Coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the now, the future and on taking actions, inline with a goal, or vision, rather than focusing on the past. For a manager, it is very much intent on keeping your team focused on the vision and taking the actions inline with delivering on that vision.

In coaching, fundamentally, the coach is helping the individual to improve their own performance: in other words, helping them to learn and distinguish things from the background, that might have them blocked in taking action. Individuals always have the answer to their own problems but also understand that maybe they need objective help to distinguish the answer for themselves.

Coaching is about unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance, moving them from functioning and existing to optimal and joyful. It is helping them to learn & distinguish something, rather than teaching them that something.

Timothy Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis, revolutionised thinking about coaching. He suggested that the biggest obstacles to success and achieving potential were internal, not external. His insight was that coaches could help individuals to improve their game by distracting them from their inner dialogue and, in particular, the critical voice that said “Not like that! Concentrate on your hands! Angle it differently!”. By distracting that inner voice, it turns out that the body has a very clear idea of what to do when that internal dialogue is suppressed. Gallwey’s real insight was that this didn’t just apply to tennis!

The essential part of coaching, then, is to help people to learn to silence that inner critic and allow their instincts, or their subconscious, to take over. Sometimes that means distracting it, and sometimes it’s about exploring things and removing the fear. It’s very much about distinguishing something from the background, that might not have been distinguished before, so bringing it forward into conscious thought.

For a manager, it pays to understand what coaching is and start to utilize some of the basic skills of coaching with your team, coaching them to higher levels of performance. So this article, the first in a series about coaching as a manager, we are going to explore the cycles of learning and the differences between coaching and other methodologies!

The Competence Cycle Model of Learning

So let’s take a minute to look at learning. One useful model for learning is the Competence Cycle, a four-stage model that can help you identify your competences:

  • Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know about something. A good example would be seen in new managers that made that leap from the individual contributor (IC) to the people manager role. They excelled in the IC role, but unbeknownst to themselves, they are doing poorly as a manager. They work harder and longer and implement tight controls, forcing the team to do things the way they did it, telling them what to do, how to do it, which leaves the team frustrated as their perspective is not being heard and it leaves no room for their own creativity or thinking.
  • Conscious Incompetence – You have now become aware that you lack a particular skill, either through direct feedback, or noticing something was off yourself. An example might be the new manager, who sees another manager handle something completely differently to how they would; eg, allowing room for the IC to share their thinking with the rest of the team on how to approach something.
  • Conscious Competence – You have learned how to do something, but you still need to think about it in order to do it. You go through cycles of remembering and forgetting and need structure to keep that practice and focus. An example would be the new manager, who now stops to ask the team & IC’s what their thoughts are and the steps they would take to solve a particular problem, rather than directing the solution.
  • Unconscious Competence – You have learned how to do something so well that it has become hard-wired into your brain and you no longer have to think how to do it, you just do it. An example is the new manager, who now always asks for the team’s input, they collaborate with the team, they listen to their thoughts and approaches first and might only share context, rather than give hard directions.

TIP: Managers & Coaches need to identify the stage at which an individual is at to use the right sort of language to help them move to the next stage. After all, it’s difficult to try to improve a skill if you don’t know that you lack it.

Differences Between Teaching, Coaching, Mentoring and Counselling

Although teaching, coaching, mentoring, counselling and consulting all share some key characteristics and skills, they are nonetheless quite different and it’s important to be aware of the differences.

  • Teaching and Training involve an expert teacher who imparts knowledge to their students. Although the best teachers will use participative and interactive techniques, like coaching, there is very definitely an imbalance of knowledge, with the teacher as expert knowing the ‘right answer’.
  • Coaching involves the belief that the individual has the answers to their own problems within them. The coach is not a subject expert in YOU, but rather is focused on helping the individual to unlock their own potential. The focus is very much on the individual and what is inside their head. The key skill of coaching is asking the right questions to help the individual work through their own issues. Coaching tends to focus more on the here and now and solving immediate problems or issues. Look out for another blog article focusing more on asking the good questions as a manager and a coach.
  • Mentoring is similar to coaching. A mentor is a guide who helps someone to learn or develop faster than they might do alone. In the workplace mentors are formally designated by mutual agreement, and outside of an individual’s line management chain. They usually have considerable experience and expertise in the individual’s line of business. A mentoring relationship usually focuses on the future, career development, and broadening an individual’s horizons.
  • Counselling is closer to a therapeutic intervention. It focuses on the past, helping the individual to overcome barriers and issues from their past and move on so that they can function in their lives. Here, the focus may be either internal or external.
  • Consulting involves providing professional or technical advice, assessing the current situation, and making recommendations. A consultant is an expert on the subject matter, so he/she is able to understand the problem and provide a strategic game plan with detailed solutions. Oftentimes as a manager, you might step into consulting your team more, especially if you have expertise in an area that they do not.

The differences between these various methods is summarised here:

A Coaching Spectrum

Many ‘coaches’ will recognise significant overlap between their role and that of a teacher, mentor or consultant. It may therefore be useful to look at both coaching and teaching as on a spectrum.

As a coach, there will be times that you are very much led by the person being coached. These times are likely to be in the majority, especially for coaching at work. However, there may also be times when you are the expert, and imparting information. Especially as a manager, you will find yourself exploring the entire spectrum.


The term ‘coaching’ means many different things to different people, but is generally about helping individuals to solve their own problems and improve their own performance. As a manager, you will be working through the spectrum of the methodologies we outlined today; at times being a “counsellor” to your ICs, through to being a consultant as you bring an expertise the team might not have. Iit pays you to learn the basic skills of coaching, so that you can better manage your team to perform, allow room for their insights and thoughts and help them distinguish something from that background that might be blocking them in their day to day, along with identifying their actions towards delivering on a goal.

Stay tuned for more blog articles in this series about coaching as a manager!