Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

What is a coach? (Redux)

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In an earlier post ( I asked the question, “what is a coach?” in the context of the role of manager as coach. A few publications crossed my virtual desk recently that continue to make me think that this question is being addressed from very different angles, neither acknowledging the other.  Let me see if I can bring some focus to this dilemma stemming from the different mental models we have of what “coach” really means.

I think it’s a safe guess that the first vision most of us have when the word “coach” appears is that of the sports coach. From Wikipedia we find this partial definition:

“In sports, a coach is an individual that teaches and supervises, which involves giving directions, instruction and training of the on-field operations of an athletic team or of individual athletes.”  For the purposes of this discussion, I will call this the “Instructor” coach.

Contrast to this definition of coaching/coach (that I have cobbled together from various sources):

Coaching‘ is working together to identify a person’s skills and capabilities and helping that person use their skills and capabilities to the best of their ability.  A “Coach” is the individual who provides coaching.”   I will call this the “Guide” coach.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive views of what a manager-coach should be. There are situations when each is appropriate.  My sense, though, is that the “Instructor” version is the default definition, i.e., the traditional version of coach and one that most managers find easiest and encouraged by organization. It is the “Guide” version of coaching that is more difficult to master but (I and others would argue) is more effective. More on that later.

So back to the publications I mentioned. The first is an article recently published in Personnel Psychology, “Development and Validation of The Performance Management Behavior Questionnaire” (Kinicki, Jacobson, Peterson and Prussia, 2013).  To cut to the quick, the PMBQ instrument has multiple items/scales that describe manager behaviors associated with performance management, and one of the scales is called “Coaching.”  Its items are these:

15. Shows others how to complete difficult assignments and tasks

16. Provides the resources needed to get the job done

17. Helps identify solutions to overcome performance roadblocks

18. Helps people to develop their skills

19. Provides direction when it is needed

So which type of coach does that sound like to you, Instructor or Guide?  (That’s not a trick question.) As a hint, there is nothing in there that I see that suggests a dialogue with the coachee (employee).

Two points about this research. First, the Subject Matter Experts were largely existing managers who have probably been formed by history, reinforcement and some level of success to define coaching this way.  Second, I was really disappointed to see that they use a frequency scale which I have noted before is seriously flawed both statistically and conceptually.

Compare those items with these sampled from the Perceived Quality of the Employee Coaching Relationship (PQECR) (Gregory and Levy, 2010) that I have integrated into The ManagerCoach© feedback instrument:

My supervisor and I have mutual respect for one another.
My supervisor is easy to talk to.
My supervisor spends more time listening than talking when he/she is coaching me.
I am content to talk about my concerns or troubles with my supervisor.
I feel safe being open and honest with my supervisor.
My supervisor helps me to identify and build upon my strengths.
My supervisor engages in activities that help me unlock my potential.


Hopefully those sound more like the “Guide” coach where the relationship comes to the forefront.

It seems like every time I read something about effective managers, the topic of empowering and involving subordinates surfaces.  Such is the case with the most recent issue of People & Strategy Journal (from HRPS) that focuses on the topic of performance management (and also includes an article by Allan Church and myself, but that’s another blog topic to come).  In one piece alone, we find these statements from Gyan Nagpal:

  • …many 21st century employees are rejecting conversations that are one-way…
  • Greater employee autonomy and empowerment also changes the meaning of management.
  • We have gone from a “supervisor of task and outcomes” to an “enabler of performance, innovative thinking and collective success.”

With a related theme, there is the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review with an article titled, “Connect, Then Lead” (Cuddy, Kohut, & Neffinger, 2013) with this observation:

A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.

But, instead of quoting others, let me make my own case for differentiating the Instructor and Guide versions of coaching using the ALAMO model that I have introduced before (most recently, where I propose that:

Performance = Alignment x (Ability x Motivation x Opportunity)

The ALAMO view on two types of “coaching” might sound like this as we listen in on the conversation with employees:

Type of Coach





Instructor “I know what is best. Go do it.” “Here’s how to do it. It has worked for me.” “Success or failure will affect your PA rating.” “Here’s your time frame and budget.”
Guide “What do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?” “Yes, that approach is a good match for your skills.” “It seems like you are most excited by this approach.” “Are there any barriers that might hinder your progress?”

(Let me note here that there are times when the manager needs to be the “Instructor”, and one of those is in the area of organizational values. Organizational values exist to define and guide appropriate behavior, which is a process of Alignment.  But with Values, the question is not one of Ability but more a matter of choice, i.e., the choice by the employee as to whether (or not) he/she is going to behave that way.  This is where 360’s can be a valuable tool by providing the manager (and organization) reliable data on how these behaviors are observed by others (coworkers and, if applicable, customers).)

It is disappointing when I see organizations define coaching using Instructor language. I believe that most of us see that we have moved toward a more humanistic, involving and empowering model of supervision, reinforced by work configurations (e.g., global, remote, matrix) that demand nontraditional leadership styles.  As importantly, the Guide model of coaching is more sustainable AND more developmental.

©2013 David W. Bracken


2 Responses

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  1. […] one 360 process in their organization).  Frankly, the 23% is shockingly high.  Very recently ( I cited a study that presents a newly developed questionnaire about manager behaviors in the […]

  2. […] has been two years since I last raised the question in this blog about “what is a coach?” (   While I think (and talk) about this topic often, I haven’t been moved to write about it in […]

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