Deep Thoughts

Coaching is great, but it’s not an optimal learning strategy

Yes, another controversial thought, perhaps. But, it’s something that I feel has to be said. I find that the education industry more than most others I’ve encountered is always looking for a silver bullet to solve all our problems.

And right now, that focus seems to be on coaching.

Before I go on, let’s clear up some things. 

Coaching is a great tool.

I use it frequently when needed and the environment calls for it. But, it is just that, a tool. One which is part of our wider toolboxes as operators in the world of learning and performance.

Yet, my social feeds (and subsequent outreaches from suppliers) are full these days of coaches preaching that coaching is the way! It is a way, but it’s not the only way.

The unhealthy focus on coaching that I see in a number of organisations concerns me when it comes to building high-performing teams and thus organisations. And, that’s because you can’t coach the uncoachable or those who have little experience in anything. 

Coaching is cool, it’s useful but it’s not a superpower that’s going to cure all your ills.

Despite what that LinkedIn sales message might say with its research data that can’t be validated.

Coaching used in an ecosystem of systems, skills, behaviours and mindsets can be very powerful. Yet, on its own, it won’t be as effective. 

Context as always is the key component here.

Let’s define what coaching means from a workplace perspective ⬇️

This is straight from the folks at the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development)

What is coaching?

Coaching aims to produce optimal performance and improvement at work. It focuses on specific skills and goals, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s personal attributes such as social interaction or confidence.

The process typically lasts for a defined period of time or forms the basis of an ongoing management style.

Although there’s a lack of agreement among coaching professionals about precise definitions, there are some generally agreed characteristics of coaching in organisations:

  • It’s essentially a non-directive form of development.
  • It focuses on improving performance and developing an individual.
  • Personal factors may be included but the emphasis is on performance at work.
  • Coaching activities have both organisational and individual goals.
  • It provides people with the opportunity to better assess their strengths as well as their development areas.
  • It’s a skilled activity, which should be delivered by people who are trained to do so. This can be line managers and others trained in coaching skills.

Ok, still with me? Great!

Again, coaching is cool. But, do you know what’s even cooler? When you bring it together with other tools.

One of my favourite tools to share and delve into that includes coaching is the situational leadership model. Yes, I like it –  shoot me!

This is one example of how coaching can be used alongside other tools to create growth and performance experiences.

In my opinion, leading and supporting the development of other humans is the most difficult workplace responsibility that we’ll have. There is no straightforward approach to how to do it right.

But tools like the situational leadership model can help inform, inspire and educate each of us on a bunch of things that could help us.

Situational Leadership Explained (from

Any great leader knows there are a lot of variables to consider when you work with a team. Each individual has their own:

  • Background 
  • Personality
  • Learning style 
  • Experience
  • Ego 
  • Motivators

Thinking about how we adjust our style in response to these variables is how we define situational leadership.

Situational leadership means adapting your management style to each unique situation or task to meet the needs of the team or team members.

Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey developed the Situational Leadership Theory in 1969. 

They believe that there is no “one size fits all” leadership style. 

Instead, the Hersey-Blanchard model provides a framework for leaders to diagnose the development level of an employee or team. Once this is determined, they can adapt their leadership approach accordingly.

“54% of leaders use only one leadership style, regardless of the situation, which means that 50% of the time, leaders are using the wrong leadership style to meet the needs of their people.” 

Ken Blanchard, Author of The One-Minute Manager

How it works (From

“The situational leadership approach can help you develop relationships with your team members because you’ll customise your style of leadership to their development level. 

Each team member requires a unique level of hands-on and communication-based leadership. It’s up to you to assess your team members’ skills, confidence, and motivation, and determine what type of leadership style to use.

All team members differ in their abilities, confidence levels, and levels of motivation at work.

If you use the same leadership style for everyone, some team members will enjoy your leadership while others will feel underserved. The situational leadership method is flexible and allows you to customise your leadership style to meet everyone’s needs.”

Breaking down the model and how to use it in your workflow

Ok, so we’ve recognised that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work when trying to connect, motivate and support people. We have to be savvy and understand that context, ability and attitude are the big players.

The model from Ken B is traditionally broken down into the 4 areas of directing, coaching, supporting/mentoring and delegating. Where the model suggests that each of these activities is exclusive to a developmental level. I’d suggest that they can be mixed based on the people and challenges that you’re faced with.

The key component of the model for me is the developmental scale.

From our image, we can see a scale of D1 – D4 which basically demonstrates the capability and mindset level of an individual. Let’s break these down into a bit more detail:

➡️ D1 = This resembles what we could call an enthusiastic beginner. Essentially, many newbies to the career game or an organisation will fall into this category. They’re generally excited and raring o go but they don’t know what they don’t know.

A directive approach is useful here as the individual will have limited experience to call upon. Thus, a modality like coaching would not be the best approach for those at this level.

➡️ D2 = We get to our next level which recognises that these people have some skills and expertise but they still aren’t 100% clear on how to put it all together. Now, this is the time when coaching and perhaps combined with mentoring, are great tools to bring out the answers from within these people.

Coaching works when helping people to realise they have the answers to their own questions. But for that, they need to have some skills and experience to call upon.

➡️ D3 = An interesting point in the developmental journey. Here, we find those that have a growing level of capability and skills but lack the confidence to act on these and deliver their best work.

This too is another spot where a supportive approach of mentoring can be hugely beneficial in helping these people realise their performance level by building confidence and self-belief in their delivery.

➡️ D4 = Now we come to the star players. Those that get down in the trenches and just get stuff done. These people would find directive approaches insulting. Delegation is the key here. Let these people loose on the big stuff in which they thrive and give them the space to shine.

Here is where coaching can shine once more. You don’t need to overhaul anything with people here, all you need to do is tweak bits here and there to help them on the journey.

Now look, this isn’t a concrete structure, as with all things in life, it flows and evolves based on context. However, it’s a good guiding point on how to engage, motivate and help people grow with encompassing coaching in the toolkit.

As you see, we can all coach and can all be coaches to others. Yes, some are experts in this field and study it specifically. I appreciate that.

Yet, each of us can yield the benefits of coaching at any level we operate at.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? That’s because it is.

Can a coaching methodology support a high-performing org? Sure, if deployed smartly.

Will it solve all your capability issues and 10x company performance as so many posts and articles claim? NO! Not on its own anyway.

(Pssst…If you’re curious about the world of coaching, I wrote a short review with key insights on the book about Bill Campbell, who was the coach to the who’s who of Silicon Valley, including Steve Jobs, the leadership teams at Google, Amazon and more.)

Before you go… 👋

If you like my writing and think “Hey, I’d like to hear more of what this guy has to say” then you’re in luck.

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