The Many Meanings of the Word “Coaching”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 06-10-21

Coaching means many different things to different people and within different organizations. Often I find someone believes they are coaching when in fact they are just sharing their experiences and points of view at opportune moments. I remember one executive I was coaching, who is now retired, saying “People can’t believe I have a coach” implying that clearly coaching isn’t for people who are already experiencing success. Contrast this with the fact that many of the most successful actively engage with a coach, such as the example of Bill Campbell who coached people like Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt.

I did a survey a few weeks ago on LinkedIn and found some pretty interesting responses. The question was: how is coaching perceived in your organization? 

LinkedIn polls limit how many options you can include, or I would have perhaps broken this down a little further, however, there are a couple of really interesting data points here that are worth exploring. First is how many organizations say it’s the last step before being fired. The second is how many organizations say it is required and everyone does because I’m not sure I buy that data point. 

34% of respondents said that coaching is the last step before being fired. I made this realization years ago with a client that we were talking about coaching, and there was a heavy resistance that we couldn’t understand why. After a little probing, they told me that “coaching” was a formal HR step meant to be the last step for possible salvation before you are let go. This horrified me that people would taint an otherwise powerful and important concept with this kind of application. Today many companies have different versions of this, often using the PIP, or Performance Improvement Plan (not much better, because shouldn’t we all have a performance improvement plan???).

Coaching shouldn’t be seen as a negative. In fact, I think it should be celebrated and more likely used as a reward. You have demonstrated that you will self-improve, and take responsibility, and we believe in your future, therefore we choose to invest in you by getting you coaching. Coaching is about making the good into great. Coaching is about making the best version of the other person. Coaching is about investing in that person. Coaching shouldn’t ever be considered a punishment. 

Another interesting data point from the survey was that another 34% of respondents said that coaching is required in their organization and everyone does. This surprised me. It’s entirely possible that because of the small data set that it is just biased data not representing the whole. The more concerning, and more likely, the reason is that people’s definition of coaching is too broad and vague. Based on my views of coaching, it certainly isn’t true that 34% of companies have everyone coaching. However, if coaching is seen as a synonym for doing performance evaluations, or getting or receiving feedback, or leaders sending people to training or something else that is good but not the same as coaching, then I believe the number. 

Coaching should be defined as both a relationship and a process. It is different from teaching. It is different from deciding. It is different from mentoring or sending people to training, or even different than caring about your team’s development. Coaching is a process of investing yourself in another person and helping them self-discover and internalize. 

Coaching is a term we should be deliberate about defining and utilizing inside our organizations. I don’t care as much if you use the same definition as me, but inside your organization, you should all have the same definition. This is too important a word to allow such a vague meaning. 

Note: This is why an entire section of my forthcoming book, People Solve Problems, is dedicated to coaching. I explore the why, what, who, when, and of course the how of coaching.