What is Coaching?

February 6, 2020

by Ravi Raman

What is coaching it's like a compass showing you the way

What is Coaching and who can benefit from it?

A simple definition of coaching is set forth by the largest coaching industry and professional organization, the International Coaching Federation (ICF):

ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.

More nuance is needed to understand the coaching field and who it can serve. The industry has changed rapidly and there is much confusion around what it means to be a coach and who can be helped through such an engagement.

Fifty years ago coaches were all about advancing the play of athletes and sporting teams! Thirty years ago, coaching entered the boardroom, but only CEOs and executive-level leaders would experience it. Twenty years ago Coaching became more commonplace for growing leaders, managers and high-potential individual contributors. Over the past decade, the relevance of coaching has spread across all levels and types of work (and life). Today, in my opinion, everyone could use a coach at certain times of their lives.

But what exactly is it?

To some, it’s about hiring an expert for an hour to review your resume or help you brush up on interview skills. To others, especially ambitious leaders and entrepreneurs who are in the know, it’s the missing link in their personal growth strategy that unlocks progress and development (not to mention joy and fulfillment!) in their work and lives.

This article is a sweeping overview of coaching and how it has changed the course of my career and life and along the way become my vocation. I contrast coaching with other forms of help and support and by the end, I hope to spark your curiosity about how partnering with a coach can transform how you operate in your career and life.

How coaching impacted my life

My first encounter with a real-life “coach” was back in the early 2000s. I was in my early 20s and working at a furious pace, eager to make my mark as a Senior Product Manager at Microsoft. I was hungry for anything that would help me be my best. I craved personal growth like a child craves chocolate cake. I couldn’t get enough of it!

While my company had great in-house training programs, I realized that the best experiences for me would require investing in myself. I used some of my precious vacation days and savings to fly to Colorado to attend a Tony Robbins workshop. I hoped Tony would teach me a secret formula for high performance. I was ready to listen, learn, and apply whatever was taught.

In a large hall in the foothills of Rocky Mountains, packed with two thousand people clamoring for self-actualization and higher levels of achievement (admittedly, many were also desperate for any form of help), Tony roamed the room, teaching his best methods and strategies for living a great life.

His tips were interesting, but what I’ll never forget was something else:

Tony was masterful at using powerful questions to create greater levels of self-awareness, turning our attention back on ourselves.

What did we want to create in our lives?
What did we value most, above all else?
What was holding us back?
No, really…what was holding us back???

The questions would come rapidly at first.

Then we would take time to reflect, think, write, and share with those around us.

The event was less about guidance and strategies from Tony and more about uncovering hidden answers buried deep within.

Surprisingly, my most relevant and useful insights rang out in the moments of reflection outside of the conference, not within the confines of the cavernous meeting hall we were jammed into for 12+ hours a day. The shifts I experienced had very little to do with Tony and everything to do with the click-moments and insights that emerged from the depths of my deeper Self.

What insights?

They were vast and numerous, mainly relating to realizations about what I wanted to create in my work and life. Clarity regarding life direction. A sense of reconnection to the source of my innate potential to develop and achieve things in life. A trust in my capabilities to perform at work despite my young age and limited experience.

Since that time, I’ve worked with many coaches. Some called themselves coaches (and were certified as such), though many were not formally coaching me; they just had the heart of a coach. After getting off the corporate fast track at Microsoft (inspired, partly by a coaching experience), I found my way to coaching as a vocation.

That was back in 2014. Since then, I’ve worked with professionals, mostly in the tech sector. I help them be their best with less stress. How I accomplish this is atypical (even compared to how most coaches operate) but remarkably effective.

Note: While I have great respect for Tony Robbins and learned a lot through his books and seminars when I was in my teens, 20s and early 30s. I do not, and have not for many years, recommended his techniques or seminars. Instead, I encourage those seeking life, career and personal growth to invest in private (or small group) coaching relationship – with a coach experienced in helping clients access innate wisdom and authentic capabilities in service of their goals and ambitions.

Where do you look for answers?

The unfortunate life of a modern knowledge worker revolves around obeying orders and endlessly seeking advice.

What a pity.

This codependence is a byproduct of mass-produced educational systems and rigid business environments based on an outdated “command and control” ethos. Perhaps effective during the industrial revolution, such a way of living is no longer sufficient or relevant in the modern era of knowledge work.

I remember sitting impatiently at my school desk at the age of 7, meticulously writing pages of repeated words in spelling class. At the age of 13, all the students in my life sciences class turned in their notebooks to be graded. Did you capture everything the teacher wrote on the projector correctly? If so, you got an A! Did you take some liberties in your note-taking, doodling, using shorthand, skipping redundant material or animating your notes with diagrams and critical questions? That was dangerous ground and risked a failing mark.

