Exploring the Role of the Coach

“Over whose head is the thought bubble?”

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

I have been exploring the role of the coach. I recently had the privilege of attending a truly transformative professional development opportunity, The Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute. This was an initial step towards my learning and developing skills to be a certified executive coach. The BECI faculty were skilled at modeling practices, building a safe space for risk-taking, and creating an engaging environment with a high level of interaction. Throughout the program, I had so many subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in my thinking. 

In exploring the role of the coach, one big shift I experienced was seeing the relationship between my background as an educator and executive coaching. In Miles Downey’s book, Modern Effective Coaching, he writes: “The coach’s responsibility, therefore, is not to teach but to facilitate learning.” I argue something slightly different. To be fair, Downey might have been referring to a more traditional classroom structure and framework of the teacher as the “sage on the stage’ imparting all knowledge. Coaching is actually much like an inquiry-based teaching approach in which the teacher acts as a guide and facilitator. In this classroom role, the inquiry-based teacher asks open-ended questions and follows the learner’s thoughts while offering some frameworks and structures to pursue their discoveries. This is much like a skilled coach who follows the high ask/low tell model, relies on the coachee to do their own work without providing answers for them, and offers modalities and structures to process thinking. 

Downey writes: “The coach’s job is to create an environment where the player can do their very best thinking.” Downey refers to the coachee as the player here. He talks about this shift in thinking when learning to be a coach. Downey sets the scene with a cartoon drawing of the coach and coachee seated across from each other at a table. A former colleague of his, Heather Dawson, used to ask: “Over whose head is the thought bubble?” It should be over the coachee’s head. This rang true and clear for me as an educator and a coach.

The coach that engages in the high ask/low tell model actually increases the engagement level of the coachee. I found this to be true in the classroom as well. When the teacher becomes too directive and insists on a rigid structure and outcomes, the student becomes less engaged, less empowered, and ultimately does not develop their own set of skills. This seems to be true for the coach/coachee relationship as well. When I let go of specific outcomes, become nondirective in my questions, and allow the coachee to do the work, I have seen an increase in their engagement level. Ironically, as I let go of my attachment to certain outcomes, I notice an increase in tangible and meaningful outcomes for the coachee. High engagement and building skills are good outcomes for both coachees and students.

As I continue my learning journey as a coach, I look forward to discovering more connections between the world of education and the world of coaching. Practice. Reflect. Improve.