Coaching is now considered essential as a development tool in business. It’s not yet as common as in sport, but is increasingly popular. This is because it’s an effective way of managing and developing people and delivers positive results.

Essential skill for line managers

According to the latest CIPD Annual Survey* into learning and development:

“Coaching and mentoring are common – three-quarters of organisations currently offer coaching or mentoring and an additional 13% plan to offer it in the next year. Most expect to increase their use.”

Of the companies surveyed nearly 9 in 10 are using or about to use coaching in some way. In-house development programmes and coaching by line managers or peers remain the most popular development methods and one of the most effective.

Companies invested in training managers in basic coaching skills and many want to use this as a means of changing the culture to more of a learning culture. With a few years’ experience of line manager coaching, companies are now much clearer on what they can expect from this form of on-the-job development. The focus is on performance development.

The ability to use coaching skills in how you lead and manage others is essential and will help you to get the best out of yourself, your team and colleagues. However the relationship of line manager as coach is one that only works within clear boundaries. It can work in the context of performance development, where the manager’s role in enabling that performance is part of the relationship. However the nature of the team member’s ‘contract’ with their line manager is likely to preclude full openness from the team member and this will limit the potential scope.

Confusion over definitions

However, there is still confusion over what coaching is. Sherpa Coaching 2014 survey found:

“Coaching is a hot subject, a modern-day ‘buzzword’ that means different things to different people. When we talk about coaching, we are not always talking about the same thing. When asked whether coaching and managing are distinctly defined, almost half our respondents (46%) answered sometimes or never.

In their 2016 survey they distinguish between Business and Executive Coaching.

  • Business: more about consulting and deals more with business processes and systems.
  • Executive: focused on changing behaviour in the business.

When looking at line manager coaching, this is wrapped up in their role as a manager and can be both forms.

I see this confusion often and not just in the organisational arena, also more broadly. I think that the fact that all sorts of people call themselves coaches and have a range of different approaches encourages that confusion. Coaching is not a profession, so there are no rules controlling the practice. This makes accreditation by independent Associations all the more important as an indicator of standards and competence.

Initially coaching was explained by likening it to the much more widespread and visible sports coaching. However, this was a ‘double-edged sword’ as people then understood it to be highly directive. If your experience was the football coach for your child’s junior league, or Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, you would expect a lot of control by the coach. This was not the approach advocated by coach training schools who promoted ‘non-directive’ coaching. Due to its increasingly widespread use, this style is slowly becoming understood, at least in large organisations.

Different schools have different approaches and users find it difficult to understand those differences and know what they are buying; or whether one approach or another may be better suited to their needs. It’s important for providers to be able to explain their style or methodology, so that coachees know what to expect.

Is it a profession?

The Sherpa survey shows that increasingly, external executive coaches are being reserved for top executives. The CIPD survey shows 65% respondents intend to increase the use of coaching by line managers or peers. For external coaching, 26% expect an increase and 25% a decline. Apart from supporting top executives, externals are most likely to be used for specialist areas, such as team development.

As the industry matures, so the range and depth of coaching training has grown and some coaches have many years’ experience. As an Accredited Professional Executive Coach with Association for Coaching I am bound to undergo regular Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and further develop my skills through advanced training. This approach by professional coaches increases the capability in the industry. Potentially this makes an even greater gap between the skills of an experienced professional coach and what they can achieve with their clients and the skills of the line manager.

What does the future look like?

In the short term I anticipate more of the same. In my experience, many companies have embraced coaching and mentoring, but have not necessarily thought through the strategic implementation of these forms of learning. Therefore they are not structured to get the best out of coaching as an organisational development tool.

Companies will continue to encourage these development solutions, focussing on line managers and internal coaches delivering the learning, not least due to budget constraints. This may lead to an emphasis on the mentoring, as they appreciate the directive element is strong for line managers. But managers will struggle to balance work demands and invest appropriately in developing their teams.

As HR and L&D managers gain more experience and evidence on what makes coaching successful, this will encourage a realignment of their expectations. Managers will be encouraged to apply coaching as a style of management, focused on developing their team members in the moment, rather than seeing managers as ‘coaches’. This could deliver a ‘learning organisation’, making a coaching style part of ‘how we work around here’ in order to deliver the goals.

This will allow coaching to be seen as a profession and the enhanced skills of professional coaches (whether external or in-house) will have clear value-add. The role of ‘formal’ coaching programmes will be clear, ensuring that interventions are focused and can be evaluated for effectiveness. It is likely that coaching will be used in those areas that require higher skill such as with teams or in groups and to support top leaders, leadership and talent development.

How to differentiate?

The significant growth in the industry will mean that coaches have to be increasingly clear in how they market their services. They need to define their niche and how they serve that niche. This will help address the confusion around what coaching is. People will appreciate that there are many areas in which coaching operates and that the style will differ with the nature of the learning need. For example, a marketing expert may offer a 10-step programme to resolve your business marketing process and it is clear that this is a highly directive approach. Whereas the needs of a top executive are specific to this individual and a coach will offer a non-directive approach, supported by their own philosophy, knowledge and skills. In all cases the client can choose the solution that best suits them.


I see professional coaches being highly skilled and sought-out for particular interventions and a coaching style becoming increasingly common in organisations, encouraging a learning culture. External professionals will need to continue to develop their skills to be able to deal with more specialist or difficult situations. Line managers will be encouraged to use a coaching style of management and will need the basic skills.

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