The Confusing Field of Coaching

I noticed at the recent agile conference that there were lots of people who billed themselves as agile coaches, and several sessions on coaching. Seemed like more of both than in past years.

I consider myself a coach, too, though not with a capital C.  I usually coach managers or teams, and sometimes coaches. Mostly, I’m a consultant and coaching is part of the work I do in that role.  But some people lay claim to “coach” as their job description.  And some of those people have training from a coaching school.

All this, and a little story my friend Johanna told about an experience she had with a coach got me thinking about the different sorts of problems people bring to coaches, and the confusion that results when the coach is a “coaching process” type coach, and the problem is a skills-based problem (which requires content knowledge, in addition to process knowledge). Or a problem that calls not only for a coaching model, and a bunch of other models.

Back when she had a corporate job, my friend Johanna Rothman had the opportunity to work with a coach on a problem she was experiencing at work.  It must have been an enlightened work place, because they employed Johanna AND coaches, whom they dispatched when a manager needed a bit of help. Johanna’s hope was the the coach could help her with the specific problem, which she hadn’t been able to figure out on her own.

Johanna explained the problem to the coach.  The coach responded, “The answers are inside you.”

Johanna tried explaining the problem again.  The coach answered, “The answers are inside you.”

The answers were not inside Johanna (at that time…I bet they are now).  She needed specific information, direction and guidance to develop a new skill that would enable her to solve the problem.  The response Johanna received to the problem she described was woo woo nonsense. It was no help at all. The coach was trying to be helpful, I’m sure. And she was acting out of a coaching model, just not one that fit the situation.

The Range of Coaching Practice

If we’re talking about a skill—whether it’s TDD, interpersonal feedback, or object oriented design, influencing change across the organization—the answer is not inside you.  If you are shifting from a serial mental model of software development to a iterative/incremental mental model of software development, the answer is not inside you.  Willingness to learn is inside you. The desire to maintain a good working relationships is inside you.  The yearning for pride in work is inside you. The desire to see the organization improve is inside you.

The specific skill is not.

You need teaching, training, and  direction, along with coaching and feedback. A coach in this situations needs to have task-specific (content) knowledge, in addition to coaching skills. And those coaching skills are likely different from the skills a life coach or goal coach brings to the table—unless they worked in the content field prior to studying a coach curriculum or taking up the coach label.

Life coaching—finding the answer in side you— is useful when you have a life problem; when you need a skill, you need  skill coaching

Another friend, Don Gray, recently helped three people understand how an interaction blew up. As they unwound personalities and communication styles, two of them heard some information their default preference didn’t deal (well) with.  He helped them recognize how their communication preference helped them, and hindered them. He helped them see additional options. To do this, he needed a coaching model(s), plus content knowledge on communication, human interaction, personality and cognition. Rare indeed.  The answers may have been inside these people, but it took more than a coaching model to bring them out.

And of course, some times the answers are inside us.

Satir coaching assumes that each of us has the resources to be be happy and successful as a human—but may not be using all our resources to their full potential.  Jerry Weinberg’s fab book, More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultants Tool Kit, is inspired by Satir’s self-esteem toolkit, and the book is tremendously helpful.  I’ve studied the Satir model for many years, it informs much of the work I do with individuals and groups (and certainly how I live my life).

Likewise, the Solution-focused Coaching model assumes that the person being coached has some experience solving the problem for which they have sought coaching.  This model assumes that the coachee has all the competencies needed to come to a solution.  I had a little experience of this at the previous Retrospective Faciliator’s Gathering in Tisvilde, Denmark.  Josef Scherer offered a session on Solution Focused Coaching, and since I a little stuck in my writing practice, I volunteered to be coached.  It helped me  a lot—the answer was inside me.  But this sort of coaching wouldn’t have helped if my problem was that I didn’t know how to structure a coherent sentence.

There are other Coaching models:  GROW, Achieve, and many more. More than you can shake a stick at (just google “coaching models”).

When someone is stuck, they may need a jiggle, in the form or a reframe, or a prompt to remember what they do know about solving the problem. When someone is struggling with an interpersonal issue or a life issue, they answer may lie within, and need a little help from inner resources to come out.

But sometimes, the person needs context, information, demonstration, a straight answer, or a skill.

Related:  A Coaching Toolkit