What is coaching and why does it matter to you and your practice?
By Robert S. Wainner, PT, PHD, FAAOPT, and Laurence N. Benz, PT, DPT, OCS
I was introduced to the field of coaching at the 2013 Combined Sections Meeting in San Diego, California. My long-time friend and business partner, Larry Benz, and I were catching up on a variety of business and personal items. Larry was in the home stretch of his master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology, and I was in the same role I had been in for nearly the past decade: a tenured associate professor directing the musculoskeletal curriculum at Texas State University. I was also serving as the Evidence in Motion orthopedic residency director and vice president of clinical excellence for Texas Physical Therapy Specialists. Larry asked me if I had ever considered going into coaching, and he thought it might be a good fit for me. I remember thinking what an odd question. I reminded him that my collegiate athletic days had long since passed and my clinical focus was manual therapy—not sports. He quickly clarified that he was referring to professional coaching, which led to my response, “Uh? What’s coaching?” Since then, I have undergone a professional shift and a transformative journey. Now that I am in my last semester of the executive/professional coaching program at University of Texas Dallas, it is a question I find myself answering a lot these days.
What is “Coaching”?
What exactly is coaching? While it is reflexive to consider coaching in an athletic realm, the obstacles to leadership and optimal performance are more often cognitive or emotional—key areas of the coaching profession. Coaching can be best described as facilitating self-determined/directed thinking and action to empower positive change. Coaching helps you clear mental clutter, provides insight, and helps you get “unstuck.” Coaching also helps you to develop a competitive advantage. In contrast to a model that focuses on pathology and pain, the heart of coaching emphasizes a solution-focused, strengths-based, heuristic approach to problem-solving that empowers positive change and helps people to flourish in both business and life.1,2
What is a Coach and What Does a Coach Do?
Essentially, a coach is a highly trained, trusted strategic “thought partner” or guide who is an expert in the process of facilitating and adding value.3 As experts in process, a coach does not have to be an expert or skilled in the area they are coaching—most are not. In fact, paradoxically most coaches will tell you that it is easier to coach someone whose work is outside their area of expertise as it prevents them from slipping into the role of teacher, mentor, or consultant.4 These other roles are valuable, but are different types of helping conversations. Teaching seeks to impart knowledge and skills. Mentoring does the same, while adding the mentor’s personal and professional wisdom and experience to the mix. Consulting often includes a good dose of the former two types of conversation, but is more about giving expert advice and directing others to implement solutions.4 Despite the fact that the term “coaching” has become almost a buzzword in recent years and often a trendier name for teaching, mentoring, and consulting, coaching is none of these.5 The language of those activities is the statement, while the language of coaching is that of powerful questions. In fact, the hallmark of great coaching is the powerful question.
“Every head is a world,” says a Cuban proverb. The map of that world is often not clear, especially to its owner. Like a guide for a traveler on a journey, a coach uses a structured coaching conversation to help a client navigate their cognitive map in order to “travel” from one place to another and ultimately, arrive at a destination of the client’s choosing. A foundation of coaching is that all change begins in and with the individual and/or collective mind. The power of conversation between a trained coach and a willing participant is to bring a desired change. Whether to resolve a challenge, for self-betterment or professional development, or to achieve a competitive advantage, the journey takes the client from where they are now to where they want to go and what they want to be. Because each person’s map is different (buried and often distorted to an extent), coaching is the perfect tool for elucidating and clarifying their map in order to construct well-formed outcomes and the actions required to achieve them.2
Development of Coaching
Is coaching something new? Not at all. The coaching process dates back to antiquity and has its roots in the Socratic method.2 Socrates did not seek to impart knowledge, but rather to encourage self-understanding using an inquiry-based methodology. Coaching has emerged from a variety of disciplines and key influencers. The foundation of modern coaching includes education, sports, personal development and productivity, philosophy, liberal arts, business, and, in particular, organizational and clinical psychology. Coaching grew exponentially when it moved into the offices and boardrooms of business in the 1980s, and then began to blossom in the 1990s with formalized training programs, schools, professional associations, and credentials. Today, coaching takes on the hallmarks of a true profession, including accredited as well as university-based certificate and degree programs, evidence-based, peer-reviewed publications, a growing body of knowledge, and a truly global footprint.6
The Coaching Profession
Currently more than 130,000 coaches practice worldwide. Of these, 100,000 are business coaches with half of them residing in the U.S., making business coaching predominate within the profession.7 While many business coaches further identify themselves as executive coaches, the reality is that most work across the management and executive ranks, and include personal coaching as well.3 Coaching is a self-regulated profession, which means oversight is performed through professional associations, as opposed to a licensing board. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the largest association and awards three levels of professional credentials based on rigorous education, experience, and testing criteria. However, coaching experience is a more important factor for those hiring coaches, while a coaching credential appears to be more important to organizations.7, 8 Although both individuals and organizations hire coaches, a growing trend is for organizations to hire and employ coaches internally, given the enormous benefits realized through coaching.9
Does Coaching Work?
