Employee engagement is a hot topic, and rightly so. With unemployment rates low, employers are not only finding it difficult to attract quality applicants; they are also looking for innovative ways to engage and retain their current workforce. Incentives and employee appreciation events are nice, but they are not focused on individual employee development. In fact, even the most incentivized employee may leave a company if they do not believe advancement is available to them. As a result, coaching is integral to the success of employees and the organization they work for. When done well, coaching helps employees reach their full potential.

What Is Professional Coaching?

It’s important to recognize that professional coaching is nothing like what you find in sports. The two are not synonymous, but when asked what defines coaching, many turn to memories of a team sport. There are distinct differences among coaching, mentoring and training. Sports coaching takes on the mentoring and training role far more than it does the coaching role we see in the corporate world.

Training is transferring knowledge and teaching the skills needed to successfully carry out a job. Training leads to competencies and has the specific goal of improving the capabilities, capacity, productivity and performance of an employee.

Mentoring is a relationship between an experienced individual and someone with less knowledge. The knowledgeable mentor provides guidance and advice, sharing his or her knowledge, skills and experience to assist the mentee’s professional development.

Coaching focuses on helping an employee unlock his or her personal potential. It enhances knowledge by staying curious and asking thought-provoking questions. Professional coaching is about progress — making someone better at his or her job and its required tasks.

The Importance of Curiosity

Leaders who embrace coaching understand its importance in employee engagement and productivity. Professional coaching is not about telling but, rather, stimulating conversation from a place of curiosity. It is the coach’s curiosity that helps the coachee recognize how capable and competent he or she is.

Curiosity drives our need to learn. We are an inquisitive species by nature, and our curiosity helps us grow in meaningful and significant ways. Coaching from curiosity is focused on the growth of the coachee, who is challenged to think abstractly. Curious coaches ask questions to understand perspective, not to give advice — that is mentoring. They help the people they coach see another way.

Coaching from curiosity is simple in theory but difficult in practice, mainly because leaders are so quick to go to their comfort zone: advice. When these leaders are presented with a situation, they provide quick solutions so they can quickly move on to the next situation. In some circumstances, advice is what the coachee needs, but it allows little opportunity for growth.

Shifting from advice to curiosity transforms the leader into a coach who, instead of saying, “Do this” or, “Have you tried that?” is aware that the employee is capable (even when the employee doesn’t believe in his or her own abilities) of coming to a satisfactory solution. When the coach is curious, the coachee’s ideas have room to grow.

Coaching Conversations

In his book “The Coaching Habit,” Michael Bungay Stanier describes a plan, based on research and his own trial and error, to help leaders develop the tools they need to successfully coach their team members. The natural side effect, according to Stanier, is that learning new coaching habits will also make the leader’s job easier.

The problem is that for so long, we have been led to believe that coaching is what happens when we provide critical feedback or when we give someone a thumbs-up for a job well done. Although delivering critical feedback and praise is important to the success of individual employees and team performance, those activities are not coaching.

Coaching happens when the conversation shifts from the leader’s perspective to the viewpoint of the coachee and what that person believes he or she needs and can achieve. Stanier outlines seven powerful questions designed to drive successful coaching conversations, moving the interaction away from what the leader thinks should happen to what the coachee believes he or she can accomplish.

Make no mistake: Coaches may find themselves needing to direct the conversation — but they should do so only until the employee begins to open up and voice his or her potential. Then, the coach should listen.

The Impact of a Coaching Culture

In his book “The People Principle,” Ron Willingham suggests that coaching inspires employees to do and to be more. Leaders who embrace coaching see marked improvements in employee productivity and overall organizational performance. Furthermore, Willingham asserts, coaching produces results far beyond increased profitability: It inspires people to step away from self-imposed limitations and realize their true potential.

Implementing coaching is a cultural change requiring buy-in from organizational leadership. Creating a coaching culture takes time, and you may not see the fruits of your labor right away. However, committing to consistently coaching direct reports will pay off in the long run — not just through increased profitability and market share but through a highly engaged workforce that drives the overall success of your organization.

A coaching culture will likely prove to be the best incentive you could provide your direct reports. Coaching empowers employees far beyond any monetary reward, cultivating an engaged and loyal workforce committed to achieving strategic objectives.