How Coaching Works: A Public Sector Case Study

Written by on June 2, 2015

Coaching is a process during which the relationship between coach and client grows in mutual trust and regard. With this as a foundation, the individual being coached is empowered to delve into difficult questions, contemplate answers, and learn to transfer past successes and experiences to current circumstances.

It can be informative to look at someone else’s process and follow their journey to see how coaching works, and why. Through this lens, we can often see our own situation more clearly.

Coaching: a Commitment

Over the past two years I have been coaching a senior manager within a provincial government who had been identified as high-potential with the possibility of taking on a director-level role. The objective was to position him to take on greater responsibility and leadership.

At the same time, this individual was in a rough place and under enormous pressure to conduct a review of an arm’s length organization in a highly politically-charged environment. In addition, he sensed he was not getting adequate support from senior management to carry out this difficult study effectively.

This manager was so frustrated that he was ready to leave his post. Fortunately, he opted to give coaching a try first. Since that decision, he has completed about 48 hours of coaching over a two-year period, making tremendous strides. The first step of this journey was exploring and understanding why he was feeling the way he was about his key relationships and the task assigned.

The Answers Lie Within

At the core of my coaching practice is the notion that the answers individuals seek are, by and large, within themselves already. It is the job of the coach to encourage and empower their clients to explore their own experiences and knowledge, draw from them, and apply lessons learned to their current situations.

This changes the mindset from, “I have never faced this before! I don’t know what to do,” to, “Ok, I didn’t realize it, but I’ve been here before. I have some ideas on how to move forward.” This exploration gives them a point of reference, firmer ground on which to stand.

By posing the right questions, the coach typically finds that individuals can discover answers that are much more fitting and effective than any advice they could receive from another person. This is also where coaching diverges from consulting. Consulting is heavily based on questions that seek to determine the pain points and aspirations, and then bring some answers to bear that allow the client and consultant to work together to identify useful action.

Coaching, too, is deeply rooted in questions. However, it requires listening at a much deeper level. It’s not just what an individual thinks about a situation – it’s also about how they feel, how they respond viscerally to the pain they are going through or the opportunities they are facing. When clients can dig into this, they can discover everything they need to know. The innate brilliance is in the mind, heart, and gut – questions and coaching brings it all out.

In this case, the questioning focused on experience. Where would this individual rather be in terms of feeling, support, and the kind of work he was doing? Through the coaching process, we started exploring what it would look like if he were doing what he really wanted to do. What did success mean in the next one to two years? How would it feel?

It is imperative that anyone in a coaching engagement think about this question in depth: “What does it look like when I’m as successful as I want to be?” In the answer, we have a benchmark, a target that we can go after. We can then ask, “So, where are you now relative to where you want to be? And what is the nature of the gap?” Instead of an amorphous feeling of frustration or dissatisfaction, the individual has something tangible towards which to work.

During the initial stages of coaching, this individual felt as though he had no answers; he had no frame of reference on which to make decisions. Over time, he learned that he had the tools – the experiences, the knowledge – to take positive action. This is one of the most powerful aspects of coaching: many of – if not all – the answers are within oneself. The coaching process teases them out and allows people to move forward with more confidence and success in a way that matches their talents, not someone else’s.