thoroughly and on their own time. They also value the ability to go back and refer to previous interactions as part of the overall process.

The good news is that there are many different flavors of business coaching today so that nearly everyone will find a compatible coach.

Bottom line:

Thanks to the ever-productively-chaotic COVID situation, we are seeing increased interest in online/remote business/executive coaching. This is actually good, unlike many other COVID-situation side effects. Business leaders have quickly become accustomed to e-interactions and are beginning to take advantage of the greatly reduced costs and convenience available with remote coaching. This post took a closer look at what business coaching does – reality – and does not do – myth.

Related Reading

Forbes, as is so often the case, has an interesting but contrary viewpoint on business coaching: “Why (Most) Business Coaching Is A Waste Of Time”:

“It’s true — many business coaching programs are a waste of time. The problem with many of today’s business coaches and coaching programs is that they are focused on mindsets, motivation and emotions, and not on implementing proven best-practice systems, strategies and action steps that will actually grow a business.”

“The vast majority of business coaching programs invest most of each coaching session trying to motivate the entrepreneur and discussing how he or she feels. Rather than focusing on developing, marketing and selling products and services that people actually want to buy, many business coaching programs have essentially become quasi-psychologists for many lone-ranger entrepreneurs in search of somebody who will finally understand them and the inherent loneliness often associated with founding and growing a successful company.” 

“Although there is value in hiring therapists, psychologists and life coaches, that is not what business coaching is about. Instead, it’s about helping real business owners grow real businesses as a result of discovering breakthroughs and implementing proven best-practice systems and processes, many of which are often too complex and difficult to implement without proper coaching and mentorship.”

“Effective coaching absolutely has the ability to transform your business, but sadly, most business coaching has devolved into half-baked entrepreneur therapy sessions. To demonstrate the power of effective business coaching, consider Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google who hired Bill Campbell to be his business coach. Schmidt described his initial thoughts about coaching and his relationship with Campbell in Fortune: “How could a coach advise me if I’m the best person in the world at this? But that’s not what a coach does …They have to watch you and get you to be your best … Once I realized I could trust him and that he could help me with perspective, I decided this was a great idea.”

“There are an estimated 53,300 business coaches, according to the International Coach Federation [2017].”

EMyth, which claims to have pioneered the business coaching service in 1977, nevertheless has a good overview piece on business coaching that echoes much of what I have written above: “What Is Business Coaching?”:

“Business coaching is not consulting, and it’s not therapy. One common misconception is that business coaches will act more like consultants and do the work of developing your business for you—they won’t. Coaches help set direction, and provide feedback, tools, guidance and perspective. They’re also the accountability factor, which is what we find to be the thing most business owners need—someone to help them stay focused on their goals.”

“A good business coach doesn’t simply tell you what to do or listen without giving feedback. A good business coach is someone you can trust—someone who has the ability to diagnose specific and systemic issues in your business, and knows that you have to implement the solutions yourself in order to get real results.”

“Being a good listener and smart about business are key characteristics for any coach. They can’t help you unless they understand what makes a good business good—and a great business great. And to truly be a partner, they must care about people and want to get to know you so they can understand why you went into business in the first place.”

Erickson Coaching International has a somewhat different take on the differences between business and executive coaching:

Business Coach: A business coach specifically focuses on business-related coaching. This might sound obvious, but in fact, it’s not. This type of coach has undergone coach training and works with business owners independently. A trained business coach works with clients on a variety of goals, some of each include reviving the strategy, improving organization, identifying marketing needs, and boosting the overall performance of a business. Business coaches are trained to recognize and help resolve issues and stumbling blocks around many areas of a business. They can also help their clients to problem solve any future issues as they arise.”

“As a business coach, you will understand successful business practices, productive team environments, motivational approaches, and provide tools to overcome any obstacles. A business coach, therefore, works in a partnership with their client (a business owner) to grow their company and/or solve a business-related obstacle.”

Executive Coach: In comparison, an executive coach can be independent (hired to coach teams and managers for specific periods of time) or can work in-house (retained by the company to coach leadership and employees) But the ultimate difference is executive coaches are brought in to help with personal development. Yes, personal development of executives will lead to improving the company’s bottom line, however, it’s certainly a more indirect method of going about the results.”

“Executive coaches are typically hired to help C-suite, VPs and other executives with setting, following and achieving personal improvement goals (see our executive coaching case studies). These can vary from increasing productivity, developing leadership skills, managing staff, improving communication, etc. It’s about facilitating change in someone’s (personal) behaviour which will ultimately result in achieving their fiscal goals, however indirectly.”

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