This trend continued throughout high school. College wasn’t that different, with a few (rare) exceptions. Memorize and regurgitate. Learn external knowledge and apply it as if it were your own. This trend of putting utmost value in others’ knowledge carries most of us into adulthood, where we are trained to look extrinsically for the answer to whatever we seek.

For every desire, an expert, method, or life hack must get us there. Right? If we can just find the magic bullet and the right weapon for it, we can slay our fears and “level up.”

The magic is in you!

What I understand and know as a coach – and distinct from a hired expert, consultant, or mentor – is a profound realization: human beings are innately capable and possess the potential to solve their problems and achieve their deepst ambitions.

Yes, mentors and consultants may have a modest trust in their clients’ innate capacity, but I consider this paramount in a coaching partnership.

Instead of a coach being the arbiter of wisdom and advice, the model is flipped. A coaching relationship is a partnership wherein fresh thoughts and creative insights flourish. The ultimate source of power and intelligence is in you, with the coach being a guide to support your access to and trust the flow of insights from within.

Coaching can benefit anyone

“Everyone needs a coach” Bill Gates & Eric Schmidt

There is no level of excellence where coaching cannot catalyze further progress. Coaching is not just for those climbing to the pinnacle of the proverbial “mountain” of their career. It is for beginners and experts alike. In fact, experts – so long as they embrace a growth mindset – can unlock profound levels of performance in partnership with a coach.

Atul Gawande, surgeon and best-selling author, was at the top of his game and still benefited from working with a surgical coach, as recounted in his excellent New Yorker article. After experiencing his first coaching session, Gawande saw real value: “That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.” 

Gawande is not alone; leaders in virtually every field continue to benefit from a coaching partnership. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, is a long-time proponent of coaching and had much to do with Google’s culture of investing in its employees’ personal growth and development. Bill Gates, someone I’ve had the chance to present to on several occasions during my time at Microsoft, echoes the sentiment as shown in the above video.

The real reason coaching is so helpful

It’s very hard to see yourself objectively, and coaching can help with that. However, I want to go out on a limb and step beyond the “perspective-shifting” benefits of coaching to clarify the real reason coaching to be invaluable, regardless of your rank, title or experience.

While humans do have enormous potential, it’s also true that realizing this capacity can be tricky. Human psychology runs vast and deep. It presents a barrier through which signal (insight, intuition, innate capabilities) gets lost amidst the noise (doubt, overthinking, reactivity to circumstances, etc.).

Working with a coach creates a safe space where the potential for insight is more easily actualized. In my opinion, this is the real reason why coaching is so helpful!

How does coaching create results?

Several specific coaching skills come to play an essential role in creating results for clients. When wielded by a skilled professional coach, as a master artist uses a paintbrush, barriers fall and results emerge.

The International Coach Federation highlights eight competencies a professional coach exhibits:

  • Demonstrates Ethical Practice
  • Embodies a Coaching Mindset
  • Establishes and Maintains Agreements
  • Cultivates Trust and Safety
  • Maintains Presence
  • Listens Actively
  • Evokes Awareness
  • Facilitates Client Growth

A coach supports transformative change by demonstrating these ways of being in a manner that directly supports a client’s needs. Like any field, coaches have varying levels of skill and practice, which can dramatically impact effectiveness. The personality and style of a coach are other factors to keep in mind. You want to work with a coach that you feel a rapport with, which can best be gained through conversing with a prospective coach before hiring them.

While some masterful coaches have no formal coaching training, I would caution anyone against hiring a coach who has not taken the time to invest in themselves and learn the art and science of coaching in a rigorous way.

Coaches vs. Mentors, Advisors, etc.

Most leaders and high-performers I know have far too many people telling them what to do and far too few partnering alongside them with the skill and patience required to help uncover their own best insights. Mentors, consultants and advisors are valuable but very different from what a Coach brings to the table.

Mentors played a large part in my career as a leader at Microsoft and continue to do so today in my vocation as a professional Executive Coach and business owner. I connect with my mentors periodically and trade notes on various aspects of my life and work, talking over challenges and listening to their stories about doing some of the things I’m trying to do. Such conversations – typically based on a mutually beneficial relationship – can be invaluable but are distinct from coaching.

Typically, no money changes hands nor is there an “agreement” defining a relationship with a mentor. Telling each other stories about “the good ‘ole days” and commiserating with each other about problems can feel good but is very different than looking at and exploring deeply inside oneself to solve the unique challenges being faced in the present moment.

