What is coaching and how can it help?

Confused about the differences between mentoring, coaching, consulting and sponsorship? This article explains what coaching is and isn't, and how it can help you.

Samantha Ng

5/5/20233 min read

I've had the privilege of being coached several times in my career. The first time I was coached was during my executive MBA programme at London Business School. I was mid-career, working 7.30am to 11pm (some days) at an Investment Bank, and had already tried (but failed) to leave my job once. I remember unexpectedly breaking down in tears in that first coaching session. I can't remember what triggered it, but until I was asked some probing questions about my career goals I must have not realised just how much stress I'd been under and how little care I'd been taking of myself. My action coming out of that session was to get myself a cross-stitch kit and carve out time to relax!

The second time I was coached was in my mid-thirties after having my first baby, and after a promotion to Managing Director. My employer had a generous policy of offering maternity coaching to all eligible female employees. The sessions helped me clarify what I valued in life vs. work and gave me the impetus to make an internal career change from a high profile front office chief of staff role into risk management, an area I hadn't previously contemplated. Despite some scepticism from others, it was a great move and I thoroughly enjoyed the new role and subsequent ones in risk management. I was later exposed to further coaching through a senior female talent programme I participated in. By then, coaching had had its effect - I was self-coaching many aspects of my life / career though it was still helpful to have someone else to bounce my thoughts off, and I was using my experience to coach my own teams, though admittedly that was often combined with mentoring. My positive experience is what propelled me to train as a coach myself.

So, what is coaching, and how can it help you?

Coaching creates a non-judgmental safe space for you to focus on forward-looking goals and actions. Coaches are your buddy guides while you hold the map and all the resource / rations for your trip. The map (your life) is something you've drawn up, in a scale and with scribbled icons that only you fully understand. Coaches can't read the map for you, or tell you where to go or what to do. They do not judge if you've brought the right gear or are about to make the right turn. However, they are very good at asking questions that help you define what you want from the trip (e.g. deciding a destination, and getting to your destination quickly vs. scenic route). They keep you focused on it, and provide feedback every now and then when they notice you getting tired or that your shoes are worn, so that you can decide if you need to do something different along the way.

Coaching empowers you to take charge. Coaches help you to uncover your strengths, appreciate what you've done and identify what more you might need to help you get to your destination. Coaching is about empowering you to take action - it is not about advising you (mentoring/consulting), performing the action for you (consulting), or telling others that they should support you (sponsorship). That's because the only sustainable change is self-directed - any other form of change relies on or creates dependencies. That doesn't mean of course, that mentoring, consulting and sponsorship aren't equally valuable - they simply serve different purposes.

There seems to be many different kinds of coaches - how do you know what's right for you?

Good coaches will only work with clients they can help. Trained coaches abide by a code of ethics which sometimes means declining an engagement if they feel that someone else can serve your needs better. That said, there are many specialisms and styles of coaching so unless your employer has matched you with someone, you will need to do your own research and test your prospective coach for fit. All trained coaches (check where they received their training) should have a good understanding of coaching techniques and tools to help their clients. Accredited coaches (by credentialing industry bodies such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or Association for Coaching (AC) have chalked up a minimum number of coaching hours and passed criteria around training and quality assessments to receive their accreditation. Life coaches support a broad range of personal goals, business coaches specialise work with small business owners, and corporate / executive coaches tend to work with individuals or teams within larger organisations. Depending on your goals, there will likely be a coach that fits your needs.

Because of my personal background and career history, Arceus Coaching specialises in career coaching, particularly supporting individual career transitions and corporate / executive leadership development. We also work with teams to improve their effectiveness in a transformation context, and combine this with consulting services as needed. If this sounds like what you need, feel free to contact us, or visit our services page for more details.