A Word on Coaching

Certain popular business terms cause an awful lot of confusion. We use them like they have a single clear meaning when they really don’t. “MVP” is a great example. Others are “value,” “Agile,” and “leadership,” each of which are confusing for different reasons.

Unpacking Suitcases

If I say “customer,” do I mean external purchasers? Users? Colleagues I consult for? Teams that work on my team’s output? As I recently heard someone put it, “What ‘customer’ means depends on what seat you’re in.”

Certain terms come packed with ambiguity. They have multiple common uses and so competing possible interpretations.

These words are like suitcases. When people use them, we don’t know what’s inside until we “unpack” them. And when we combine them in speech, sometimes there are suitcases inside our suitcases. We typically gloss over this. We speak in shorthand and expect others to read our minds.

Take the four examples above. In Agile, “MVP” is now used in a way completely different from its actual meaning (Patton, 2019). The famous example of building a skateboard instead of a car is misleading.

“Value,” even “business value,” causes all sorts of confusion, likely because it’s subjective and circular: Ultimately, “business value” is whatever the business values, which may not be something that increases returns (Schwartz, 2016).

Or take “Agile” itself. Though people fight about it like it’s a religion, it’s almost a Rorschach inkblot. It’s something we project onto. Despite two decades(!) of heated debate now, nobody can seem to agree what the term means. Charles Betz, a Principal Analyst at Forrester, recently asked if it might be an “essentially contested concept.”

“Leadership” is troublesome for a fourth reason. It is an equivocation that almost intentionally tries to mix two uses, confusing a skill set or quality with sheer rank. More are now arguing it should no longer be used as a synonym for “executive” (see Mezick & Sheffield’s Inviting Leadership for an interesting take).

So what about “coach?” I recently heard it claimed this word is a little too vague as well. In this post, I’d like to disagree. In business at least, the word “coach” has a very precise meaning—it’s just that we often misuse the term. An example might be the title, “Agile Coach,” which is probably more of a mentor role.

Defining Corporate Coaching

The English word “coach” comes from the Middle French coche, which itself comes from the Hungarian kocsi. The story is that in the 1400s, the Hungarian village of Kocs was known for producing a superior, more comfortable carriage, eventually known as a koschi, named for the town.

Contrary to popular belief, the modern term does not come from sports but education. A coach was a sort of tutor carrying students forward (like a carriage or koschi). To add to the confusion though (of course it can’t be simple!), this is also NOT what a business coach does. (Image adapted from Barry O’Reilly and Kate Leto. Used with O’Reilly’s permission.)

This image beautifully showcases the main difference between a coach and consultant, which is WHO is providing the bulk of the input.

You hire a consultant to solve problems for you.

You hire a coach to help you solve your own problems.

A mentor, which is perhaps more what the term “coach” originally meant, is in business more an advisor, a mix of coach and consultant.

There is a mistaken notion, perhaps a misinterpretation of Stanier’s popular “advice monster” concept, that coaches should never give advice. They do, sometimes, but as the image above shows, that should be a somewhat rare occurrence.

Some in business may not like the comparison, but the closest thing to a corporate coach is probably a therapist! Think about it. What is the biggest obstacle to your own success?

You are!

What coaches primarily do is help you get out of your own way. They help you get clear on what you really want, connect you to your own internal resources, and hold up a mirror and call you out on your own bullshit. (Image adapted from Seivwright, 2019.)

A coach then is not a tutor or mentor. Coaches facilitate; they do not teach. As we already saw above, a coach is not a consultant. A key point sometimes overlooked is that a coach is also not your friend. In fact, as it is often said in coaching, you will not be an effective coach if you are not willing to risk the relationship.

Though managers can and should coach their employees as a part of managing them, properly speaking, your main coach should not be your boss. As executive coach Tony Mayo puts it, you manage someone to fulfill YOUR agenda; you coach someone to fulfill HER agenda. It’s a conflict of interest.

Now, there are plenty of coaching “models” out there, such as the famous GROW model. I personally like Stolzfus’ (2008) coaching “funnel,” shown below. Ultimately I agree with Freeth (2016) that coaches shouldn’t overuse models. As he puts it, they’re the scaffolding, not the building. One thing common across them though is showing there is a natural sequence to coaching work.

Here, for instance, you must learn about the client’s situation, values, and goals, and help her get clear on what she would like to have happen. You must facilitate the client exploring underlying issues and generating options; and this part is key: If the client could think of insightful options without good facilitation, she probably wouldn’t need a coach in the first place (Stoltzfus, 2008).

As an aside, a large part of being an effective coach is your own unique presence, a quality you bring to the table with the client, allowing him to see problems and interactions from a new, more value-adding perspective (O’Neill, 2000). You “mine the moment” and reflect back the client’s own behaviors to him, offering examples that might possibly be contributing to the larger issues he ultimately would like to solve.

You facilitate the client committing to a course of action and then hold her accountable for her own behavior change (or lack thereof). This is where the rubber meets the road. All of this is talk without actual behavior change.

Mayo makes this point with a riddle: Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left? The answer, of course, is five. Deciding isn’t acting. Behavior is coin of the realm.

I like coaches who like to use stories, so I’ll close with one. It’s a story the great Milton Erickson used to tell to explain the way he worked with his clients. Now, as you may know, Erickson was a therapist, but notice how beautifully this also illustrates what a business coach does (adapted from Knight, 2009).

One day an unknown horse strayed into the yard of our farm where I lived as a child.

No one knew where this horse had come from, and it had no markings to identify it. It must belong to someone though, and my father decided to return it.

He got on the horse and led it to the road, and then trusted the horse to lead itself home.

My father said he only intervened when the horse left the road to eat grass or to walk into a field. He’d just guide the horse back to the road and make sure it kept on its way.

In this way, the horse was soon returned to its owner.

The owner was surprised to see his horse once more and asked my father, “How did you know the horse came from here and belonged to us?”

My father replied, “I didn’t know. The horse knew. All I did was keep him on the road.”


Freeth, P. (2016). Coaching excellence: Move beyond coaching models and learn to create powerful change. Birmingham: CGW Publishing.

Knight, S. (2009). NLP at work: The essence of excellence (3rd ed.). London: Nicholas Bealey Publishing.

Mezick, D. & Sheffield, M. (2018). Inviting leadership: Invitation-based change in the new world of work. Mezick and Sheffield.  

O’Neill, M. B. (2000). Executive coaching with backbone and heart: A systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Patton, J. (2019). The game has changed. Keynote presented at REconf, Munich, Germany. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqBGO0wgNQM&feature=emb_logo.

Schwartz, M. (2016). The Art of Business Value. Portland, OR: IT Revolution.

Seivwright, S. (2019). My role as coach. Retrieved from: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6506646193769050112/.

Stoltzfus, T. (2008). Coaching questions: A coach’s guide to powerful asking skills. Virginia Beach, VA: Tony Stoltzfus.

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