Article 02

Learning from the ‘new kid on the block’ : how training has benefited from the growth of coaching

In January 2002 I went skiing after a gap of six years. As I waited for my skis to be adjusted at the ski-hire shop, the assistant told me ‘You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to ski on the new shape skis. Ski designers have learned so much from the design of snowboards.’ On the slopes, I discovered for myself that he was right.

Whenever a new technology arrives, it benefits old, related technologies (unless it wipes them out, of course!) Executive coaching is a new ‘technology’ which, like snowboarding, has grown rapidly in popularity and reputation. A recent issue of this magazine was given over entirely to the subject, and few organisations have not at least considered it for their senior people. I believe it has had some profound, and beneficial, effects on that older but related technology, training. Many of the trainers I meet and work with are coaches too. They have the opportunity, in their one-to-one work, to study closely what helps and what hinders personal and behavioural change. The lessons they learn there inform their training practice to no small degree.

Just as snowboarding didn’t lead to the replacement of skis with something else altogether but rather built on and improved their design, coaching has led to a greater understanding of and emphasis on the best features of training. ‘Learner-centred learning’, as opposed to ‘teacher-centred training’, has become the norm rather than an example of excellence. Training is designed to allow and encourage reflection, rather than to get as much information across in as short a time as possible. The establishing of respect, between trainer and participants, in both directions, and amongst participants for each other, is now seen without question as an essential backdrop to successful training. And our understanding of what ‘respect’ really means has moved forward. Respect is a deep appreciation of the fact that everyone is always already in the middle of something. The effectiveness of any intervention, be it a coaching session, or a training programme, will be critically determined by the extent to which the coach or trainer acknowledges and responds to all the things her client(s) are already in the middle of. Good trainers always began by asking participants about their expectations of the course. This was one way to acknowledge they hadn’t arrived as empty vessels waiting to be filled but rather as full vessels hoping to be able to squeeze a few more drops in. But now trainers will take time to explore their participants’ worlds, to find out what is on their minds, and to make connections as often as they can between the material of the course and the preoccupations of the participants.

There is another important way in which the perspective that trainers get from coaching informs their training practice. In the spotlight of the one-to-one coaching relationship, the coach experiences how critical his own beliefs and attitudes are. His coachee will learn more from what he is than from what he says. If what he is conflicts with what he says, his coachee will learn little (and his coachee’s scepticism is likely to be all too apparent). In the training room too, although the effect is more diffuse because there are many people there, participants will be helped to or hindered from learning by the beliefs and attitudes of the trainer. Gone are the days when the ‘best’ training was done by experts who already knew everything about the topic. If they already know everything, they are not themselves learning. And if they are not learning, participants cannot ‘catch the habit’ of learning from them. Yet this is one of the most valuable things that can happen in the training room. Better by far that participants leave with a multitude of questions and the determination to find out the answers, than with a book full of notes and a disinclination to open it. If the trainer ‘models’ learning, by showing her curiosity, by changing her approach in response to the participants, by learning as much from them as they do from her, their curiosity will be kindled, their adaptability reinforced, their desire to learn strengthened.

The growth of coaching has encouraged us as trainers to reemphasise the importance of our participants and of ourselves in the learning exchange business we are in. We don’t have to be coaches ourselves to have benefited from this. Even if we don’t coach ourselves, we have colleagues who do, we read articles and books about it, and we work with participants who have experienced it. The influences are many, and in my view they are positive.

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