What is coaching?

For a long time the practice of ‘coaching’ has been associated with sport, and more specifically it refers to a role whereby a ‘coach’ assists a ‘coachee’ to improve their competitive performance. The coach offers an external perspective of the coachee, and can utilise this  position to help diagnose inhibitors of improved performance.

Over time the practice of coaching has become synonymous with enhancing performance in a much wider set of situations, such as business or personal coaching. If we consider ‘coach’ as a noun, we see that it refers to a carriage that transports people from one place to another. In the context of improving performance, coaching is a means of taking someone from one state and transporting them towards a different, enhanced state.

It is common for senior business leaders to employ personal coaches. These coaches can observe their clients and offer an unbiased challenge that is free from organisational politics. The coach offers a confidential space for the executive to explore current challenges, and has a focused listener with which to work through potential solutions. As individuals face greater challenges in the workplace, and the focus of continuous, personal development becomes more pervasive, greater numbers of people outside of executive management are recruiting personal coaches.

So what is coaching? At its heart, coaching can be as simple as one conversation. It is the type of conversation where two people interact where the focus is positive and centred on one of the parties only (the coachee). The other party (the coach) challenges the coachee in a way that makes them think deeper about their challenges, so that they can reflect afterwards, learn more about themselves, and develop their own solution.

Coaching is not about instruction, nor is it about offering specific advice. It is about the use of language to challenge a coachee’s thinking processes in order to help them learn and develop. If the coaching mindset is developed, the single coaching conversation becomes a constant stream of conversations that encourages coachees to become more empowered in their actions, and to take the initiative more frequently. Using and practicing skills such as listening, questioning, reflection and feedback enables coaches to challenge their coaches to develop without explicitly directing them. This ‘non-directive’ approach is the basis of a coaching mindset.

Having an awareness of coaching opens up an inordinate number of potential coaching conversations. You might be standing in a queue for coffee with someone; you could be seizing 30 seconds in a corridor; you might be using powerful questions in a team or departmental meeting; or you might have requested a formal meeting to explore a particular situation in a deeper way. All of these situations present opportunities to coach and therefore, these are all opportunities to enhance performance.

The benefits don’t stop with the coach though. Those who adopt the coach mindset find that they become more influential in the workplace and they posses a better understanding of the workplace culture, but perhaps most importantly they learn a lot about themselves through the practice of coaching others. This enhanced self-awareness is powerful.

So to summarise, a coaching conversation has the following characteristics:

  • The focus of the conversation is the learning and progress of an individual;
  • A coach uses ‘non-directive’ approaches by practicing listening, questioning and feedback skills;
  • The coachee will be challenged such that they reflect more deeply after the conversation and experience personal growth as a result.

These characteristics have no bearing on the location or length of a conversation. Even an acknowledgement in the car park first thing in the morning, is an opportunity to coach!

Why coaching for academia?

So far, we have established a few things. First, the HE environment is changing into a competitive marketplace. Whilst the complexity of services that a university offers has not necessarily changed, the emphasis upon the achievement of short term outcomes is greater than has been traditionally the case.

Second, the desire to be regarded as competitive has added weight to discussions around performance measurement and the management of performance. The complexity of most HEIs means that there have particular functions where performance has been actively monitored, but generally the concept of ‘performance management’ is seen as a remedial activity for staff that are incapable.

Third, the effect of working towards longer term aims or ‘a mission’ has guided the evolution of cultures that can find short term objectives an irrelevance. As such, the focus of management has tended to favour people over processes for academic staff, in contrast with more directive styles for administrative/professional services staff.

These three factors are not an exhaustive list, but they do give a flavour of the overall challenge. If universities are to change, our leadership needs to successfully chart a path that attempts to optimise the performance of the individual/team/organisation.

Coaching and learning

Universities are in the business of learning. Not as narrowly defined as a pure training organisation (although many HEIs sell training as part of their portfolio of offerings), but to sustainably provide education now and in the future, is a fundamental principle.

