Coaching is one of the few workplace efforts that consistently creates positive and dramatic results, and it can occur online or in person. A joint study by the Human Capital Institute and the International Coaching Federation (ICF) found that organizations with a strong coaching culture have more highly engaged employees, as well as more revenue growth.

In other words, investing in coaching pays for itself. In ICF’s global coaching client survey, 86% of companies that hired a coach said they at least made their investment back. Some did much better, with 20% realizing a return on investment (ROI) of 50 times their investment and 28% seeing an ROI of 10 to 49 times the investment.

What Is Coaching?

While the term “coaching” is often confused with training, mentoring or consulting, true coaching is about supporting people in achieving their potential. It’s positive and forward-moving. Coaching includes honest feedback and accountability as well as strategies to help people overcome roadblocks to achieve better performance.

The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Coaching is about creating a high-performance culture, not managing a low-performance one.

Coaching is already happening in your organization, more than you might give yourself credit for. With some intentional choices, you can enhance the power of coaching and use it more strategically to create phenomenal results.

At work, we engage in four types of coaching conversations:

    • Problem-solving: When an employee hit a roadblock with a project or situation and needs help thinking through the issue and/or possible solutions.
    • Performance: When an employee needs to improve or develop a new skill to do his or her current job well.
    • Development: To help high-performing employees prepare for the next level of skill and/or responsibility.
    • Career: To help employees identify their long-term career goals and plan for achieving them.

Consider how often you are having each type of conversation with the members of your team. Managers often spend too much of their time doing day-to-day problem-solving. And while the performance review process forces at least an annual performance conversation, the reality is that they should be happening far more often, during regular one-on-one meetings and quarterly check ins.

Development conversations are often reserved for high-performing employees, but they shouldn’t be. Everyone can benefit from a look toward the future, not only the next level up but also his or her long-term career goals and life plans. In a coaching culture, managers intentionally schedule all of these conversations more frequently. As Beverly Kaye and Giulioni write in “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go,” “When it comes to the manager’s role in development, talk is actually the most precious and results-driving commodity you have to share.”

Two Styles of Coaching

There are two primary styles of coaching. Skill coaching gives coachees definitive directions, while clarity coaching poses questions to help coachees access their own knowing and develop their action plans. Managers should use the two styles to match employees where they currently are and help them progress to the next level of their growth. Both coaching styles are meant to be used together, like sliding scales, shifting the percentages to match the employee’s stage of professional development:

Two Styles of Coaching chart

Skill Coaching

Skill coaching evolved from athletic coaching, where the coach’s expertise is in the skill that he or she teaches to others. The coach has played the game and can, therefore, offer helpful instruction and guidance on how to play it better. The same is true in workplaces, where functional leaders have expertise in sales, finance, engineering or marketing.

Skill coaching is intentionally directive, because the coach is transferring his or her knowledge, experience and expertise through a series of conversations. Effective skill coaching relies on these powerful directions:

    • What needs to be done.
    • How it should be done.
    • Why it should be done.
    • When it should be done (milestones and a final deadline).

Skill coaching has many benefits. For managers, it’s often faster and easier than clarity coaching in the short term. It takes less time to tell someone what to do, so it provides managers with more control over the employee’s actions. And the directive guidance gives less experienced employees a scaffolding of support that sets them up for success.

Tools for skill coaching include SMART goals; teaching or training; demonstration and observational learning; recognition and rewards; and delegation, where people receive increasing levels of autonomy to build their skills and confidence.

One common mistake organizations make is relying primarily on skill coaching. While it works well with employees who are new to the role or their organization, it can become a form of micromanagement if it’s not balanced with clarity coaching as the employee develops.

Clarity Coaching

Clarity coaching evolved from life coaching, where the coach does not have to have experience in the topic of the coaching session, because the goal is to help the client find his or her own answers. Life coaching is grounded in the belief that people already have their own answers but need help tapping into their own inner wisdom.

During a clarity coaching session, the focus is on clarifying the outcome, exploring possibilities and addressing potential roadblocks. The coach lets go of the need to solve or fix the issue and, instead, fully invests in the belief that the client has his or her own answers. The client leaves with an action plan, often energized by “Aha! moments” experienced during the session.

The benefits of clarity coaching are many. First, it motivates and engages employees, making them more independent and productive. Also, change sticks, because employees design their own path forward and have full ownership of the process and results. Clarity coaching consistently builds problem-solving skills that transfer to day-to-day work, where employees can begin to coach themselves.

Clarity coaching relies on powerful questions, known as the GROW model. Questions are asked in the order of the acronym, which takes the employee on an intentional journey of deeper exploration:

G is for goal. These questions focus on clarifying the desired outcome. Examples of G questions include:

    • What is your goal? What would you like to focus on?
    • What would you like to happen that is not happening now?
    • How could you break this goal down into manageable chunks?

R stands for reality. These questions home in on what is currently happening:

    • Describe the current situation. What is happening, and who is involved?
    • What have you tried so far?
    • Do you know other people who have achieved this goal? What could you learn from them and their efforts?

O is for options. These questions go deeper in exploring options and possibilities:

    • What would the ideal outcome look like?
    • What possible actions do you see? Don’t worry about how realistic they are at this stage. List as many as you can.
    • Have you ever tackled a situation like this one before? What worked then?
    • Which options do you like the most and want to try first?

W stands for way forward. These questions help identify and remove potential obstacles and create an action plan:

    • What three to five actions can you take toward achieving your goal?
    • Are there any resources you need or anyone who might be able and willing to help?
    • What obstacles might get in the way?
    • When would you like to take each action? Let’s identify a specific date.

Effective clarity coaches listen intently to their client, asking open-ended questions as needed to deepen the exploration. They resist the urge to offer their opinion or advice, knowing that it can short-change their client’s journey to his or her own wisdom.

Creating a Coaching Culture

Creating a coaching culture is easier and more affordable to achieve than you might think. The first step is to train managers and leaders on clarity coaching and the GROW model questions. They are likely already using skill coaching, so this instruction gives them the missing half of their coaching tool kit and creates an immediate impact through the entire organization.

Organizations with strong coaching cultures weave coaching into many elements of that culture. Consider some of these proven strategies:

    • Encourage and celebrate coaching in all its forms.
    • Make skills and clarity coaching available to all employees, from the front line to the executive suite, leveraging internal and external coach practitioners.
    • Create a coaching book club with books like “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go,” “Transformational Life Coaching” (by Cherie Carter-Scott), or “Coaching for Performance” (by Sir John Whitmore).
    • Invest in online tools that support and enhance peer-to-peer and remote coaching.
    • Give coaching a dedicated line item in the training budget.

Your investment in coaching will more than pay for itself in a relatively short period of time. A coaching culture focuses on helping people reach for and achieve their potential and, in doing so, creates a more capable, engaged and accountable workforce — one that drives phenomenal results.