Snow covered mountain peak
Snow covered mountain peak

What is Coaching?

By Ken Norton

Coaching is distinct from advising, consulting, training, or mentoring. The differences can be subtle and further complicated because many people who call themselves coaches actually provide one or more of these other services. Since I’ve had a long career in product management and product leadership, it’s natural that potential clients initially see me as an experienced authority figure and ask for advice or mentoring. So for example, when people reach out to me for coaching, they’ll often say things like:

  • “I’m looking for someone to tell me what I’m doing wrong as a product leader.”
  • “I’m looking to have someone to bounce questions off to have a better understanding of what I’ve been doing right, wrong, and needs improvement.”
  • “Someone to teach me product leadership from the perspective of identifying my shortcomings and showing me what I need to know.”
  • “I need a coach to tell me what kind of processes I should establish.”
  • “Ideally, your coaching would be 80% teaching me how to build a good product and 20% giving me career advice.”

These are actual quotes from real people. All of these are sincere and thoughtful goals, and these people are clearly longing for growth. But to my eyes, each of these statements contains subtle clues that what they’re describing isn’t coaching. These clients want to bring questions and are expecting their coach to have the answers. Coaching is precisely the opposite – coaches ask the questions, and clients provide the answers.

It’s no surprise that many people who contact me are unfamiliar with coaching – unless you’re a Fortune 500 CEO, few of us have encountered it in our professional lives. But here’s the good news: when exposed to coaching, most people recognize how much more powerful it can be than advising, consulting, or mentoring and open up to it quickly. (In fact, many of the quotes above are from people who eventually became satisfied coaching clients!)

Similar to an innovative product, people don’t know to ask for coaching because they don’t know it exists. That’s my job – to make sure potential clients understand what coaching is all about before they hire me. I wrote this article to make it easier to understand the differences and make sure you’re genuinely seeking coaching before we start working together.

Coaching isn’t consulting.

Consultants focus on situations, while coaches focus on people. In other words, “expert” consultants are hired to help clients define their problems, formulate solutions, and sometimes even implement those solutions (often using their personal experience as a model for success). A coach, on the other hand, views clients as the “experts” in their own lives and businesses. Instead of telling a client what to do, a coach facilitates the client’s discovery of their own answers.

Coaching isn’t mentoring.

A mentor says, “Follow me,” while a coach reveals where the client is standing on the map and asks, “Where shall we go next?” Mentoring can mean serving as a wise role model and is usually about helping the mentee emulate the mentor’s own decisions and style. Coaching techniques, however, are designed to help individuals find their own way and discover their own strengths, skills, and blind spots. Coaching does not assume that everyone will be equally successful following the same path. And while a coach can have valuable experience and insight in the client’s field, their real value lies in helping people draw on their own experience and wisdom as they move ahead.

Coaching isn’t training.

Training is curriculum focused, while coaching is client focused. Training is an effective approach when specific skills or objectives must be mastered. A trainer/instructor establishes and presents the curriculum, meets set objectives, administers the same material to each person, and even conducts testing to determine whether students successfully acquired an understanding of the subject. Coaching, though, is about guiding individuals or groups as they set and reach their own objectives. Unlike training, there is no clear path or set curriculum; it is less linear and more organic.

Coaching isn’t simply giving advice.

A best friend or family member has opinions and an agenda, while a coach has a process. When you talk to your friends and family about something you’re struggling with, they will likely have their own opinions and judgements about the situation. Even if they have your best interest at heart, any advice your friend offers will be rooted in what they think is best for you. The coaching relationship is truly a collaborative effort based solely on what the client wants. Coaches are professionally trained to be completely objective and non-judgmental. They’re not attached to any outcome or decision their clients make, and they’re able to provide guidance and tools that help their clients implement solutions so they can get one step closer to living their best life.

So what is it?

A mountaintop labeled Your Agenda

To understand coaching, let’s use a metaphor. The client has an agenda. It’s what they want to accomplish or learn about themselves. Imagine it as the summit of a mountain they want to climb. This could be something like, “I want to be a better product leader,” “I want to grow from being an individual contributor to a manager,” or “I want to figure out what my authentic leadership style is.” The agenda guides the relationship going forward, and it’s how the client will measure success.

Over here is my agenda. It’s drawn from my experience and what’s important to me. It’s shaped by my lessons, what worked for me, what didn’t, what I want, and the environments I’ve been exposed to. If I were to give you advice, it would be bringing these two agendas together. It’s when what the client wants to accomplish meets “what I would do.”

