Making the most of coaching in business

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There is an interesting gap between the ambitious definitions of coaching in the literature and what happens in many coaching practices from day to day.   On the one hand coaching theory promotes an ambitious, even transcendent view of the discipline – “We can help you change and set you on an entirely new path”.   On the other hand, business coaches often find themselves being asked to rectify behaviour or capabilities of staff members who the human resources department find to be difficult cases.  At the unacceptable extreme, coaching is sometimes used as a tick box exercise prior to dismissal.  It allows the employer to say: “look we have done our best.  Nothing works.  It’s time for you to leave.”

Most coaching opportunities fall somewhere between these two extremes – using work place challenges to improve an individual’s ability to function in the workplace through gaining a better understanding of the many factors affecting their responses at work and how they can manage their own behaviours so as to be more effective, to the benefit of themselves and the company.

This suggests that coaching can contribute significantly to the effectiveness of managers and leaders within organisations when placed in the right context, and with the use of appropriate supportive tools.  To do so, we need to find the sweet spot between the hype and the misuse of coaching in organisations. There are various definitions:

“… coaching is about change, bringing about change, sustaining change and nurturing change as we develop over time into fuller, freer versions of ourselves.”[i]

“Coaching is a partnership of equals whose aim is to achieve speedy, increased and sustainable effectiveness through focused learning in every aspect of the client’s life.  … The coach and client have the sole aim of closing the gaps between potential and performance”.[ii]

“Coaching: Evoking excellence in others” is the title of James Flaherty’s book on the subject[iii] in which the outcomes of coaching are listed as long-term excellent performance, self-correction and self-generation, which is really about continually producing a better version of yourself.

And there is lots more where that came from.  Yet very few people are sent for coaching in order to become “fuller, freer versions of themselves”, continually engaged in self-correction and self-generation.  More frequently, it is only a few senior staff who are sent for coaching to help them grow into new responsibilities, or to learn to be better leaders with a relatively open-ended mandate for the coaching process.

Most often business coaches end up being asked to “fix” something in the person who is sent to them: it may be that they are not assertive enough, or too assertive; that as new managers they end up doing the work they are meant to be supervising, or they are seen as disruptive in a team or unable to manage their time appropriately.  The challenge for coaching is how to use these issues as starting points from which to support profound rather than superficial change.   They are the symptoms of those fears and worries that prevent clients from achieving their full potential.  The coach’s task is to help the individual see this, and to develop strategies for overcoming those blockages and so lay the basis for the kind of changes that coaching at its best facilitates.

In coaching, as in almost all forms of human interaction, context is extremely important.  Where managers or other members of staff are sent for coaching as a result of performance management processes, the implied threat is: “get this right or your career options (or salary, or bonus) are limited”. This does not help to create the open minded (and to some extent open ended) exploration of the client’s potential.   This in turn puts the coach in the position of helping the individual cope with the pressures being placed on him/her, and perhaps to find a short term (and therefore probably unsustainable) fix for the behaviour that is being highlighted.

If companies are to unlock the undoubted potential of competent coaches to improve the functioning of their staff and so the productivity of their teams, they should link the coaching to training and development opportunities which are focused on career enhancement and developing strengths.   They should be separated as far as possible from that part of the performance management process that focuses on remuneration and reward, and the identification by managers of “weaknesses” or “challenges” in individual performance.

One way to create this separation is to encourage the regular use of 360° evaluations of managers.  The “three sixty” provides anonymous and relatively non-threatening feedback that gives an individual a well-rounded picture of their strengths and areas for improvement as seen by peers, managers and direct reports.   Often managers are surprised to discover areas that others view as strengths that they themselves were unaware of.  Not only is this nuanced feedback usually re-assuring (and extremely helpful to the coach), it also removes the identification of coaching needs from the subjectivity of a single manager, and allows the individual to work with a coach on identifying areas for coaching, and existing strengths that can be used to assist the process. 

A second important consideration is that business coaching is always about the individual in the business environment.  Marc Kahn[iv] makes the important point that both the individual and the company are clients.  This means that the coaching is not focused so much on a therapeutic model (“fixing” the individual), as “bring(ing) the individual and the environment into dialogue in a way that promotes alignment, integration and improved performance.”   And later “… business coaching is not so much about correcting something “wrong” with the coachee or organisations but more about bringing them into an improved state of relationship.”

Here too, the 360° assessment is a helpful tool.  When done well, and with sufficient respondents giving feedback, it exactly highlights the employee’s relationship with different parts of the organisation and lays the groundwork for engagement to improve that relationship.

Kahn’s insight modifies the descriptions of coaching quoted earlier in this blog.  At least in the case of business coaching, it is not just about individual change, improvement and self-generation.  It is also about aligning the individual and the work environment (which might require change to both).  This reinforces the point that coaching should not be seen as remedial action directed at an individual to correct weaknesses or poor performance.  Rather it should be built on a clear understanding of the individual in the workplace – and this is best achieved on the basis of a relatively objective process such as a well run 360° assessment, rather than the subjective judgement of a single manager.

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[i] Joanne Hunt (2009). Transcending and Including our Current Way of Being. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4 (1)

[ii] Jenny Rogers (2012). Coaching skills: a handbook. McGraw Hill

[iii] James Flaherty (2014). Coaching – evoking excellence in others. Routledge

[iv] Mark Kahn (2011). Coaching on the Axis: An integrative and systematic approach to business coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review. Vol 6 no.2 September 2011

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