Six Down-To-Earth Lessons Learned From The Most Effective Coaches

November 23, 2020

6 Lessons on Coaching

It is becoming apparent that the best leaders are good coaches. Assuming that most of us would like to become better leaders, what lessons can we learn from those seen by their colleagues as outstanding coaches?

My colleague Joe Folkman and I collected data on 4,212 leaders who were providing coaching to their direct reports and colleagues. On average, they received feedback from nine other people, including their immediate boss, several of their peers, all of their direct reports, and in some cases, from customers or suppliers.

We separated those who were rated as the most effective coaches. Then, we identified 20 behaviors that were most frequently used by this group of extremely effective coaches. We then conducted a statistical factor-analysis on that data to determine these outstanding coaches’ dominant behavioral patterns. The results serve as a highly practical set of behaviors to which any leader can aspire and which every leader can practice.

The most effective coaches:

1.    Carve out the time. Woody Allen is reputed to have said, “Eighty-percent of success in life is showing up.” Our first research finding is mainly in that realm. Effective coaching requires setting aside the time and showing up for the experience. It sounds simple, but that’s where effective coaching begins.

The action steps? Access your calendar and schedule the times to provide coaching. Contact the person involved.

2.    Focus on specific actions versus more general resolutions or platitudes. For example, in a conversation with a direct report, a manager can make a general observation, “You might consider taking more initiative.” Or the manager can be more specific and observe, “Your colleagues really appreciated your streamlining our process for paying vendors. Seeing a need and then actively coming up with a solution makes you even more valuable. Can you do more of that?”

The action step? In every coaching conversation, discuss specifics versus generalities.

3.    Inspire others via positive interactions. The best coaches were consistently seen as positive catalysts for change, rather than critics. Others looked to them for ideas, inspiration, and direction. They were seen as constantly seeking superior performance through continuous improvement. It is a fact that some people suck energy from those around them while others inject energy. The best coaches radiated energy and enthusiasm to others.

The action step? Think of a coaching conversation topic that could easily be interpreted by the other person as being critical and finding fault. Create a positive script that leaves the other person uplifted.

4.    Add your ideas and experience. Good coaches help the person being coached to see the issues and challenges they are facing. The coach enables them to find good answers from within themselves. However, coaches are not mere passive listeners. At the appropriate time, they give their ideas and share their experience. They do that honestly. They are careful to deliver observations in a way that does not offend.

The action step? After exploring the other person’s ideas for a solution, if you think there is a valuable solution they have missed, pass it on.

5.    Freely give honest praise. Feedback can range from redirecting or corrective observations all the way to high praise and commendation. Both kinds of feedback have their time and place. However, our research convincingly shows that the best coaches spend most of their time recognizing and rewarding positive performance. Their goal is to build confidence and self-esteem, which in turn encourages even greater effort. Positive expressions far outweigh negative comments.

The action step? Keep track. Shoot for having conversations containing genuine praise, commendation, and kudos outnumbering criticism by three to five times.

6.    Foster collaboration. The best coaches emphasize superordinate goals that unify people and generate collaboration. They help those they coach to see opportunities to garner cooperation from other teams and departments. They do all they can to tamp down competition between departments and to replace it with selfless cooperation.

The action step? Listen carefully for any hints of conflict and competition. Help the person you are coaching to see opportunities where competition could become cooperation. Reinforce any examples of cooperation between groups.

To understand the impact of these six characteristics on a person’s effectiveness at coaching, we measured a coach’s performance on the behaviors and then looked at their ratings as a coach. The graph below shows the results of the analysis. Leaders who performed poorly on the six behaviors were rated at the 10th percentile on their coaching skills. In comparison, those who performed all six behaviors exceptionally well (e.g., 90th – 100th percentile) were rated at the 91st percentile. This study validates the impact of improved performance on the six behaviors.

Building a Strength at Coaching Others

For many people, this list of six behaviors may seem like a difficult challenge. We have discovered that just doing a few of the behaviors well can significantly impact a person’s ability to be an effective coach. By simulating the impact of high performance (e.g., being at the 90th percentile), we discovered that if you only did one of these skills well, your coaching effectiveness would be at the 71stpercentile on coaching effectiveness. Doing two behaviors well would put you at the 79th percentile, and with three, you would then jump to the 85th percentile. Start by identifying the one skill that would be easiest to improve. For many, “Carving out the time” is easy to change but requires some discipline; for others, “Accentuating the positive” might have a profound impact, not only on those you work with but also those you live with.


Leadership is about behavior. One of the essential skill sets of today’s leader is being a good coach. Our research identified six behaviors that are practiced by outstanding coaches. None of them requires unique or superhuman skills. All six can be used by any leader who genuinely wants to move beyond being an average leader. These six behaviors can become part of your ingrained, habitual style if you consciously decide to incorporate them into your ongoing, daily actions.

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Other Articles about Feedback 

Episode 12: Six Lessons From The Most Effective Coaches

Episode 12: Effective Coaches, The 90th Percentile Podcast

8 Tried and True Ways to Get a High-Performance Rating from Your Boss