All successful coaching begins by establishing a relationship with the person being coached. But then the lines often get blurred, and clarifying those lines is critical to whether a coach is successful or not. That clarification is easier said than done, and it's easy to see why the lines get blurred and the focus gets fuzzy.
Let's start with what friendship, mentoring, and coaching all have in common. In all three of these, caring, authentic, honest, deep relationships are formed. And in all three, we must invest ourselves in order to make those relationships worthwhile. Caring and investing are at the heart of all meaningful relationships, but in friendship, the end is the relationship in and of itself. Not so with mentoring and coaching.
Both coaching and mentoring take the relationship a bit further, in that the end goal of the relationship is the growth and development of the one being coached or mentored. The late Dr. Donald Clifton identified six basic principles of mentoring:
- Mentoring is building a relationship.
- The mentor must believe that he or she has something important to offer to the right person.
- The mentor must express genuine caring to the mentee.
- Discussing and helping develop goals were rated as essential to facilitating the mentee's growth.
- The mentor should listen to whatever the mentee wants to talk about.
- The mentor should do all the things he or she can to develop trust with the mentee.
Those six principles would also apply to coaching, with the exception of No. 5, which describes the main difference between coaching and mentoring: As a coach, you have the responsibility to set the agenda for the coaching session -- or, at the very least, to help shape the agenda in partnership with the client. This is because, where friendship is about the relationship itself and mentoring is primarily about development, coaching is first and foremost about performance. Never forget that important fact.
So, how do you construct and deliver effective, productive coaching sessions that improve your clients' performance? In my experience, following these three steps helps maximize the coaching session:
- Set the expectations for the session in advance.
Ask your client what she wants to get out of the session. Find out what performance issues he is grappling with that he thinks coaching may be able to help. Discover what performance challenge she is most concerned about. This sets the tone for the session: "This is about me helping you perform better."
- In the session, by asking smart questions and engaging in active listening, begin to attach your client's strengths to her performance objectives.
Through your listening, you will begin to form your hypothesis about what action might need to be taken. But hold off on telling your client what you think until you have asked plenty of questions to get their perspective. As Peter Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline, "Wise leaders balance advocacy with inquiry." Advocacy is your point of view -- your hypothesis as a coach. But always ask your client about what they see, in order to balance your hypothesis out and add to your own perspective.
- Leave your client with an assignment.
You want to give him something to do, some strengths-based, performance-oriented "homework" by which he can test out what you have discussed in your coaching session. Then, begin the next coaching session with a report out on how the assignment went -- that report becomes the foundation for your next coaching session, and the next assignment.
The big difference is that coaching is more active and more focused toward an end -- a performance goal -- than either mentoring or pure friendship. So, even though I care about you, I value our relationship, and have invested myself in our relationship and in you, I am still not your friend. I am your coach, here to improve your performance. And I take that role -- and our relationship -- very seriously.