“I’m not sure I know enough about your job to help you.” That’s what a participant recently shared with another attendee, “Bob,” at an InsideOut Coaching workshop. “Bob” is a biotech researcher and he’d been partnered with “Julie,” who is in software development. They had only just met and had been paired in an exercise to practice coaching each other through a tough business challenge.
“Maybe I need to get more context or data or information about your business first,” Julie suggested, uncertain. It’s easy to see the source of Julie’s concern: how can a software developer coach a biotech researcher to tackle a professional problem? Or better asked: How can YOU coach someone in a different discipline, department, or profession, if you aren’t an expert in his/her work?
It’s easy. Focus on the coaching process. Technical expertise isn’t needed—and in fact, sometimes it may create a distraction if you seek to “advise” rather than “coach.”
Julie made the assumption, like many of us, that in order to coach another individual successfully, we need to have strong knowledge in his/her field. And there is a great model for getting results through operational and technical expertise—it’s called consulting, not coaching. What’s the difference?
Consultants direct. Coaches guide.
Consultants advise. Coaches listen.
Consultants present solutions to the organization.
Coaches help individuals discover their own solutions.
From a definition standpoint, consultants typically work at the organizational level and bring targeted industry pedigrees. They gather and present data, advise on solutions, and help define programs and projects aimed at achieving a specific goal.
Contrast that with a coach: a coach works at a one-on-one level. They help the coachee, through self-discovery, to unlock their own knowledge and create solutions aimed at achieving a specific goal.
What’s the common thread? Specific goals with measurable business results.
How do you do it? When you coach, stay focused on the coaching process not the job knowledge—it’s about asking great questions, then really listening for the answers. Start by establishing the goal (or desired business result), just as the consultant would. But then focus on the individual, helping illuminate possibilities through questions, such as:
- What is the impact if you do (or do not) achieve this goal?
- What have you already tried and what were the results?
- If you were unconstrained by time, money, or other resources, what options would you consider?
- If you were watching this conversation from afar, what would your input be?
- Which options resonate most with you?
- When and what will you do next?
And then, ask perhaps the most important question of all: What else? Asking this question frees your coachee to expand his or her thinking, to brainstorm without judgment, and liberate the capacity they already have within. Keep checking in, asking questions, and being there through the process.
So, can an accountant coach a graphic designer? Can a programmer coach an analyst? Of course! It’s not about technical expertise or consulting, but rather owning a discipline around meaningful questions. That is the core coaching expertise and one all too rare—develop it and discover its difference in your team.