What does coaching really mean?

Coaching is a real buzz word in learning but what does a coach really do? Matt Somers explains what coaching can help you achieve. 

Has someone you respect ever advised you that working with a coach would really help develop you, your team or your charity. Perhaps someone else has suggested that an advisor, consultant or mentor could do those things too. But what do these terms actually mean in practical terms? And crucially, what happens the day after the coach/mentor/consultant has left? How do you turn their work into the results you’re looking for.

I’d like to start with coaching (I would, it’s sort of my thing!)

Timothy Gallwey started out as a tennis coach and in 1972 published The Inner Game of Tennis. It turned the world of sports coaching upside down (A US TV show tried unsuccessfully to reveal him as a fraud). As corporate executives started applying the principles to their companies as well as their backhands, the world of business coaching as we know it today began.

Gallwey proposed a simple equation to explain how we improve our performance in any endeavour:

Performance = potential minus interference (P=p-i)

Seen in this way, if we want to improve performance in sales or fundraising, for example, we can do one of two things. We can either try to increase potential, by giving people training, access to customer relationship management tools and social selling techniques etc. Or we can reduce interference, such as creating a fear of failure, self-doubt, conflicting priorities, rejection fatigue and so on.

It follows that a coach’s job – or probably that of a coach style manager – is to convert as much potential as possible into performance. Of course performance means different things to different people. An actor will have a different view to an athlete, and a team leader may have a different view to a team member when it comes to defining performance.

In the world of work it seems that performance usually amounts to being about one of five things:

  • Increasing revenue – fundraising, sales or other income streams
  • Providing an excellent service
  • Reducing cost
  • Increasing or maintaining quality
  • Reducing time 

Each of these areas of performance can improve as a result of effective coaching – and often coaching is sought because things aren’t going too well in some of these areas. These very broad areas of work performance are really outcomes though. They’re the results and consequences of people’s ability to perform in a host of other areas, increasing personal and team productivity, generating leads and opportunities, making presentations, managing performance, and so the list goes on.

As coaches we need to be sure we have an agreed understanding with our coachees (horrible word, but you get the idea) of what performance actually means in their role and how we would know if it has been improved. Also, if we want to establish a strong business case for coaching and measure its success then having a clearly defined and shared interpretation of performance is absolutely vital.

Living in the real world, one thing is certain: there will always be a gap between a person’s potential (what they could achieve) and their subsequent performance (what they do achieve) and life wouldn’t be much fun if there wasn’t. Put simply, coaches and coach managers work with their clients and team members to look at ways of closing the gap so that more potential is converted into performance.

This detailed examination also helps us distinguish between a coach and the other roles mentioned earlier. A consultant, mentor or advisor is there to pass on their wisdom. They will probably have been there, seen it and done it and their role is to get that wisdom out of their heads and into yours. They are there to increase your potential.

But a coach is different. A coach doesn’t need to have deep expertise in your specialism, because their job is to help you deal with the ways in which you are probably getting in your own way. They’ll help you find your focus and priorities when all you can sense is chaos and white noise. They’ll help you rediscover your motivation. They’ll help you squeeze every last drop of value from any training you’ve recently undertaken. They’re there to reduce your interference. Far too many people are missing out on the amazing benefits that coaching can bring because they don’t see that the biggest obstacles are in their own mind.

As Gallwey said: “I realised that the opponent inside my own head was much more formidable than the one the other side of the net.”

Read Matt’s previous blog here: Improving morale in a crisis 


About Matt Somers

Matt Somers is a leading voice on training and coaching in the UK, publishing Coaching at Work in 2006 and Coaching in a Week in 2016. He holds an MSc in Human Resource Development and is a Fellow of the CIPD.

His company, Coaching Skills Training Ltd, is a specialist training consultancy focused on the idea of the manager as coach. It operates throughout the UK and beyond and works in partnership with clients to ensure that what is intended is achieved. 

It’s client list included the likes of HSBC and Citigroup. As advocates of the coaching approach, it works hard to ensure clients are able to continue developing the skills learned long after any initial project has finished.


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There are hundreds of reasons of why charities should use eLearning but we’ve whittled it down to 10. 

Whether you’re making the case to start your eLearning journey or are looking to enhance the investment you’ve already made, these are the benefits of eLearning that will deliver significant results. 

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