1.    From tell to ask.

2.    Performance and potential.

3.    Awareness and responsibility.

4.    Building self-belief.

5.    Business focus.

6.    Systems perspective.

7.    Coaching as a mindset


The first and probably most important is that you are there to assist the learning, development and change of the client through facilitated learning and not by tell. This most profound of notions is at the heart of good coaching and defines its essence. Learning through the coaching method is an inside out process, not an outside-in one. It assumes that people often know more than they think they know and are capable, with help, of understanding and resolving issues and moving forward in their lives through reflective learning. This adult learning principle has become better understood but it is still counter-cultural in many business, sporting and educational contexts where tell still rules. Even those who have started to see the benefits of the coaching approach – a greater capacity to think for oneself, heightened self- and social awareness, a greater sense of personal responsibility, better self-management and enhanced self-belief regularly fall back on the instructional, advice giving, expert mode. It’s a hard habit to break.


The second fundamental principle of coaching is that we need to focus not only on current performance but also on potential. This means changing the lens from how individuals are performing now to how they may perform in the future if they are able to tap into their inner resources and capabilities. Typically, people do not know what they are capable of doing. They may intuitively sense that there is more and have a strong desire to find out, but may not know how. They need someone to help them unlock it, and that is the job of the coach.

Aside from the skills and experience a coach brings to this situation there is another aspect, which we should never underestimate, and that is the power of believing in someone. In the early stages of coaching clients may not have a strong sense of themselves. It can therefore be invaluable for them to experience someone else, whom they respect, and to believe in them. It can keep the candle burning.


The third coaching principle is the importance of awareness and responsibility in coaching. Indeed it is the common ground between most, if not all, coaching authors and is captured in the proposition that awareness is the starting point for growth and change. As people become more aware of their assumptions, belief systems, attitudes and behavioral patterns they move into a position of choice – to stay with them or to change. The responsibility for this choice is with them. Awareness of issues may be no guarantee of change but it is certainly an essential precursor. We are unlikely to change something if we are currently unaware of it. Awareness is our route into ourselves, others and the relationships between us. It is the foundation of our capacity to self-manage and self-regulate. This means that the coach needs to appreciate the primary place of awareness-raising in the coaching process and how to facilitate it. The issue of responsibility is just as central to coaching and indeed to any change process. The coach may facilitate the heightening of a client’s awareness through running a 360-degree feedback exercise providing an ocean of rich data but if the individual doesn’t own any of it, then the prospect of learning and change is low. Taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions is like getting into the driving seat of one’s life. It is about taking charge of our lives and accepting the consequences of our decisions and actions. For some people this can be a difficult process, especially where damaging experiences have left their mark. In these circumstances the coach has an important job to do – to help people to believe and trust in themselves and others. This may take the coach to the boundary between coaching and therapy but it can be an essential journey to take. Coaches will not always have the luxury of working with highly motivated, uncomplicated individuals who already take full responsibility for their lives. Indeed one of the most rewarding aspects of the coaching role can be when someone who has been struggling to occupy that driving seat finally feels able to do so and takes off down the road.


The fourth principle is linked with the second for, although it’s important for the coach to believe in the potential of the client, it is even more important that the individual begins to recognize that their success is down to their own efforts. This is the process of building self-belief – the growing confidence that derives from accumulating successes and achievements. Bandura (1997) is best known for his significant contribution to our understanding of what self-belief is and how we develop it. He uses a different term, self-efficacy, to describe ‘people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance’. He argues that our level of self efficacy determines how we feel, think, motivate ourselves and behave. Those with high self-efficacy approach difficult tasks as ‘challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided’. They set themselves challenging goals and sustain a strong commitment to them even in the face of setbacks. Bandura considers that this outlook produces personal accomplishments and reduces stress and vulnerability to depression. Framed in this way it is easy to see why coaching is about the development of this outlook. Bandura gives academic credibility to what Henry Ford said many years earlier: ‘Whether you think you can or cannot, you are right.’ Coaching seeks to enhance the belief that one can. Building self-belief is a core aspect of what coaching is about and is strongly associated with personal growth and behavioral change. Successful coaching leaves people feeling stronger in themselves as if their inner core has grown. This, together with the previous three principles, constitute the core principles of all coaching and are what makes it different from consultancy, training, and counseling – despite the similarities with all these learning processes. For executive coaching, however, there are two additional principles and guidelines to keep in mind – a business focus and a systems perspective.

5.    Business focus

Executive coaching is primarily concerned with the development of the executive in the context of organizational needs. It can be tempting for the coach to temporarily forget the organization and instead work exclusively from the perspective of the executive as client. Some coaches don’t have a great deal of experience of corporate life and others may hold little sympathy for the ways in which some companies treat their people. In these cases the organization’s agenda can get jettisoned. This, however, will carry a cost. The client may feel better, even vindicated, by the coaching experience but the person paying the bill will often be left frustrated and disappointed. It has to be acknowledged that the balance is not always easy to find but experienced coaches tend to find their own ways of satisfying both agendas and it is an essential part of the apprenticeship of novice coaches. Keeping the business focus will also be critical to the development of coaching as an emerging profession. If organizational clients don’t see sufficient tangible benefits from coaching then it will become sidelined and perceived as just another organizational fad that failed to deliver.


One of the most important business competencies for executive coaches is sufficient knowledge and awareness of organizational dynamics and systems issues. O’Neill (2000) stresses a systems approach to executive coaching when she makes the following important points:

* When we focus too narrowly on the client alone – her personal challenges, goals and inner obstacles – you can miss the whole grand ‘ecosystem’ in which she functions. * It is essential to pay attention to the system as it generates forces that have an enormous effect on your client’s success.

This systems perspective is most clearly in evidence when individuals try to change their behavior in a team culture that neither understands nor supports that change. Sometimes colleagues actively seek to keep the person acting in old ways because there is some perceived benefit to the group. An example of this would be the team joker who wants to be taken more seriously but his colleagues are happier with the status quo and persuade him to stay as he is. The problem, from his perspective, is that he is constantly overlooked for promotion despite having career aspirations because senior management are not convinced that he can command respect. Or the over controlling, somewhat aggressive manager who wants to change some of these behaviors but his boss is worried that he will lose his edge. This might suggest that the system tends to subvert individual change and this is not necessarily the case. There are many occasions when the system actually has a positive reinforcing effect, which gives encouragement to the individual to stay with the program. Coaches need to facilitate this scenario whenever they can by involving the system from the outset and educating colleagues of the client that they have an important role in the success of the coaching effort. Where behavioral change does take place it’s also crucial to recognize the effects on other people in the system. Executives tend to be very aware of how difficult it is to sustain behavior change and to greater or lesser degrees possess a systems perspective themselves.


The final principle is a more general one and applies to all types of coaching. Coaching opportunities occur every day and we miss many of them. One of the reasons for this is that coaching is often equated to coaching sessions. In other words it is framed as an activity. So, I want to challenge you to notice coaching opportunities beyond the formal arrangements you already have in place. These are the short conversations in the corridor, in the car travelling to a meeting, on the phone, over a cup of coffee, on the move. These may last 20 minutes and they may take no more than two. Whether coaching is primarily conducted in a formal or ad hoc fashion, the bigger picture is that its contribution goes far beyond its application as a management tool. Coaching’s true power is that it can literally be a way of thinking, even a way of life. It can be the principle upon which we interact with others in every aspect of our lives.

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