Thoughts on Professional Coaching

I get a lot of questions about professional coaching – what is it, what do you mean by the word ‘coach’, is it the same as mentoring, is coaching just asking questions… and many more.

Understanding Professional Coaching and Agile Coaching

Understanding Professional Coaching and Agile Coaching

Who do you coach? I coach people.  🙂   These may be individuals, pairs, couples, teams, organizations, or systems.

Can you tell me more about what the word Coach means to you? The word ‘Coach’ tends to have a lot of different uses. When I talk about coaching, I am referring to professional coaching, which in the US, tends to be associated with standards laid out by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). I view coaching as helping people find the internal wisdom to achieve their goals by moving beyond whatever is stopping them or slowing them down. Coaching is NOT about telling people what to do or judging them – the coach may be an expert on “coaching” but is not the expert on the person or the goals they have. This is concept is misunderstood by a lot of people. A coach is not the person who says “do this” or “don’t do that”! Coaching is always about the clients agenda – NOT the coach’s!   The coach relies on the client being fabulous, amazing, and wanting to move forward toward a goal! That sounds over the top to some, but it really isn’t, it’s about having faith in the person! The key is that as a coach, I need to fully believe that the person (or people or system) I am coaching has the wisdom to solve their challenges. They might need some help in finding or accessing that wisdom or working through different options, but they can access the information to let them move forward! This is not always an easy place to stand, but believing in the client is a fundamental part of professional coaching. It does not work without it.

As a point of reference, looking up ‘What is professional coaching?’ on the ICF Coaching FAQ to compare to what I wrote above (which was off the top of my head):

“ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:

  • Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
  • Encourage client self-discovery
  • Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies
  • Hold the client responsible and accountable

This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.”

Is Coaching the same as Mentoring? Sometimes people use the terms coaching and mentoring interchangeably and there are many debates on these terms. With relation to Agile Coaching, these are both valid approaches, but mean very different things (read Understanding ACI’s Agile Coach Competency Framework to learn more about the differences). While I do enjoy the debate on this topic, let me just tell you where I come from. If I am mentoring, I will be helping by relating my experiences to the client’s goals. Say you want to start your own business — if I have my Mentor Hat on, I will be sharing a lot more information about my experience in starting and running a business. If I am wearing my Coach Hat – I’m going to be help you work through your challenges, opportunities, and barriers to starting your business – but without referencing my experience! That is a big difference.

Should I find a Coach or a Mentor? Often people want a little of both, which is normal. I see a lot of situations where people are doing more mentoring. This is not categorically bad – but people tend to learn more when they find solutions themselves – perhaps even solutions you disagree with (a coach should be okay with that). I tend to be more biased to coaching, because I tend to want to understand what people know and how I can help them before explaining what “worked for me in the past”. I have also had situations in the past where I should have provided more mentoring. The caution is to find someone who can help you with what you want. If you want to learn from someone else’s experience, you may want a bit more mentoring than coaching – but don’t short change yourself – you may have better answers and solutions that you know! I find one of the most important things I can do as coach, is to be sure I’m transparent about where I am coming from and clarify if that is what the client wants. So ask a lot of questions and find someone who is a fit for you!

What topics do you coach individuals on? Individual coaching clients I work with vary in why they are interested in coaching, but most tend to be business people working on improving themselves, breaking through challenges, or working towards goals. There are people from the agile space (for those of you who know what that is), clients who are working on personal goals (often overlapping in business although I find in most cases that tends to overlap with business in some ways). There are leaders and individual contributors – people who are typically just looking for some help to move forward faster. Many of these topics overlap with organizations, teams, and systems – but of course there may also be differences. If you have specific questions on differences or want more information – please comment and let me know!

Is professional coaching just about asking questions? No. Professional Coaching is not just about asking questions. There are different coaching styles of course and perhaps some rely more on questions, but a great coach goes well beyond questions. I rely on a number of styles, or applications, with Organization & Relationship Systems Coaching being one of the larger influences. Coaches have many tools, concepts, techniques, exercises, processes, and much more that they can utilize to help clients achieve their goals.

Do you have a coach? Yes. Technically a few. They offer different styles and perspectives. I’m not clear why there are coaches out there who do not have coaches themselves. This is a good question to ask any coach you are considering hiring. Being a coach is about a journey. You are always learning. One important way that you should be learning as a coach is by being coached. You experience coaching from the client point of view and that is extremely valuable!

There is plenty more to add, but this covers a few of the most common questions I receive.

Have more questions? Disagree or agree with what is above? Find this helpful? Comment away!


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  1. Great thoughts, Jake. I think this will make a lot of sense to many people wondering about coaching. I especially like when you define that coaching is not telling people what to do, it’s helping them to access what they already know to solve their problems and achieve their goals.

  2. Nice article explaining coaching, Jake. Even if somebody has engaged me as their coach, there can still be some confusion about what a coach does. I also understand where they are coming from as often I’d just like my coach to tell me what to do instead of having to access my own wisdom!

Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

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