During the Olympics, commentators often talk about athletes’ coaches as well as the athletes themselves. That’s because coaching has a huge impact on an athlete’s growth and performance. It’s the same in the workplace.

Coaching is a development technique often used with executives and new leaders or managers. The coach works with the leader on his or her goals, overcoming specific obstacles or problems, and providing feedback to improve performance. Paul Heath, principal consultant at OnTrack International, describes a coach as “a person who creates an environment of high challenge with high support for people to find the confidence and capability to achieve the goals they set.”

Coaches are traditionally hired from outside the organization, but companies are increasingly using coaching as an internal form of development, with managers and training professionals serving as coaches, especially as follow-up to formal training or as a way to support learning transfer. “The best organizations,” according to Heath, “blend coaching with many other forms of development.” Aligning coaching with other learning activities helps develop both the individual and the organization.

“For emerging leaders,” he adds, “coaching can help unlock potential, confidence and motivation. It provides a safe and confidential environment to create solid goals as well as agreement on how to turn the goals into reality.”

Who Are Coaches?

Denise Federer, Ph.D., owner of Federer Performance Management Group and a consultant with Kaplan, says coaches are “thinking partners” who “help people really understand the impact they have on their work environment and on the people they work with.” She and Heath say coaches are often training or HR professionals, but Heath adds that many organizations are now providing managers the opportunity to develop coaching skills. He says a coach is “anyone who has the desire and skills to move a person from where they are now to where they want to be.”

Both Heath and Federer say that many organizations use external coaches for executives. As Heath says, many executives are “looking to truly impartial, highly skilled coaches to help them fine-tune peak performance.” Bringing an outside perspective, according to Federer, can also help establish a safe place to talk about cultural issues, but when she is brought in to coach, she still does a lot of assessments and talks to a lot of people to understand the culture. She distinguishes between using a coach to improve performance, in which case an internal coach may be a good candidate, and using a coach to help with behavior change, in which case bringing an outside coach with expertise in psychology can help.

What Skills Do Coaches Need?

Both Heath and Federer emphasize the importance of listening – “not just hearing the words,” according to Heath, “but matching the words to the way they were said and genuinely wanting to understand the person without judgment.”

“Once you’ve asked the right questions and you’ve listened,” Federer says, coaches should be able to “guide people in how to shape their behavior.” It’s also important that coaches can help people identify meaningful goals and challenge their thinking, and build rapport with the coachee. Heath says he’s seen coaches “move a person’s mindset to a much more helpful place with just a couple of well-placed questions because they had built some excellent rapport.”

“The skills required to be a good coach,” according to Heath, “transcend to improving a person’s leadership capability: helping others to set meaningful goals, building a deep understanding of what is important to them … asking instead of telling them what to do and empowering them to become better at their jobs.”

One way both Heath and Federer suggested to help coaches develop these skills is by using an accreditation program, such as the ones from the International Coaching Federation and the Coach Training Alliance.

Implementing Coaching Effectively

Federer says there’s typically one of two reasons an organization brings in an outside coach: It’s identified a high-potential individual and wants him or her to develop leadership skills and identify ways to make an impact on the organization, or it’s identified a high-potential person who’s being derailed because of his or her relationships (or he or she is technically talented but needs help managing or with emotional intelligence).

To be an effective development strategy, coaching can’t be a stand-alone. Heath says that “half-hearted support for coaching tends to lead to half-hearted development of coaches, and a poor coach can do more damage than good.” Organizations should make sure coaching is “an integral part of their development culture … Be clear on what you intend coaching to deliver against, provide the correct resources (time, money, people), set the right expectations and support the initiative from the top.”

Clarify goals and expectations ahead of time, Heath says, and if you’re using an outside program, make sure it aligns with your goals and your culture. And throughout the process, Federer says, hold coaches and coachees accountable for results.

Measuring the Impact

Organizations should “be smart about how they measure the benefit of coaching,” Heath says, “just like they would if they were investing in anything else they viewed as essential.” Metrics should be both quantitative and qualitative, and it’s important to “create momentum and monitor results closely, with regular checks for sustainable progress.”

To measure individual coaching success, it’s also important to identify quantifiable, objective goals. Federer recommends meeting with the coachee’s supervisor ahead of time. What changes do they want to see in the employee’s behavior? What will make the supervisor feel like coaching was a good use of the coachee’s time and the organization’s budget?

For example, if a coachee has received a lot of negative feedback about her interactions with the people she works with, measures might include positive feedback about her interactions and participation in meetings as well as a reduction in negative feedback. If the organization is trying to reduce turnover in a particular department by providing coaching to the department’s manager, measures could include employee engagement scores, increased retention/reduced turnover, and employee reports of their job satisfaction.

As you watch the rest of the 2018 Olympics, watch the athletes interact with their coaches. The support they give these star performers is invaluable. To get your employees on the medal podium, think about adding coaching to your development toolkit. Having champion leaders will make your organization a champion, as well.