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The Skills and Expertise of a Good Coach

January 31, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Coaching and Mentoring

The Skills and Expertise of a Good Coach

An effective coach (whether it is the manager of an employee or a mentor/third party coach) should demonstrate a range of skills. The following are some general behaviors/approaches that the individual should always look for:

The ability to build strong relationships and build trust

A good coach should be able to…

  • Communicate high expectations for individuals and have faith in their abilities to perform well.
  • Avoid comparing the performance of the person they are coaching to the performance of someone else (or treat each individual as a unique situation and adjust their coaching style accordingly).
  • Avoid ‘jumping in’ to coaching until they have a relationship working with the person being coached (and never stop working on the relationship until they stop coaching).
  • When they do not know the answer to a question, admit it and offer to find the answer and provide it at the next coaching session (or sooner).
  • Relate their real life experiences and stories (when doing so, using “I” and not the generic “you” to talk about themselves).
  • Raise the individual’s status. They should know the individual being coached is likely to say things that the coach wants to hear, more than they would to a co-worker, spouse, or friend.
  • Honestly examine the role they should be playing. They should examine whether they want to be a constant nag, a bully, a friend, a critic, a mentor, a leader, a teacher, a manager, a counselor, a disciplinarian, or a role-model? Or even play multiple roles?
  • Be available when needed by the individual and offer their time.
  • Admit failure. A good coach should be therefore able to ‘model’ a key component of lifelong learning by being honest with their own performances and using them as an opportunity for learning.

The ability to frame the coaching process

A good coach should be able to…

  • Believe in people’s willingness to want to do the best they can. If they don’t believe this, then they should not be engaged in coaching.
  • See coaching as a two way process and not a one-sided initiative. Good coaches see coaching to be a dialogue, a give-and-take relationship, a chance to share ideas and information. The coach does not have to be the initiator of the process or even any given conversation; the individual can sometimes take the lead.
  • See coaching as something other than therapy or training or consulting (although each has its appropriate place).
  • See coaching to be best delivered in situationally relevant ways. Good coaches therefore consider the difficulty of the task being coached, the skills and experience of the person they are coaching and their preferences in terms of how much ‘help’ should be given. In the main people do not want/ need ‘the answer’, they need a little assistance in finding out how to get the answer themselves.
  • Encourage peer coaching by occasionally inviting individuals to find a partner or mentor to help in action planning or implementation activities.

The ability to set goals and targets

A good coach should be able to…

  • Get a solid commitment from the individual to reach her/his goal. This can be done in a number of ways such as sending a short note to her/his colleagues and superiors telling them that she/he wants to improve (specify what) and asking for their feedback and their support etc.
  • Sensibly set stretching targets and goals (typically at somewhere between one third and one half greater than a person says they can do over a period of time). This often greatly increases the chances of success.

The ability to identify and analyze areas for coaching

A good coach should be able to…

  • Assess the abilities and experience of the person being coached and act accordingly.
  • Offer three kinds of feedback – what people should keep doing (positive feedback) stop doing (negative feedback) and start doing (new ideas feedback).
  • Coach only on real and first hand data: Coaches quickly lose credibility if they try to coach someone on performance or behaviors that have been identified by a third party and the information has not been checked and/or verified.
  • Identify Individual’s needs: Getting an individual to “buy into” a performance improvement idea is like getting a potential customer to buy a product or service. The more you know about their values, attitudes, beliefs, objectives, challenges, and development targets, the more credibly and persuasively the coach can offer their performance improvement ideas.
  • Give people useful projects or ‘homework’ between coaching sessions. This may include asking individuals to write down their victories or the things that they have done well every day for a week. The next time the coach meets with them this list can be drawn upon as the basis for the discussion and the most meaningful items identified. Simple exercises such as these help people being coached to quickly identify their own development of key skills and teaches them to focus on their most important daily activities. It also allows them to see their accomplishments and successes.
  • Creatively invite the person being coached to make suggestions on what they specifically want to work on and why (and what steps they feel would help them).
  • Ask the individual to summarize their issue, problem or challenge (or specify the goal) in a single, simple sentence (and keep probing the individual until she or he is able to do this). This discussion helps the individual clarify the situation and identify the critical factors that need focus and attention.
  • Adapt their managerial/coaching style to the individual and diagnose what style is likely to work best in the circumstances.

The ability to conduct effective coaching conversations

A good coach should be able to…

  • Avoid sitting across the table from the person they are coaching (because this suggests an adversarial relationship). They should be comfortable sitting side by side or at right angles to the other person.
  • Avoid coaching when they are upset or in a poor mood (and so avoid taking out their frustrations on the individual). They should be therefore able to wait until they are calm and ‘centered’.
  • Readily recognize when the person being coached is upset.
  • Regularly ask the individual being coached for ideas and with the capacity to listen actively and attentively. They should also only offer their ideas after the individual has completed his or her comments.
  • Avoid over-planning and over-rehearsing coaching sessions. They should have a general idea of the individual’s goal and invite suggestions on the process.
  • Resist the temptation to ask, “Why?” too much in a coaching conversation (as many individuals react to “Why?” as a blaming or fault-finding question).
  • Avoid giving too much personal advice. Advice usually brings out the ‘yes, but…’ response.
  • Avoid negatives that potentially discourage people, such as “I don’t think…” and “You shouldn’t…,” when speaking (negatives tend to put people on the defensive). Instead they should want to encourage and include with phrases that start with “What if we tried to…” or “Maybe you could…” or “another option might be…” etc).
  • Encourage individuals to think back on their experiences and discuss lessons learned and discuss the implications of the experience for future behavior.
  • Acknowledge and show appreciation for the person’s contribution, no matter how small in every coaching situation.
  • Openly ask the individual for feedback about their coaching performance at the end of a coaching session and readily model appropriate behaviors for receiving feedback (and subsequently change their behavior during their next coaching conversation).

The ability to deal with resistance or defensiveness

A good coach should be able to…

  • Avoid assuming that the individual’s reluctant or nervous responses are merely signs of resistance and defensiveness to be simply ignored or overcome just because they are different from what they may want him or her to say. These statements should ideally be seen as genuine and valuable indicators of how an individual feels and may offer clues on possible future remedial actions that can be taken.
  • Be willing to “lead from example” or to be an “exemplar” (modeling the desired behavior and not expecting the person being coached to do something they will not do themselves.
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. AMWOLA FIONAFebruary 19, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Thank you for the article showing the skills and expertise of a good coach because they are well eraborated hence understanding them and helping for study purposes and the coachers themselves.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerMarch 26, 2013 at 7:28 pmAuthor

      You are most welcome Amwola.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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