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Coaching 101: What it Is, What it Isn’t and How to Use it in Your Organization

Life coach. Career coach. Fitness coach. Nutritional coach. Leadership coach. Executive coach. In a world inundated with “coaches,” it can be hard to figure out just what this coaching is—and, maybe even more importantly, what it isn’t. As an ICF approved school of coaching, we get tons of questions about this at the Maslow Centre, so we figured we’d define our style and bust some myths while we’re at it.

Let’s sit down with Maslow Centre’s founder, Timothy Tiryaki, to ask him some pointed questions around coaching.

Q: What is coaching?

Tim: ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.

In other words, coaching is a future focused, goal oriented, reflective dialogue. Each session’s agenda is determined based on what the coachee wants to talk about, relevant to their personal or organizational goals. The purpose may include but is not limited to: goal clarification, decision making, prioritization, gaining clarity, or building actions. Each session usually focuses on a challenge and builds awareness to help the client find their own solutions.  

Some define coaching as a profession, while others define it as skills and competencies. While we encourage those who want to be professional coaches, at the Maslow Centre we are more focused on developing coaching skills, competencies, presence, and the coaching mindset. We believe that leaders, managers, mentors, and consultants can all benefit from the coaching skills. 

Those that learn coaching cultivate high levels of empathy, become more psychologically minded, and learn to demonstrate more advanced communications skills. 

Q: What isn’t coaching?

Tim: Coaching isn’t therapy. That’s important. As coaches, we are not therapists and shouldn’t try to be. Therapy generally focuses on the past (what happened in your childhood, last year, last week) and then helps you heal or grow from it. Coaching, on the other hand, is present to future focused. Coaching focuses on where you are and where you’re trying to be, then coming up with an action plan to get there. While there is definitely a little bit of overlap, especially in the “present,” coaching and therapy are two entirely different things. 

If you find a coachee is getting stuck in the past, a great way to get them thinking about the future and pull them back to coaching is by asking them how they can take that experience and apply what they learned to their future goals.

Coaching also isn’t the coach providing all the answers and way forward to their coachee. Rather, coaching is about asking the right questions so your coachee formulates their own action plan. This can be especially hard if you’re used to providing advice! I always say if a situation has high urgency and high impact, be the leader and provide a direction. If it doesn’t, be the coach and help them come up with their own solutions.

“Coaching is about asking the right questions so your coachee formulates their own action plan”

To sum up a word association for all the adjacent fields, I would say that

Psychotherapy -> Healing

Consulting -> Giving solutions and advice

Teaching -> Knowledge transmission

Mentorship -> Showing the path  

Coaching ->  Future focused, goal oriented, reflective dialogue.

Q: That’s a good segue into the type of coaching you specialize in: Leadership Coaching. Where is that coming from?

Tim: Leadership coaching has strong roots in psychology, leadership, and education. Our school of thought in coaching is influenced a few fields: 

  • Psychology 
    • Humanistic-existential psychology focuses on discovering each individual’s uniqueness and helping realize their potential. A great example is Abraham Maslow, whom we’re clearly inspired by at the Maslow Centre, and our current research project is redefining his work for application in 21st century organizations.  
    • Sports psychology provides insights on high-performing individuals and teams. 
    • Consulting psychology helps individuals and organizations become more effective and efficient. 
  • Leadership, split into leadership theory and leadership development. Leadership theory seeks to define models that define good leadership, while leadership development is a process of developing and realizing their leadership potential. In this sense, coaching is a leadership development process.  
  • Finally, education. Adult education seeks to understand how adults learn. Our school of thought is strongly rooted in the Transformative Learning theory, initially defined by Mezirow. Transformative learning explores how adults can learn through reflection, dialogue, questioning their assumptions, and exploring their new learnings in life through their actions and behaviours. 

Q: What about the coach manager or the leader as a coach approach? What does that even mean?

Tim:  “Coaching as a leadership style,” “the coach manager,” or the “leader as a coach” paradigm is growing, and it is backed up by both research and best practice as a highly effective approach to leadership. 

The idea of a coach manager is to create a balance between the “directing/telling/giving the answer” approach, or being the mentor,  while the asking/listening/helping them find their own answer approach is being the coach.  

I touched on it a bit when I talked about what coaching isn’t, but to dive a little deeper: the “giving the answer” approach gets faster results but does not build capacity and does not empower people to solve challenges on their own. The “asking/listening/helping them find their answers” approach requires more patience and skill, but also cultivates people’s thinking and empowers them to find solutions in recurring incidents. 

