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Performance coaching: Everything you need to know

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When it comes to your career, you probably don’t want to stay in one spot. You have big goals that you’re eager to achieve. But, here’s the question you keep running into: How do you make them happen?

Performance coaching is a formal process that supports you in pursuing growth, development, and peak performance in your career. 

Before we dig into the ins and outs of performance coaching, let’s look at some statistics that illustrate the popularity and benefits of this process.

  • Seven out of 10 leaders and managers see developing people as one of their primary tasks. [1]
  • Only 26% of employees say the feedback they get helps them do better at work. [1]
  • Only about two in 10 managers intuitively understand how to engage employees, develop their strengths, set clear expectations, and coach their direct reports. [1]
  • 80% of people who have received coaching report positive impacts in areas such as work performance, communication skills, productivity, well-being, and business management strategies. [2]
  • 65% of employees in a strong coaching culture report that they are “highly engaged.” [2]
  • In a study of 100 executives who received coaching, companies experienced the following benefits [3]:
  1. Productivity (reported by 53% of executives)
  2. Quality (48%)
  3. Organizational strength (48%)
  4. Customer service (39%)
  5. Reducing customer complaints (34%)
  6. Retaining executives who received coaching (32%)
  7. Cost reductions (23%)
  8. Bottom-line profitability (22)%

  • That same study found that the executives also experienced improved [3]:
  1. Working relationships with direct reports (77%)
  2. Working relationships with immediate supervisors (71%)
  3. Teamwork (67%)
  4. Working relationships with peers (63%)
  5. Job satisfaction (61%)
  6. Conflict reduction (52%)
  7. Organizational commitment (44%)
  8. Working relationships with clients (37%)

  • The top reasons coaches are hired include [4]:
  1. Develop high potential/facilitate a transition (48%)
  2. Act as a sounding board (26%)
  3. Address derailing behavior (12%)

  • An estimated 80-90% of management and leadership jobs require the ability to coach. [5]
  • 70% of employees in the United States admit that they aren’t working to their full potential, illustrating a need for more performance coaching. [6]
  • 94% of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn. [7]
Table of contents
What is performance coaching?
What is a performance coach?
How is performance coaching different to life coaching or therapy?
Why make use of a performance coach?
So, what are the benefits of performance coaching?
What issues can performance coaching help with?
How does performance coaching improve performance?
Who is performance coaching for?
What is performance coaching in management?
What to look for in a performance coach
Learning cultures are earning cultures
How can you find a performance coach?
Maximizing your performance and potential? You’re on your way

What is performance coaching?

Performance coaching is the process by which you encourage someone to become the best version of themselves at work.

In a business context, it's usually a one-on-one process where an experienced teacher coaches a manager or executive. They'll likely have sessions that involve broad conversation and reflection on wider issues - things like motivation, values, or decision-making.

They'll also go deeper into more specific, practical areas like time management, skill enhancement or people management. As well as being taught directly, this sort of coaching could include working with other people within the organization: a secondment to a different department or taking part in cross-functional projects could also be on the cards.

Performance coaching aims to take coachees from competence to mastery. That's why coaches who specialize in this are sometimes called high-performance coaches - it's about more than just being able to do the job. 

It's about doing it with excellence.

What is a performance coach?

A performance coach is someone who takes on a supportive and guiding role to help you reach your full potential in your career. Through performance coaching, they give people the resources and encouragement they need to excel by doing the following: 

  • Evaluating an employee’s performance 
  • Identifying performance-related goals and objectives
  • Providing ongoing feedback about areas of improvement
  • Monitoring progress in achieving those goals
  • Suggesting relevant skills and competencies that might be needed
  • Offering resources and outlets to refine those skills

To put it simply, performance coaches will help you achieve peak performance in your career.

So...who serves as a performance coach? In a lot of organizations, an employee’s supervisor or manager takes on the role of the performance coach. As the leader, it’s their responsibility to understand their direct reports’ strengths and ambitions, and offer support as they develop and grow in their professions. 

Unfortunately, only about two in 10 managers intuitively know how to coach their employees in this way. That means many organizations bring in outside professional performance coaches to guide their management teams. 

How is performance coaching different to life coaching or therapy?

Performance coaching isn't life coaching, although there are certainly some crossovers between the two. 

Life coaching is more of a holistic discipline, where a moral authority or life coach helps address psychological or spiritual issues that hold you back from certain achievements or feelings. They might help address things in your relationships, career, or day to day life. Life coaches are different to therapists in that they aren't always qualified in psychological science. Nobody would dare declare themselves a therapist without accreditation - the law would prevent them from doing so - but life coaches (unfortunately) can. So they might be a great addition to your life, but can't usually guarantee success.

It's not therapy either

Performance coaching isn't therapy either, then - therapists can identify and treat specific psychological conditions like mental health problems, mood disorders, addiction issues or certain forms of anxiety. Therapy can be done in short bursts for specific problems, or as a long-term practise for the upkeep of positive mental health in general. Sort of like going to the gym, for your mind.