A study conducted by the ICF in 2009 of over 2,000 coaching clients from 64 participating countries (with North America accounting for more than half) found the reasons listed as most important for seeking coaching were career opportunities and business management, followed by self-esteem/self-confidence and work/life balance. In 12 of the 15 affective and work behavior domains assessed, global rating of change scores of ≥3+ were reported by over 50 percent of respondents. Although using traditional return on investment (ROI) as a coaching outcome poses challenges, companies in this sample able to provide data found that 86 percent at least made their money back, while the median company ROI was sevenfold!8
Who Comes to Coaching?
Today an ever-growing number of singers, top athletes, business leaders, and other professionals, even surgeons,5 have turned to coaching to achieve the next-level or better in their work-life balance.10 That should come as no surprise. Careers that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master and typically attract individuals who value individual performance, autonomy, and continue to be driven to improve and excel.4 The qualities, values, and traits often associated with independence and individual performance have led this group that includes lawyers, physicians, and a few select others to be labeled as “Elite Professionals”4 and “Cowboys”5 by some. This is particularly true of health care professionals.
Coaching in Health Care and Physical Therapy
Our company views the health care industry as dynamic, constantly changing, complex, and highly regulated, where the focus on patients has been replaced by the priority of rules, process, and compliance. The emphasis on physical therapists and coworkers on productivity, documentation requirements, and metrics has usurped empathy, compassion, and patient interactions. Combined with the complex facets of every individual’s life, we believe the addition of coaching is essential to parse the noise and variables that can marginalize the purposeful and meaningful work that serve as the real drivers for our employees. A professional coaching program for our teammates allows them to thrive in a hectic environment. As part of an overall strategy for work/life balance, employee satisfaction and loyalty, and retention, we view coaching as more than just an added benefit; professional coaching is an ongoing necessity.
There is no question that we are in the midst of what appears to be a true transformation in health care that presents threats, challenges, and opportunities. Only those who are able to think with clarity and act intentionally are likely to thrive. However, accomplishing this requires different actions, but the question remains “what and how?” It becomes even more of a challenge when you realize that the answers are dynamic and will likely change before things settle. The nature and purpose of coaching, along with its track record for empowering positive change, makes it an ideal tool for navigating the uncertainty ahead. The real question is whether coaching is the right tool for you.
To help answer that question:
- What is your best imagined future, professionally and individually?
- What is keeping you from thriving in your best imagined future?
- What will success look like, and how will you know when you have arrived?
- What do you need to do to achieve success, and which small steps will you take first?
- What will be your course of action and when will you start?
- How will you hold yourself accountable?
If you ask yourself these questions—or have in the past— but find it difficult to overcome resistance, clarity, and gain enough momentum to take the next step, then you may benefit from a trusted, strategic thought partner. Now that sounds like the definition of a coach!
Robert S. Wainner, PT, PhD, FAAOMPT, is vice president of leadership growth at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists (TexPTS) in Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurence N. Benz, PT, DPT, OCS, MBA, MAPP, is a PPS member and chief executive officer at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists (TexPTS) in Texas. Larry can be reached at larry@ physicaltherapist.com.
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