I suspect I’m going to regret choosing “coach” as the catch-all title for developmental moves that introduce and hone knowledge and skill. It has a lot of different connotations.

For some, coaching has a specific meaning related to providing a one-on-one counseling/consulting service meant to guide senior leaders and organizations. As Josh Bersin pointed out in a recent article, that kind of coaching is in high demand, and it has become a $450 billion per year business. And it’s spreading to all levels of the organization.

For others, coaching is rather directive, sketching out the plays, directing the action, orchestrating the outcomes. People are players in a game, not independently acting agents who accomplish goals in their own way.

But to my mind, coaching implies a supportive relationship aimed at helping people to learn how to execute their roles in an impactful way. It’s about honing competencies, providing perspective, asking challenging questions, guiding problem-solving, and building cohesive teams.

The skills of coaching

In their conceptualization of Anytime Coaching, Teresa Wedding Kloster and Wendy Sherwin Swire identified four practices essential to the coach’s repertoire: observing, inquiring (asking incisive questions), listening, and responding (being deliberate about what you say and do in response). These skills are a good foundation.


In order to coach, you first have to notice. Good coaches attend to details, and they look for opportunities to catch people doing something right as well as ensuring that coachees recognize what they may be doing objectively wrong. But receiving coaching comments on everything they do can overwhelm employees.

That’s why it’s so important to clarify your developmental goals together with employees – so you can focus your attention and reinforce effective skill execution over time. When you and your employee have already agreed on developmental focus, the employee will be more receptive to your observations and questions in these areas.

In some cases, you’ll simply be looking for those coachable moments in everyday interactions. In other cases, you may agree to provide observation and feedback for an employee in a specific activity. Regardless, be sure to prioritize your commentary so that the most important growth areas get attention.


Coaching is more about helping people to be the best they can be than about telling them what to do. Marcus Buckingham points out that people need attention more than feedback. They need you to be interested in them, not for you to try to make them be more like you. For this reason, the ability to ask the right questions is key. “Right questions” in this context might be open-ended questions designed to gently encourage people to:

  • Articulate their understanding of a situation
  • Walk carefully through a decision-making process
  • Set goals
  • Narrow their focus or prioritize
  • Explore alternatives
  • Consider other points of view
  • Recognize the needs of all concerned
  • Discover the answer within themselves
  • Describe what they want or need from you
  • Identify and mitigate barriers
  • Define parameters within which they need to work (limitations)

Careful questioning helps you to see what an employee is thinking. You can dig into the details the employee is (should be?) considering and help them to turn things over in their mind. It’s amazing how much you can learn in this exchange as well – you might shift your own perspective and gain new respect for an employee’s thought process.

In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier articulates a number of (perhaps obvious) guidelines worth remembering, including advice to ask just one question at a time, to avoid long preambles to questions, and – most importantly – to stop offering advice disguised as a question.

An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done. ~ Hermenia Ibarra


As important as asking the right question is truly listening to the answers you get. Often, we are listening to hear what we want to hear, or listening in posture but actually planning how to phrase our next point in the conversation. Instead, work to get inside the head of the person you want to coach – strive to see the situation the way they see it. Confirm that you have heard accurately by using active listening techniques to summarize the essence.

Communications are often lost because people talk past one another rather than engaging to understand each other’s point of view. Be the kind of manager who is deeply interested in your employee’s thoughts and ideas. You don’t need to accept or agree, but use listening as an integral part of conversations that lead to growth.


Your words have impact, so choose them wisely. Start by acknowledging what the employee has told you, since it is important to them that you have really heard their points. (And honestly, you sometimes do miss the point and it’s good to know that before you respond to it.)

Be thoughtful in pointing out where people’s thinking or actions may be objectively wrong (be careful, because feedback is often idiosyncratic and biased). Consider instead a response made up of active listening (summarizing, reflecting emotions) and questioning so that employees draw their own conclusions.

When you do need to take a teaching moment or give direct advice, keep the conversation going beyond that point so that your employees have the opportunity to clarify, explore, or question. In this context, “telling” alone is not the best coaching move.

Refining your coaching moves

“To help other people, we have to focus on them, not on our vision of how we think things should be. …As coaches and helpers, we actually are often more experienced and perhaps even knowledgeable. But our mistake is in thinking – and often assuming – that we can see what the person should do to lead a better life, be more productive, or learn more.”
~ Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten, Helping People Change: Coaching with compassion for lifelong learning and growth

In developing people, moves that coach are meant to “introduce or hone knowledge or skill,” which may sound like a one-way communication that is teaching, telling, or advising. But the best coaching is often more indirect, helping people to come to their own understanding, their own course of action. Coaching is best conceived as a deep and engaging conversation, an exchange that strengthens the coachee’s competence and confidence.

When you coach, don’t blow a whistle and direct from the sidelines, instead put yourself in a conversational developmental huddle with employees and help them learn in their own way.


This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.