Don’t let your expertise ruin your coaching

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Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

Last time I flagged up that this post is all about the part that expertise plays in the coaching role. The next post, in around two weeks, will look at the business of offering feedback.

expertiseOne area in which there seems to be a difference of opinion amongst the coaching commentators is the degree to which coaches need background expertise in the issue under discussion. John Whitmore challenges whether a coach needs to have any experience or technical knowledge in the area in which he or she is coaching. He goes on to state that no, they don’t, providing the coach is truly acting as the detached awareness raiser with an absolute belief in the potential of the coachee and the value of self responsibility.

My own experience bears this out and I have personally coached managers in areas such as process reengineering or information technology where I have no expertise whatsoever. In this situation the key as ever is to ask good coaching questions and to listen carefully in order to help these managers set sensible goals and to assist them in finding the resources required to meet those goals.

Others take a different view and Trevor Bentley for example states emphatically that the coach must be able to ‘model’ what he or she requires the coachee to do. ‘The whole coaching approach is for someone who is trusted, with knowledge and experience to help someone less experienced but with skills and talent, to develop.’ For me this seems more like a mentoring approach and difficult to sustain in such changing times. I also think it could provide an opportunity for the less than scrupulous coaching manager to disguise telling as coaching.

For many the issue of expertise in coaching is resolved by classifying the coaching as directive or non-directive.

According to Joshua Hyatt non directive coaches help the coachee explore a situation, identify some options and select a way forward, the coachee takes full ownership of the solution and the actions required. Directive coaching, he says, has its place, but is limited by the knowledge of the coach and the responsibility for the solution is seldom successfully transferred to the coachee.

My view is that any notion of directive coaching moves too far towards instruction and teaching type interventions which are to be avoided if coaching is really to bring about a change in management approach. I’ll say instead that the effective coach does not need to have to have expertise in the area being coached. Rather they will use effective questioning skills to help the coachee develop their own, unique insight. Put more crudely, the effective coach takes the positive stance that ‘the brain that has the problem is the brain with the solution’.


So, you need expertise to teach, but not to coach. A background in the issue at hand may be useful for establishing credibility but it is not essential. In fact it may increase the temptation to tell and as such it is often easier to coach without the baggage of expertise.


Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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