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Coaching and Mentoring

What is Coaching in Business?

September 7, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Coaching and Mentoring

What is Coaching in Business?

Not so long ago, the term “executive coaching” would not have meant very much to anyone working in corporate life. As odd perhaps as it may sound, they might even have been forgiven for thinking that you were referring to a particularly stylish form of bus travel!

Even the word “coach” has only taken on its modern meaning in the last 25 years or so, having previously had its roots in the transporting one or many people from one place to another (with an old-fashioned “stagecoach” carrying people through several parts of a journey). Today, we still talk about coaching a person as involving a journey and a destination. However, now the coaching “vehicle” is very much a human rather than a mechanical travelling companion.

This “coaching companion” also now uses a lot more “devices” in helping the individual, and in many cases can assist executives to achieve extremely substantive personal or organizational goals. This has seen attitudes towards business coaching in particular to shift quickly and dramatically from a more discretionary and often “remedial” service for a few perhaps under-performing individuals (and thereby having more in common with counseling perhaps), to a more strategic and almost essential support need for senior staff, so-called “high-potential individuals” and even middle managers whose progress can be “fast-tracked” in this way. In this sense, business coaching has truly “come of age” as a key part of modern managerial life.

So as to distinguish modern-day coaching from other activities which have some of the same goals, let’s look at how business coaching compares to a number of related but quite different activities such as counseling, performance management, consulting, training and mentoring. The table below attempts to describe the key differences in summary terms:

Activity Realm

In common with coaching

Different to coaching

  • Creates a space in which clients can talk about their issues
  • Interested in motivation and behavior
  • Deals primarily with helping people overcome personal problems
  • Focuses more often on feelings
Performance Management 
  • Looks to bring about better individual performance
  • Concentrates mostly on correcting unacceptable performance
  • May help to give individuals insights into their performance or contribution
  •  Rarely one-on-one
  • Input is usually a bi-product of a change intervention
  • Sometimes delivered in a coaching, facilitative style
  • Aims to develop new skills and behaviors in individuals
  •  Brings a person to an agreed standard of proficiency by practice and instruction
  • Is largely about the one-way transfer of information, skills and knowledge
  • Involves two parties talking about current or future issues or behavior
  • Often gives “superior” advice and guidance (from a senior colleague)

As this table suggests, business coaching now very much occupies a realm of its own and brings together a range of very specific methods and techniques, which hopefully combine to create a positive experience, for both parties in the relationship.

Business Coaching Defined

So in what ways can we accurately define business coaching? Coaching in a business sense can be said to be a partnering relationship designed to help an individual to clearly define his or her personal, team or organizational goals, as well as to uncover the obstacles and self-imposed limitations that may stand in a person’s route to potential success. Coaching should therefore be an efficient, high-impact process which helps people in any kind of leadership role at any level to improve results in ways that are sustainable over time. It is efficient because, unlike management consulting interventions, it does not usually involve lots of pre-set models and theories and teams of people to get results. It is a high-impact process because coaches typically work with individuals in relatively short sessions (of 60, 90 or 120 minutes at a time). During this time, the coach and person being coached can evolve important insights, gain clarity, focus, and make decisions to bring about better performance.

The overall goal of the business coach is to create some kind of tangible and valuable outcome, usually related to improved organizational performance, team success, organizational effectiveness/efficiency, or career and personal satisfaction. At the same time, coaching is about helping people improve their own capabilities and overall contribution, so that the results and performance improvements last. To draw on the quotation from St. Augustine, a business coach teaches people how to fish, not feeding them when they are hungry.

So, in essence, business coaching is about helping people get out of their own way to get what they most want: achievement, fulfillment, and optimal performance. In this sense, the following quotations from various expert sources helped to give a flavor of what good business coaching is all about:

“You cannot teach a person anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” (Galileo Gallilei)

“Coaching is a process that supports the individual in articulating and driving towards their goals” (Mike Collins)

“Coaching is the art and practice of inspiring, energizing, and facilitating the performance, learning and development of the individual being coaching.” (Myles Downey)

“Professional Coaching is an ongoing partnership that helps clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives” (Marilyn O Hearne)

“Coaching provides a way to work through challenges to solutions (a permanent life skill), moving from functional to great.” (Chuck Stewart)

“Professional coaching is an ongoing professional relationship that helps people produce extraordinary results in their lives, careers, businesses or organizations. Through the process of coaching, clients deepen their learning, improve their performance, and enhance their quality of life. In each meeting, the client chooses the focus of conversation, while the coach listens and contributes observations and questions. This interaction creates clarity and moves the client into action. Coaching accelerates the client’s progress by providing greater focus and awareness of choice. Coaching concentrates on where clients are now and what they are willing to do to get where they want to be in the future.” (The International Coach Federation-ICF)

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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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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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