Advisors are similar to mentors but typically more formalized along with some form of compensation (money, stock, etc.). They are typically known to you or someone you trust and operate by telling you their experiences navigating situations like the one you are facing. While useful at times, it’s also true that no two situations are alike, and “advice” that works perfectly in one scenario can backfire in another seemingly similar circumstance.

Consultants are more service providers who typically charge for time and knowledge to solve problems using proprietary frameworks and domain expertise. Regarding personal and career growth, they will typically run an assessment, teach a workshop and share a few specific techniques for improving particular skills.

Again, such engagements can sometimes be helpful, but once the consultant leaves, so does the expertise! Worse, people and teams can feel helpless when the supposed “answer person” is gone. It’s also true that the frameworks used by consultants are rarely tailored to the uniqueness of individuals in the same way that a one-size-fits-most shift might cover your body but just doesn’t feel right!

Therapists/Psychologists are licensed (at a state level in the USA) healthcare professionals who are trained to deal with chronic and severe issues that negatively affect daily living. While the cognitive therapy techniques that these practitioners may use can seem similar to coaching conversation (at times), there is a big difference in both context and focus regarding how coaches and therapists operate. Namely, therapists will focus on resolving and healing past trauma whereas a coach is focused on exploring and creating a more suitable present and future state. Many of my coaching clients also partner with therapists to work through specific issues and find that the two can complement each other well.

How are coaches different?

Beyond the basic competencies listed above, each coach will display a unique approach that combines their training and what they find generates results for their clients.

Having coached hundreds of clients at varying leadership levels in leading technology companies, I know that when clients better understand how their mind works at a fundamental level, everything in their life and work benefits.

The mind has known operating patterns wherein it naturally creates friction and forms problems while also holding an innate and robust capacity for revealing wisdom and an intuitive sense of how best to move forward. With an understanding of these innate capacities of the mind, results are more easily achieved. This last part would require an entire series of blogs to describe. You can learn more about my coaching approach if you are curious.

I recommend to anyone looking for a coach that you explore and discuss your needs with a prospective coach (or two!) and have them explain their approach and methods. Through a conversation, you can get a sense of the level of rapport and if how they operate can help you. Take your time when choosing a coach, and if the coach you are interested in won’t offer sufficient time to speak with you to get comfortable with their approach, move on!

Coaching in a nutshell

At its simplest level, coaching is a lively and deep partnership that supports looking within in service of your highest vision and dreams. It’s a journey past the barriers of your insecure thinking and limiting beliefs. It’s a vast exploration of what really matters with the placement of sincere attention in those directions. Most importantly, it’s about returning to the invisible power within you and how it can be unleashed in service of both your dreams and what life requires of you.

As Rumi said:

There is nothing outside of yourself, look within. Everything you want is there. You are That.


What happens if you enter a partnership wherein this assertion is taken seriously?

That is the heart of coaching. I can’t think of a more worthwhile journey to be on.


Leave your comment below:

Read on 📚

What I’ve learned this year (2022 edition)

What I’ve learned this year (2022 edition)

John Dewey, an education reformer and philosopher, is well-known for his understanding that learning doesn't come from experience. It comes from reflecting on experience. Being December as I write this, there is a certain nostalgia in the air as the year comes to a...

Bad news and the power of suspending judgment

Bad news and the power of suspending judgment

Michael slipped on a patch of ice getting into a friends car and fell. A self-proclaimed "klutz," taking a tumble wasn't out of the ordinary. This time, embarrassment wasn't the problem. A lingering pain in his wrist meant something serious was going on. An MRI would...

The Friendly Universe Hypothesis

The Friendly Universe Hypothesis

Is the universe friendly, wicked or ambivalent? I posed this question on LinkedIn a while ago and it provoked reactions, some shared in DMs or email, that ranged from "yes yes yes!!!" to "WTF? The universe doesn't give a s@#t about anyone". Responses showed that most...

The Value Of Sabbaticals In A Workaholic World

The Value Of Sabbaticals In A Workaholic World

This very week 7 years ago was momentous for me. After 13 years at Microsoft I took my first prolonged break from work. It was a true "sabbatical" which according to Google is defined as a sustained period of paid leave for every seven years worked. I was overdue by...

The Truth About Getting More Out Of Less

The Truth About Getting More Out Of Less

What does it take to achieve more? For most of my life, I’ve lived with an underlying assumption that to produce more, I must do more. If I wish to make more money, I must work more. If I want to be better at a sport, I must practice more. If I want to improve the...

Think Less, Do Better: The Power Of A Clear Mind

Think Less, Do Better: The Power Of A Clear Mind

Is an active mind a healthy mind? Most people think so. However, it turns out that your mind, while powerful, mostly gets in the way of your ambitions to live a fulfilled and satisfied life. There is tremendous power to be found in thinking less. In this article I’ll...