How you grow at work…and why coaching matters

Regardless of your job or your tenure, it’s likely that you aspire to grow and develop. Learning new skills, feeling a sense of greater mastery, and just generally feeling like you can do more with more confidence – these are important elements of personal satisfaction.

Obviously, the passage of time is an element in personal growth. More tenured employees, on average, are generally more capable. But lots of other things can contribute. Most of us have experienced periods of time when we felt like we were growing faster. This implies that there are factors that can promote successful growth. But what are they? This is an important question, assuming that professionals and their employers would like to see growth happen consistently, and sometimes on an accelerated basis.

Here are personal definitions of some factors that can accelerate growth at work:

  • Apprenticeship – direct teaching from your manager and other colleagues on the job; this includes being given “stretch” opportunities and getting real-time feedback and support as you tackle them
  • Mentorship – advice and support from more senior colleagues inside or outside your organization
  • Training – attending workshops and classes
  • Seasoning – a gradual expanding of expertise through direct experience; think of this as the natural pattern recognition that you develop by doing something over time
  • Coaching – working one-on-one with an executive coach to address specific goals.

With this list in hand, anyone can audit their growth opportunities to check that they are taking advantage of everything available. Luckily, much is under your control. You can ask for help from a coworker to learn something new, or you can ask your manager to give you a new project that will require you to learn new things. You can go out and seek mentorship. And you can sign up for training classes. Seasoning just happens, though it’s nice to reflect on what you’ve learned from time to time, taking stock of what is now easy for you that used to feel difficult.

Of all the things on the list, coaching is perhaps least widely available, but that may be changing. Coaching is a more common option for professionals these days, in part since HR departments have realized that it’s more cost effective to invest in development than to hire and replace. And of all the options for growth listed above, HR can only directly influence the availability of training or coaching, with a recognition that training has limited value. For example, training is good at raising awareness and building technical skills, but not great at shifting interpersonal behavior in a lasting way, while coaching actually can get that result.

Coaching usually comes into play when a professional has a lot of promise but isn’t getting the results they or colleagues would expect: “a high potential with something to work on.” The person recommended for coaching most likely has reasonable access to other sources of growth, but they are still stuck on something. Getting unstuck feels important, and the time frame is often somewhat pressing.

Typical reasons for recommending or seeking coaching include: lacking confidence; lacking senior presence; not communicating effectively (too much detail, not getting to the point); not collaborating; not delegating; life and work out of balance; needing to transition to a new role; growing pains as a first-time manager or first-time leader; rubbing colleagues the wrong way (sharp elbows, too direct, perceived as aggressive). In most cases, the person’s mode of working was previously considered effective, but something has changed in the context, often rising expectations, and now that previous way of working is not sufficient.

The coaching experience varies depending on the coach, but when done well it is:

  • Highly customized. The goals and work done in each engagement are always based on the individual coachee and that person’s professional and personal capacities, aspirations, and circumstances
  • Respectful of the individual. Seeking development does not mean trying to become someone else. It is about becoming a fuller version of yourself, with an appreciation for what you value and see as authentically you.
  • Experimental. Instead of prescribing precooked solutions and assuming they will work for all people, coaches help their clients develop a series of experiments in which they challenge embedded assumptions, and then reflect on what those experiments have taught them.

To build on that last point, I would claim (and many others would agree) that coaching is the form of support for growth that is most likely to result in adult development. What is adult development, you might ask. Adult development theory says that we pass through identifiable phases as we age, defined by how we make sense of the world, each phase a little more complex than the one before it. The choices we make – how we decide what is important, for example – depend on how we see the world and what we believe to be true. To help shift behaviors, coaches often need to explore the underlying values, stories, and assumptions that explain why those behaviors have “made sense” up until now. Surfacing those assumptions and values hopefully allows the coachee to reshape his or her relationship to them and make different, more purposeful choices.

To put it another way, when a coachee realizes that she has been acting out of reflex as if certain things are true, she then has the power to step back and question those assumptions and reshape them. At that point, she can purposefully choose to do something else – and that new behavior actually makes sense based on her new way of looking at things. Once she’s gotten there, her world view is just a little more complex than it used to be. That is how adult development happens.

Fostering this process is what I enjoy most about being a coach. I get to talk to someone quite intimately about how she sees and makes sense of the world. And then we work together to shift that picture, expanding it and making it a bit more nuanced and open to possibility.


See related posts:

> A case for coaching: What’s in your wallet?

> A case for coaching: It’s about time