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In their book The 21st Century Supervisor, Brad Humphrey and Jeff Stokes (2000) assert that "Coaching employees will be one of the supervisor's single greatest contributions to the organization!" (p. 86) They go on to identify coaching as one of the nine essential skills for organizational leaders. Nevertheless, their statement, while inspiring, leaves many questions unanswered. "What is coaching? When is it appropriate? And what differentiates coaching from other strategies of leading people and teams?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to conduct a quick review of the history of coaching in the workplace. In truth, coaching in the workplace is not a new idea. Effective personnel management has always required some coaching, and good managers have always practiced coaching through the ages. Nevertheless, while the idea is not new, many supervisors fail to recognize the need for coaching, and simply do not prioritize the practice.

  Situational Leadership
Figure 1. Situational Leadership

In 1969, however, coaching assumed a new level of importance when Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard introduced a management model entitled Situational Leadership. The model, represented in Figure 1, maintained that people (whether at work, or at home), are generally operate in one of four situational contexts. The key to effective personnel management, therefore, was effectively identify the context in which an individual was working, and to lead the person accordingly.

You might ask, "What does this have to do with coaching?" Blanchard and Hersey's second quadrant was entitled 'Coaching." They believed that many people in the second situational quadrant (S2.) were operating with "Some Competence and Low Commitment." These individuals did not respond well to a directive management style, but they have not yet attained a level of competence and commitment that is required for a to apply "supporting" and "delegating" approach. The best approach, therefore, was coaching.

"Does this mean that only people in the S2 quadrant require coaching?" Not quite. In practice, it is impossible to box people into one single quadrant. People are constantly and consistently shifting between quadrants of the situational leadership matrix. Take the example of an engineer who is being asked to lead an infrastructure project. Technically, she might have the commitment and competence that places her in the "delegating" quadrant. At the same time, however, she might lack confidence in her management, budgeting and facilitation skills. Consequently, her manager should clearly delegate with regard to technical issues and assume the role of coach on issues that concern management, budgeting and facilitation.

"So, what does a coach do?" In his book Effective Coaching, Marshall Cook (1999) challenges readers to reflect on when they were first learning to ride a bike. As a parent, your role is to serve as a coach, "running beside the wobbling bike, shouting encouragement, your fist tightly clutching the handle bars and then gradually loosening your grip until finally, your heart in your throat, you let go, launching your child into the world." (p. 6)

The bicycle metaphor provides many useful insights into the role of a coach. Most importantly, we must continually recognize that coaching process is a relationship. It is only through working together that the coach and the individual (or team) can take an activity that at first seemed impossible, and make it become second nature. In this relationship, the coach provides the environment, support, feedback and encouragement. While the individual or team must be open and committed to change and improvement. The bicycle metaphor also points out that in an ideal world, successful coaches will keep creating situations where they are no longer needed.

"So what are the attributes that make a successful coach?" If you recall, in its essence the coaching process is a relationship. Consequently, if you want to identify many of the attributes of a good coach, think of the qualities that describe a good friend or confidant: positive, supportive, trusting, observant, respectful, patient and assertive. Furthermore, it is also important that a coach be focused and clear.

To illustrate the attributes of a good coach, Marshall Cook (1999) developed a useful tool that compares and contrasts the traits of the archetypal "boss" with the ideal "coach." (p.27)

The Boss The Coach
Talks a lot
Seeks Control
Works on
Puts product first
Wants reasons
Assigns blame
Keeps distant
Listens a lot
Seeks commitment
Works with
Puts process first
Seeks results
Takes responsibility
Makes contact

This list provides a useful profile of what an ideal coach would look like, but the question remains, "What is the work of a coach?" There is no single answer to this question, and numerous books, articles and workshops attempt to answer the question. In general, however, there are three principle themes that are repeatedly identified as central to the work of a coach.

1. Focus on Communication
As in all successful relationships, coaching requires a commitment to good communication. A good coaching session should have a clear purpose, have established ground rules, keep focused, be based on clear and simple communication, and depends on an openness to new ideas (p.47). Furthermore, although there are many competing demands placed on a manager's time, effective coaching requires and open door policy. Exchanges should be positive in tone, and special attention should be placed on modeling good behaviors and body language.

2. Invest in Problem Identification
A frequently quoted adage states that the first step in getting somewhere, is knowing where you want to go. It is not uncommon for a professional baseball coach or golf professional to review a players swing hundreds or thousands of times. They recognize that effective problem diagnosis is critical to improving performance. In a coaching relationship, this diagnosis process should be carried out jointly.

Particularly important to effective diagnosis are listening skills. Coaches must avoid the temptation of immediately rushing in and naming what they see as the problem. Instead, should ensure that there are no distractions, should avoid the temptation of leading the conversation, and coaches should practice "active listening", a process through which the coach attempts to reflect the thoughts and views back to the person being coached to ensure that he/she is being correctly understood. A second skill set that is of particular importance to effective coaches is the ability to develop good questions. Like a good consultant, a coach must be able to develop the right questions that will help you arrive at the objective of the coaching session.

3. Identify an Effective Problem Solving Strategy
As indicated earlier, effective coaches successful coaches will keep creating situations where they are no longer needed. It follows, therefore, that successful coaches will not be spending their time checking up on or correcting workers.
Once again, Marshall Cook (1999), provides some simple, pragmatic insights into solving problems by coaching. He prescribes a seven-step methodology for coaching employees to solve problems. The methodology challenges the coach and the person(s) being coached to "(1) define the opportunity (problems are often opportunities in disguise), (2) define the goal, (3) crate the action statement, (4) create the action plan, (5) set the evaluation standard, (6) confirm the understanding, and (7) plan the follow up. (p. 91)

A final comment regarding follow up ~ it is important to establish monitoring systems and feedback systems to ensure that action plans are implemented. Remember, while coaching is a relationship, it is a relationship that should focus on achieving results, and follow up and evaluation are critical to ensuring that the relationship has the impact it aims to achieve.


Cook, M. (1999). Effective Coaching. New York, NY: McGraw_Hill.

Humphrey, B., & Stokes, J. (12000). The 21st Century Supervisor. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer

The Ken Blanchard Companies. (2004). Situational Leadership II. Retrieved February 18, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Author Note


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