Not long ago, a reader posted a question on the blog of a management consultant I follow:
“My question relates to these firms that provide an executive career coach who will work with you to attain higher positions with higher earnings within an average of 60-90 days. They will redo your resume and LinkedIn profile, create your executive presence, and help you develop your personal brand…”
Record scratch! I stopped reading. I felt my shoulders tense up, and my heart droop.
I shared the reader’s skepticism about the career coach’s high price tag and promised results. I appreciated how the headhunter and other readers supported the poster’s concerns. And I agreed with their advice to renegotiate or go elsewhere.
But no one besides me seemed to notice another glaring issue: The coaching they were critiquing wasn’t coaching at all.
Such confusion is problematic, but common and understandable. I’ve written and spoken before about how the origin of this confusion is two-fold. One, the word “coaching” existed long before the coaching profession, and began in competitive sports where a coach’s role is to instruct, inspire, and dictate strategy. Two, since the coaching profession became more mainstream and lucrative a few years ago, many more people now offer services they call “coaching” that really aren’t.
A third factor that adds to the confusion is that the coaching profession remains unregulated. This has been a conscious decision by leadership which allows us more self-determination as a field. However, such lack of oversight contributes to chaos in the marketplace. While a person can face legal action if they claim to be a “therapist” without proper training and a license, there are no restrictions on who can claim to be a “coach”. Lack of oversight also fuels misinformation about how professional coaches are trained and qualified (more on that in a future article!).
Coaching is therefore often misunderstood and misrepresented, requiring periodic campaigns by our global professional organization to explain what coaching is! I’d like to begin my own explanation by clarifying what coaching is not.
Professional coaching isn’t like sports coaching. It’s not telling, directing, or instructing. Coaching is not consulting or mentoring. It’s not advising or training.
But what, exactly, are the differences among these various important professions? Some definitions:
- Consultant: “Outside expert brought in to assess and address a specific problem” (Pamela Nemecek). The consultant is an expert who assesses a client’s situation, then imparts expertise to that client who does not have that expertise. The focus is on problem solving and identifying practical solutions.
- Mentor: Advanced professional who provides advice and guidance to a novice mentee. The focus is on developing the mentee’s knowledge, skills, and resources. While mentorship is now viewed as a partnership more than it once was, the mentor is still the expert with expertise and experience superior to that of the mentee.
- Advisor: Subject matter expert who provides advice or guidance to someone who lacks that expertise. Advisors may be professional, academic, financial, or personal. The focus is on increasing the advisee’s knowledge and resources.
- Trainer: “Skill-based educator who guides the learner toward proficiency” (Pamela Nemecek). The focus is on developing the learner’s awareness, knowledge, and skills. Trainers typically possess greater competency than the learners and increase learners’ proficiency through both content and process.
- Consultants and mentors are types of advisors.
- The best consultants and trainers are process experts as well as subject matter experts. Effective consultants are experts in assessment and analysis processes. Effective trainers are experts in the adult learning process.
- Consulting and mentoring are generally more collaborative relationships than advising and training. In advising and training, information mostly flows one way (from advisor to advisee and trainer to learner).
- However, all four roles hold more power than the recipient of their expertise.
- In conversation, all four roles work harder than their client/mentee/advisee/learner because they add value through their expertise and experience.
- All four roles operate within the narrow scope of a specific topic or need.
Coaching is different. A Coach is a “trusted collaborator who facilitates progress toward client-centered goals” (Pamela Nemecek). I describe professional coaching as “the facilitation of a client’s self-discovery through provocative questions, insightful observations, and invitation to action.”
Coaches are often confused with consultants, mentors, advisors, and trainers – and these professionals sometimes incorrectly market themselves as coaches. In contrast to those roles, professional coaches:
- Are experts in process only – the coaching process and mindset. Professional coaches require little-to-no expertise in a client’s field to be effective. While some clients seek a coach with lived or professional experience similar to theirs, such experience is unnecessary and only serves to build initial trust or credibility. I’ve coached clients in professions, organizations, geographies, jobs, and identities vastly different from my own. One of my current clients is a CEO in finance who frequently uses terms and acronyms I don’t understand. However, this doesn’t prevent me from coaching effectively: deeply hearing what’s important to them and why, asking questions to facilitate their self-discovery, reflecting back what I’m hearing in service of their goal to become a more impactful leader, and co-designing action plans to get them there. Coaches coach the client, not their problem. Subject matter expertise is therefore irrelevant.
- Share power equitably with the client. Coaching is a deeply collaborative process, from initial contracting to what topic a client works on in session, to action items and accountability plans. Professional coaches approach our work from a place of curiosity, in service of the client’s agenda. The client is therefore the expert. They are the only ones who can access the requisite self-awareness, experience, knowledge, emotions, and inner wisdom that get them where they want to go. The coach is a skilled facilitator of that access.
- Work less than the client, because we add value through our presence and process. When a coach is working harder than the client, it’s usually a sign the coach has lapsed into consulting, mentoring, advising, or training. Professional coaches don’t add value to coaching through our subject matter expertise and experience. The best coaches aren’t “helpful”, but useful. We don’t coach the problem, we coach the client – their relationship to the problem, the importance of the problem to their lives, and the trailhead the problem is presenting into their broader growth and transformation. Coaching clients do the work, while coaches provide a reliable, safe container and effective process to support that work.
- Operate within a broad scope. Coaches are equipped to facilitate a client’s self-discovery on a myriad of topics including leadership, communication, stress management, confidence, clarity, relationships, emotional intelligence, influence, and decision-making. Coaching is not limited to a specific topic or need, or even the workplace. One of the first questions a professional coach asks during session is some form of “What would you like to work on today?”
While consulting, mentoring, advising, and training are all valuable methods of human development, they are not professional coaching. While many professional coaches also consult, mentor, advise, or train – myself included – we rarely do so in the coaching space. Also, what often passes for “coaching” in a supervisory or HR context usually isn’t coaching, but advising, mentoring, feedback, or motivational interviewing (more on the latter in a future article!).
In many ways, the feel and approach of professional coaching is closer to therapy than consulting, mentoring, advising, or training. Some professional coaches are even pushing to acknowledge the overlap between coaching and therapy (myself included), or to normalize therapeutic coaching. I typically say that coaching differs from therapy in two main ways: (a) coaching tends to focus more on the present and future than the past, and (b) coaches invite the client to action and accountability at the end of a session.
Emotions, past experience, and even deep work can be welcome in both spaces. In fact, some of my clients say they’ve experienced more breakthroughs and healing from our coaching relationship than from psychotherapy. This is not to brag, but to offer a testament to the often-misunderstood power of professional coaching.
Such testimonials also illustrate why clearly defining and differentiating coaching is not semantic nitpicking or hair-splitting. Clarity matters because inaccurate beliefs and marketing about coaching lead to the following three problems: (1) the field of professional coaching gets an undeserved bad reputation, (2) uneducated consumers come to coaching with inappropriate expectations, and (3) people think they’ve experienced the power of coaching — when they haven’t.
The critique of that “executive career coach” on the consultant’s blog was warranted and sparked healthy dialogue. But it also reinforced the bad reputation of coaches and reduced the powerful results of coaching to résumés and social media branding. Calling such “coaches” what they really are – in this case, a career advisor or branding consultant – makes a difference by respecting the strengths of our various professions without further muddying the waters for the public.