Article: Coaching is not a solution looking for a problem

Learning & Development

Coaching is not a solution looking for a problem

According to Douglas Riddle, coaching is a special kind of relationship that encourages different thinking
Coaching is not a solution looking for a problem

Without the coaching mindset, leaders are more often stuck in the “tactical” with limited capability to think “strategic”


A good coach has an immense ability to listen, are great conversationalists and do not use coaching to manipulate people


Q: What is coaching and why is it important for organizations?

A: Before we get into the industry standard definitions of coaching, we need to take a step back and think how most Indian organizations approach the subject of coaching. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen that coaching has become a subject of excitement and eagerness among Indian organizations. While the eagerness still continues, I see some bad examples of how organizations approach the subject of coaching. For many, coaching has come to mean 5-10 hour workshops attended by leaders to drive the concepts and fundamentals of coaching. Without preparation and follow-up, such workshops do not effectively transfer and translate lessons. From the way organizations define coaching to the way they implement them, I notice a big need for organizations to understand what coaching is and what purpose it solves.

In simple words, coaching is a set of conversations and relationships between two or more individuals to address a problem, seize an opportunity or address a business need. Unlike conventional thinking, coaching is not a solution looking for a problem. Coaching is not just whatever a coach does. It is a special kind of relationship that opens up possibilities through encouraging different thinking. Coaching takes place when the person being coached can stay focused longer, consider a wider range of solutions and explore options more creatively. It is not just a set of techniques (although good technique is valuable), but a relationship that inspires and frees the person being coached.

Q: How does coaching help leaders and leadership in an organization?

A: Developing leaders with a coaching mindset is critical for an organization. Without the coaching mindset, leaders are more often stuck in the “tactical” with limited capability to think “strategic.” Great leaders demonstrate strategic thinking and the ability to influence people to move towards one direction. Coaching, understandably, depends greatly on the ability of individuals to build relationships. It is through these relationships that a leader can truly make people believe in wisdom and vision.

Q: What are the key behavioral traits of a good coach?

A: Leaders with a coaching mindset demonstrate several important attributes of influence and authority. First of all, a good coach has an immense ability to listen. It is the ability to listen that truly helps a leader uncover the depths of a problem. Secondly, good coaches are great conversationalists. It is this attribute in a good coach that helps people get hooked to conversations and share thoughts, problems, ideas, and knowledge candidly and without bias. Third, good coaches do not use coaching as a way to manipulate people.

Three aspects in a leader contribute the most to making her a good coach—curiosity, presence and respect. A key and essential element of good coaches is their curiosity and inquisitiveness towards problems. A good coach does not believe in stereotypes and believes that every problem and situation is unique. Consequently, good coaches develop the patience to listen to people’s issues before jumping to solutions.

A good coach is always present in a conversation. Very often, senior leaders offer solutions to problems because multiple priorities are fighting for their time. Consequently, they lose their ability to really understand the perspectives of people who are speaking to them. They also lose their ability to be really present in a conversation and pay only a fraction of attention to what is being said. Good coaches, on the other hand, are always present. Many Heads of State and Presidents are regarded as great inspirational leaders though they have a multitude of priorities competing for their time. I once had the opportunity of attending a wedding in a park where the President of the United States was passing through. The President generously walked into the wedding to wish his best to the couple. As he was walking out, he spent the next 10 minutes speaking to some of the wedding guests. I observed from a distance that despite his priorities as a President of the State, he conducted each small conversation, hearing people out with complete and undivided attention. In other words, in each conversation, no matter how short, the leader was in a state of ‘presence.’

A common trap that leaders fall into is the belief in the superiority of their own experiences. As a result, they lack the respect to really understand issues. Most of the solutions they offer are a consequence of their need to do something else with their time or purely because the issue does not interest them. An approach where the listener lacks interest in the issue in the first place cannot have a fruitful conclusion because it lacks in the basic premise of respect. Respect is one of the most important constituents of a good coach.

Q: Can you cite an example of one good coach?

A: Good coaches do not simply follow rules. When I was younger, I once attended a Miles Davis concert. The notes that Davis played were not clean and crisp, which most jazz listeners were used to. He would slide and bend his notes and he always pushed the boundaries of jazz. Davis inspired his troupe and his students to push hard and explore sounds and note combinations, which were unheard of. One may say that Davis was a great coach because he led from the front. Some of the best coaches in sport display great examples of leadership. They influence people through emotions such as affection, empathy, motivation and sometimes anger. Good coaching transcends far beyond tools and techniques, it is indeed the ability to build a strong emotional relationship.

Douglas Riddle is the Global Director of Coaching Services and Assessment at Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).

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Topics: Learning & Development

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