What is Coaching, and What is Executive Coaching?

By PJ STEVENS Published 31st May 2018
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What is Coaching, what is it not? Over the last four years, I have been working on a Performance Coaching faculty at a major Bank, primarily UK based, but includes parts of Europe. I ask this two part question at every group session, and have collated the answers, some of which are noted below:

What is Coaching?

What Coaching is not?



Two way conversation

Being there for someone else


Helping someone develop




Not easy


Hard work

Root cause






Thought provoking

Think for yourself

For lots of different people from kids to CEO

Listen to some one

Takes time and effort


Break through

Make a difference

Challenge assumptions



A telling off


A chance to have a go at some one





Delivering a message


For every one

A nice chat

Hidden agendas


Just giving information



Told what to do



Don’t look down on me

Not just for senior leaders

Not just about poor performance

Don’t give me the answer

Not about the coach

Lots of closed questions

It gives a good feel for What Coaching is, and indeed is not. 

But lets try and define what coaching is, a little more clearly. Definition of Coaching according to Bath Consultancy Groups own Hawkins & Smith is, ‘Coaching is a conversation that builds understanding and awareness in order to TAKE ACTION’

It might worth understanding the spectrum of coaching activity and where we focus our intent and effort as coaches within this definition of coaching. Hawkins & Smith (2007) note the spectrum of coaching as Skills, Performance, Development & Transformational coaching, and define them as:

Skills coaching - related to the coachee’s role;  specific technical skills or generic skills such as IT, leadership, giving and receiving feedback

Performance coaching - focused on raising the coachee’s level of performance in their current role

Development coaching - focused on the coachee’s longer term development

Transformational coaching - enables significant business and personal change; it results in a felt shift - starting to think, feel and act differently about a situation

We should be aware that people and companies have their own meaning for coaching and mentoring, and during the contracting process, it is important to understand what the client's understanding is, and what they want from a coach, especially from at the Executive Level.

For example, at one client I work with, they have internal Performance Coaches, however they are not really coaches at all, and are more skills based trainers and problem solvers.  Does it matter that their title is Coach, when they are more Trainer?

I would suggest it does not matter in their environment as they position the role and service provided very clearly. However when I was asked to work with a number of the Performance Coaches to help them develop their coaching skills, my expectations were not met and I was unaware of their ‘definition’ of Coach and in the first session it was clear the participants were not used to coaching or being coached. Indeed they told me that their role was more about identifying poor performers and using their expertise to tell them what to do, but the business had chosen the title Performance Coach as it sounds better.  In effect these Coaches operate at the very beginning of Hawkins & Smith Spectrum of Coaching.

What does coaching mean to a senior executive? Coaching offers Executives space to think things through, to try out ways of thinking and even to hear themselves say things. Coaching offers challenge in a safe environment and is very much about helping the individual improve. A Senior Partner of a Legal Recruitment firm in Bank once said that it was ‘lonely at the top’ and he had ‘no one to share his worries and challenges with’ at work, so coaching provided that service he wanted.

The Inst. Of Directors (IOD) website notes that Executive Coaching is a powerful, focused and effective development tool for senior leaders in any organisation. Executive coaching sessions are skilled and targeted conversations that challenge and support executives to help themselves, and their business to excel.

Whilst O’Neil (Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart) states that ‘the essence of executive coaching is helping leaders get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results for the organisation’.

Finally, Lee (Change at the Executive Level, 2002) notes that ‘Coaching is a one-one development process formally contracted between a professional coach and a management-level client to increase the clients managerial and or leadership performance, often using action learning.’

In summary Coaching is a developmental process that enables coachees to think things through and take action. Importantly, the coachee (client) owns the journey and the success. 


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Published 31st May 2018
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