As such, a HEI’s ‘core business’ is learning, whether it be through student tuition, research or industrial income generation. Another perspective is that organisations that are sustainable in the long term have to be able to adapt, and therefore have the capacity to learn; even the more modern HEIs have been established longer than a lot of private businesses. Certainly the traditional universities have substantial histories spanning several centuries.

However, anyone who has worked in a HEI for a significant period will have witnessed the same mistakes repeated time after time. What does this say about the HEI as a learning organisation?

Reflection: Remember a time when you foresaw a mistake being repeated. Write down the key characteristics of the weakness and describe the end result. What specific conditions need to change for the organisation to learn for the future?

And so we return to coaching. At the heart of coaching is development, or learning. From earlier:

“… coaching can be as simple as one conversation. It is the type of conversation where two people interact where the focus is positive and centred on one of the parties only (the coachee). The other party (the coach) challenges the coachee in a way that makes them think deeper about their challenges, so that they can reflect afterwards, learn more about themselves, and develop their own solution.”

If the environment is conducive to coaching then it will be acceptable to approach your line manager to discuss your own performance, particularly because you want it to improve. You’ll do this knowing that your manager will genuinely want to support you without recording it as a deficit in your next appraisal. The conversation (or series of conversations) will challenge you to think, learn, and derive your own solution, which will increase your personal capability.

From your line manager’s perspective there are some significant benefits of a coaching-friendly environment. First, staff that approach you with the expectation of a coaching conversation will reveal more to you about their overall interest for work. As a result you will understand them better, what motivates them, and what development they are seeking.

Second, you will have a deeper understanding of what they can achieve and your trust in their capabilities will increase. You’ll know which activities they can complete successfully, but you’ll also have the confidence that their learning mindset will prevent them from repeating mistakes. In terms of performance monitoring you’ll have greater confidence in their abilities than looking at a spreadsheet of numbers.

Third, staff who are self-directed demand less time from their managers. You’ll spend less time fixing every problem yourself and more time building an organisation that can adapt to environmental changes.

Fourth, a coaching style of management reinforces the learner autonomy amongst staff. Whilst we can’t necessarily insulate every academic from short term objectives and management directives, a coaching culture can prevent the need to be directive for most of the time.

Coaching language

Since coaching utilises conversation, a fundamental part of successful coaching is our use of language. Coaching is about challenging conversations and therefore an important skill is building a repertoire of questions that will challenge a coachee sufficiently.

One basic principle of coaching is to resist the asking of closed questions. Closed questions result in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Here are some examples:

  • “Is there a way of improving the student attendance in your lectures?”
  • “Do you know why the applicant conversion rate has dropped?”
  • “Can you see that working?”
  • “Do you have any other options other than scaling the marks up?”

The issue with closed questions is that the conversation is shut down there and then. All the recipient has to do is answer “yes” or “no”. Of course we would normally follow up with another question, but this results in an interrogation, which is one-sided against the coachee, rather than a conversation. So, let’s see what these closed questions might look like with some simple modifications:

  • “What can you do to improve the student attendance in your lectures?”
  • “What are the reasons for the applicant conversion rate dropping?”
  • “How can you see that working?”
  • “What options do you have?”

The closed questions are now open. They set the scene for a range of answers, which the coachee is now challenged to explore. When you feel a closed question forming in your mind, rework it to commence with ‘what’ or ‘how’ and it won’t close the conversation down.

This is a simple technique that can significantly increase the value of your interactions with staff. Using open questions means that the 30 second interaction in the corridor can now be part of a legitimate coaching approach. You can also start small – in the next committee meeting – and start to see the benefits without overtly advertising that you have recently read a book and changed your management style!


Start immediately! Commit to using open questions in your next conversation and observe the results. For the first few interactions, record some notes afterwards about the essence of the conversation, the open question/s you used, and the results obtained.

You may be surprised at the difference that coaching language can make.

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