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Initial Thoughts On Coaching Approaches

by David Brock on November 8th, 2010

There are lots of ways to coach, in this and the next few posts I’ll talk about a number of methods managers use to coach.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic.  Part of it is watching managers that I respect and wanting to share what they do.  Part of it is a result of a lot of what I’ve been reading—I think much of it is garbage, focusing on abstract Socratic discussions or “mystical journeys of self discovery.”  Recently, my friend, Paul McCord, and I exchanged some emails on the topic.  I know Paul is preparing an outstanding post on his views, so watch his blog, Sales and Sales Management Blog

Don’t get me wrong.  I think self-discovery is an important element of coaching.  But it is not everything, it is just one part of what effective coaches do.  There are many other aspects of coaching.  Some coaching is teaching, some motivating, cheer-leading, coercing, disciplining, praising.  Some of the most effective coaching I have seen is the personal example leaders set, knowing their people will emulate and copy their behaviors.  Probably everyone has had a manager that tells us certain things, talks to us about how we should act, what we should be doing, how to be effective; then we see them doing exactly the opposite thing.  We get confused, “why don’t they practice what they preach?”  We also see those leaders that don’t tell us much of anything, but they set an exemplary personal example.  They have high personal standards, and they have high standards for others.  Almost unconsciously, we start to emulate them—even though they may have said nothing.  The personal example each leader sets is one of the most underestimated, but powerful aspects of coaching.

Too many people think coaching is about changing a person or behaviors.  While this may be an aspect of coaching, much of coaching is about reinforcing great behaviors, catching people in the act of doing something well and complimenting them on it.  Sometimes this praise is delivered privately, in a quick comment or conversation.  Sometimes it is given publicly, recognizing them in front of their peers–reinforcing great behaviors or great thinking both for them and for everyone else–showing them a vivid example of  great performance. 

At the other end of the spectrum, some times it’s criticizing and correcting, or in the extreme disciplining.  Great coaches always do this in private.  They always provide explanations, they always question to get views and opinions of the people they are coaching.  Above all, criticism is not directed at the person, but at their behaviors. 

A lot of coaching is about giving feedback—and since coaching is a two way street, it’s also about receiving feedback.  I wrote about Giving And Receiving Feedback some time ago.  Follow the link for a refresher.

Some coaching may be about building skills or capability, this is where coaching gets to looking a lot like teaching.  This teaching may be one on one, or the manager may teach the team, or the manager may engage someone to teach the team.

Sometimes coaching is very directive—we have to tell people what to do!  Time, the situation, the person demands this.  Now before you pat yourself on the back and say, “I’m a great coach, I’m really great at telling people what to do, I must be a great coach!”  Being directive, telling people what do do involves more than telling them what to do.  Being effective in directive coaching also included telling them why.  It means providing an explanation or a context so they understand the “why” behind the “what.”  In doing this, over time, when people are in similar situations, they will know what to do, without being directed.  Great coaches know that being directive is different than commanding–which is not effective for coaching.  Commanding may produce some short term results, but as coaches, we are looking for sustainable changes in behavior or thinking.

The opposite approach–non directive coaching is also important.  Non directive coaching involves posing questions in a way that challenges a person to think about things differently.  It gets them to consider other options, it has them reflect on the impact of what they do or how they do it.  Non directive coaching is very much focused on self discovery.  This can be very powerful in helping the person develop the answers and solutions themselves.  Done properly, it can be very engaging, both for the person being coached and the coach.  Getting people to think, to analyze things, to challenge themselves, is very powerful and creates great results over both the short and long term.  Every effective coach uses non directive coaching as an element of what they do.

Sometimes coaching is about lightening up, it’s about not taking ourselves too seriously.  Great coaches always know the power of humor, giving each of us permission to laugh at ourselves.

Great coaches also give people the opportunity to let off steam.  To dump their frustrations, to get something off their chests, and then go back — hopefully refreshed, with a clear head.  Sometimes the coach needs to say nothing, but just is there for the person to express their frustrations.

There’s more to being a great coach.  I’ll talk more about this in the next post.  The important thing about great coaches are they are nimble, they adapt how they coach to what is appropriate for the person, their situation, and the moment.  Great coaches use all these approaches and more.

Are you a nimble coach?  Do you leverage different approaches to coaching to maximize the impact of what you are doing?

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  1. Great points Dave.
    Coaching is a complex and important subject that is about a lot more then changing behaviours.

    Everyone produces the best results when they are in a good mood, so that is of course important, to create a positive atmosphere.

    Every salesman can improve which means even the good salesmen need coaching. They don’t need an attitude change, just small corrections.

    It is the combination of skills and roles that makes a manager good.


  2. Hey David,

    I like your point about coaches being there to allow their team to blow off steam. Venting about a customer or a problem can be therapeutic and great leaders recognize when to offer feedback and ideas and when to sit back and just listen.

    This is challenging because human nature for many managers is to automatically offer a solution when presented with a problem.

    Good post, as always!


    • Kelley, thanks for the comment. You sparked an interesting concept. Sometimes managers are more effective in not offering solutions, but helping the sales person discover the solution. As always, your comments are right on target!

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