To decide which approach to take, consider the situation’s urgency, risk, and impact, and consider the employee’s experience, abilities and motivation. The higher the urgency, risk, and impact, the greater the need for the mentorship or “telling” approach. Inversely, the lower the employee’s experience, abilities, or motivation, the more likely they will need specific guidance through mentorship. As they become more able and motivated, the more you can transition into the coaching approach.

Here’s the twist. Leadership needs both of these abilities. Effective leadership means employing both sides when a situation calls for it, and coaching and mentorship actually fall in a spectrum. It doesn’t have to be 100% one or the other.

Only coaching.Coaching heavy. Expertise moments or insights.Balanced approach between asking questions/listening and offering suggestions. Using questions and listening to understand but eventually give advice and guidance. Only mentorship.

While organizations work towards adapting, I encourage them to understand this well if they want to be successful. At the Maslow Centre, we help organizations utilize coaching skills and encourage them to define and fine tune them based on their needs. We are one of the only centres in the world that encompasses a variety of coaching approaches to help achieve results.  

Q: Speaking of those approaches, what’s the difference between executive, leadership, and culture coaching?

Tim: Executive Coaching is coaching offered to executives and senior leaders of an organization. Executive coaching requires understanding the executive world—their language, challenges, and what is called the Executive Agenda.  Executive coaching is coaching for strategy, culture and influence, which includes understanding strategic framework and being a strategic thinker. Topics such as growth, innovation, expansion, transformation, turnaround are strategic topics. Not every coach is equipped to deliver this type of coaching, and that’s okay. 

Leadership coaching is coaching any individual to explore and further develop their leadership potential. Research shows that leadership skills can be learned and developed. Leadership coaching offers the 1:1 learning opportunity. Our school of thought approaches leadership coaching through identifying a coachee’s purpose or “North Star,” coaching them to performance, and cultivating leadership skills. Anyone can be a leadership coach, from a frontline leader to a CEO.

If leadership coaching is for unleashing individual potential, culture coaching is for unleashing organizational potential. Culture coaching focuses on organizational context and organizational culture. All organizations have a transformation mandate these days, which usually focuses on digital transformation. Few organizations reflect on the culture change and how to support leaders through the immunity to change. Many tactical, one off, 1:1 coaching mandates in organizations fail because they don’t address systematic change, or the leader changes but the organizational culture does not. In culture coaching, we help leaders understand and address the cultural influences, then teach them how to role model change through culture strategies, leadership behaviours, and culture practices. We develop coaching projects for large organizations, systematically coaching the leaders through transformation. Our projects build on quantitative and qualitative insights from employees such as annual engagement surveys, focus groups and assure leaders build culture action plans, role model the culture change through leadership behaviours.  Culture coaching is also very popular in the HR leadership space. 

Q: So then what are the best uses of coaching in organizations? 

Tim: I often see coaching in organizations used tactically, mostly for leaders having performance issues. While these conversations can clarify if the behaviour will change, it is definitely NOT the best way of using coaching. 

Instead, coaching works best when it’s used proactively with high performers. It also works best when used systematically within a holistic coaching strategy—training leaders to become coaches is a proven winning strategy. The best use of coaching in organizations is through understanding the idea of building a culture of coaching or a coaching culture. 

It is no coincidence that a number of Fortune 500 companies have started to establish coaching departments and expand their Human Resources functions to include leadership coaching. 

The ICF research (2019) on “building a culture of coaching” shares that organizations with a strong culture of coaching are twice as likely to be a high-performing organization. Gallup’s most recent book The Manager (2019) shares: “If leaders were to prioritize one action, Gallup recommends that they equip managers to become coaches” for the coming decade.

Q: Finally, what creates a successful coaching experience? 

Tim: What defines a successful coaching experience can change based on each participant. The coaching experience starts with building trust and rapport. This is what we informally call “coaching chemistry.”  

Next is the coaching container that the coach creates to influence the coaching experience. The coaching container needs to be reflective, relational, embodied, experiential, creative and collaborative. (Read this article for more information the coaching experience). 

Although coaching is mostly characterized by asking questions and listening, our school of thought encourages challenging assumptions, calling out and acknowledging tough situations, and expanding one’s point of view. Building actions, clarifying next steps, removing barriers, and exploring resources  are critical steps to a great coaching experience and, by extension, success.