Advice: A mountaintop labeled Your Agenda next to a circle labeled My Agenda

Advice, even from someone experienced, can be problematic. Here’s a good article from my friend and coaching colleague Kenneth Berger that explains why. Advice is situational – what worked for me might not work for you. You might choose to ignore it. Or you might follow it, and it could be wrong! It’s prone to cognitive biases such as hindsight bias, survivorship bias, and confirmation bias. My advice might have been exactly the wrong thing to do, and I just got lucky. Or maybe I only think it worked for me, and it played no role in success – you can’t run independent A/B tests on life unless you’re entering the multiverse.

But there’s a more profound reason why advice is so limited. And that’s because lurking below the client’s agenda is what coaches call the client’s “Big Agenda.”

An iceberg with the top labeled Your Agenda and the part below the surface labeled Your Big Agenda

The Big Agenda lives at the core of every human being and is exemplified by:

  • The desire to live life in alignment with what truly matters to one’s most authentic self.
  • The desire to live a life of conscious choice.
  • The desire to be fully present to the experience of one’s life, moment by moment.

The Big Agenda is in alignment with what truly matters. It’s aligned with your values, conscious choice, and being fully present in each moment. Like a North Star for our life, it guides each of us in the direction of living a life we want and being who we want to be.

Now we see why advice, especially from someone who doesn’t know us as a whole person, is so bad – it’s barely scratching the surface! The agenda isn’t a mountaintop; it’s merely the visible part of an iceberg. The client contains multitudes hiding below. Advice takes away the client’s agency and power over their own life because it neglects or ignores the whole person.

Coaching is all about restoring that power, teaming up with the client to help them connect their agenda to their Big Agenda under the surface. In the words of the International Coaching Federation, of which I am a member, coaching is “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Coaching: An iceberg with the top labeled Your Agenda and the part below the surface labeled Your Big Agenda

Coaches believe their clients are naturally resourceful, creative, and whole. They don’t need fixing or steering. They have all the power within them and simply need a co-equal partner to stand alongside them. My agenda doesn’t enter the picture as a coach – I’m trained to be completely objective and non-judgmental. When I’m coaching, I hold my client’s agenda entirely. Like Ted Lasso says, coaches have learned to “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Most of us aren’t really in tune with our Big Agendas, which is why coaching is so powerful. We sometimes know when there’s dissonance but aren’t connected to the underlying values that might be the source of that dissonance. We know when we’re feeling stuck but don’t always know why. We know that we’re longing for something but can’t always figure out what it is or how to get there. We know we want to get better, but we don’t usually know what “better” means or what to do next. That’s what coaches are here to help with! The coach brings tools and techniques to make this process fruitful. Coaching is a creative process to work with the client to deepen their learning and forward their action.

With my clients, that’s a journey toward understanding their values, their vision for the type of life they want to lead, the perspective they’re taking, how they make decisions, how they confront their inner critic, how they tap into the leader within, and how they commit to their choices. Only by connecting to the Big Agenda can the client live the life and career that is most meaningful and authentic to them. That’s coaching.

What does this have to do with product management?!

At this point, you might be asking what, if anything, this has to do with product management and product leadership. If a coach doesn’t have an agenda, why not work with any old coach? If I’m not going to teach you product management or give PM advice, wouldn’t a random executive coach be just as helpful? In truth, I’ve been trained to coach any person on any topic, as have all well-trained coaches. So you don’t need a coach with domain experience to help you get results. I’ve chosen to focus entirely on product managers and product leaders because that’s where my passion resides.

And because product leadership is really, really hard. We are generalists surrounded by experts. We are given responsibility without authority. There is no playbook to guide us. This lonely job triggers our inner critic on a daily basis. Yet, it can be some of the most rewarding work you’ll ever do. I love the craft of product management, and I love helping people achieve their dreams and grow as product leaders. I’m not a product coach; I’m a coach of people. And those people just happen to be product managers and product leaders.

Because I’ve been there and done the job, my clients and I have a shared context and vocabulary. You don’t need to explain the nuances of the job. I get it. You won’t need to hold back on the buzzwords or terminology. My decades of PM experience often help guide me to the right question as a coach. I’ve been there, I’ve struggled with some of the same challenges, and I’ve seen the patterns that emerge from working with hundreds of clients and mentees. I’ve helped people like you grow and get results. And all of that experience has made me a better coach to other product leaders. There are also occasional moments to bring stories from my personal experience and bits of mentorship to my clients. But I must ensure these “mentorship moments” always follow the coaching.

What has been most humbling about coaching is how often my questions proved to be more powerful than my answers might have been as an advisor or consultant. I see it every day when I watch my clients take control of their own environments and careers. Learning that my instincts around what to do were often wrong, or at least limited, helped me fully embrace coaching. Advice is about the situation the client is facing. Coaching is about the whole person.

If this makes sense to you, and you’re eager to learn more about my coaching, contact me at coaching@bringthedonuts.com for next steps.

Ken
Ken Norton