Performance coaches can sometimes identify issues that might be better suited to a therapist, and refer you to medical professionals if necessary, but in general their work aims for more of a specific outcome in the context of business and work.

There's no doubt an effective life coaching or therapy program can have positive effects on a person's performance at work. Happier, healthier, more motivated and empathetic people come to work feeling energized and ready to achieve.

Where it stands out

Performance coaching will take people who are already capable of doing their job and help them turn the dial - going, in the words of Jim Collins, from good to great. The main focus here is coaching for work performance. 

A side note: performance coaching and peak performance coaching are essentially the same thing.

Why make use of a performance coach?

Making that leap from good to great is a nice way to encapsulate the real benefits of performance coaching. But there's a few other reasons to engage in it, too.

First of all, it's kinda lonely at the top.

People in positions of authority are often agreed with to the point where everyone surrounding them becomes a 'yes man' - afraid to criticize for fear of ostracism or punishment. And we all know what kind of culture that can create.

It's why many leaders get to 'the top' and stagnate; plateauing in skills and drive because they aren't forced to confront their failings.

Effective one-on-one coaching can bypass this moat of authority and hold a mirror up to leaders that really need to take a look at themselves. They'll need to set their ego aside and listen for a minute - not always a pleasant thing to do - but some real feedback can be refreshing and enlightening if they're not used to it, and can lead to tangible results. 

A typical CEO can get by working at, say, 80% of their potential. They can steer the ship competently, getting by without ruffling any feathers. But with that much room for improvement, why leave possibilities on the table? Why not do some reflection to eke out that extra potential, and gain a real competitive advantage?

The benefits don't stop at just the solo executive, either.

We'll look at more specific skills that can be coached below, but the effects of many of them aren't limited to individual performance.

Getting the best out of yourself can also help you get the best out of others, too. Whether you're in a position of direct management, or just have frequent opportunities to work with others, having a better sense of focus in your work and openness in your relationships can make for a huge boost in how you're perceived in the workplace.

Perhaps you'll become less hurt by constructive criticism. Maybe you'll become a better listener. You could end up as a bolder, more inspiring leader when previously you'd let others take the lead.

These changes don't always come instantly, of course, but even a single conversation can give you clarity and a new perspective on something that's been blocking you for a while, setting you on the path to positive change sooner than you might think. This is why coaching is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to improve performance.

So, what are the benefits of performance coaching?

Look back at the statistics that started this post, and you’ll see that coaching for performance offers a number of advantages including (but certainly not limited to): 

  • Greater productivity
  • Better quality of work
  • Improved customer service and less customer complaints
  • Increased retention of executives
  • Cost reductions 
  • More profitability
  • Positive relationships with direct reports, supervisors, peers, and clients
  • Better collaboration and teamwork
  • Increased job satisfaction

All of these are good news for an organization. In fact, one study of a Fortune 500 company found that 77% of respondents indicated that coaching had a significant impact on at least one of nine business measures, with productivity and employee satisfaction being the most positively-impacted areas. 

Additionally, according to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), 86% of organizations saw a positive return on investment in coaching engagements and 96% of people who had an executive coach said they would repeat the process again. 

What issues can performance coaching help with?

There's a whole range of skills and responsibilities that a performance coach can help with. From mindset to management and productivity, these are just some of the things performance coaching can help with:

1) Self-knowledge

In the words of Albert Einstein, "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them." Gaining understanding of our limits, attributes, strengths and weakness is known as intrapersonal intelligence and can be gained through a combination of solo work and mindfulness and conversations with a performance coach.

This is extended by coaching the ability for intrapersonal communication - the ability to communicate with ourselves through internal vocalization and thoughts. It's what we use to construct our self-image, give ourselves a pep talk, or deal with adversity when we're without external support.

2) Addressing negative emotions or behaviors

After gaining a certain amount of self-knowledge, we're better equipped to understand the roadblocks that sit in our path to success.

Coaching can help eliminate roadblocks like these, such as:

  • Fear
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Hesitancy
  • Guilt

And it can also be a much-needed reality check on adverse traits and behaviors like:

  • Idleness
  • Narcissism
  • Boorishness
  • Inability to listen to others

There's obviously a limit to how far a coach can go - they can't change entire personalities. But even just sparking a thought you've never had before can be just the thing you needed to start heading in the right direction.

3) Learning new skills

Before jumping into a course or training program for an exciting new skill, you have to learn how to learn, and get yourself into a mindset suitable for study. Chances are, if you've got far enough in an organization, you probably succeeded in some sort of education system. But for some, the ability to learn new skills and disciplines past the age of 18 disappears.

Getting back into the mindset of continuous improvement is something a good coach can help with, along with techniques for note-taking, information retention and habit-forming.

4) Public speaking

Being a great public speaker is seen as something that comes naturally with practice. While this is partially true, a speaking coach can really elevate your performance in presentations by giving the feedback you need but won't always get - especially if you're in a position of authority.

Things like presentation structure, body language, vocal techniques and even slideshow design are all things that can be coached. And they can make the difference between your presentations being simply tolerated to being remembered. If it means the difference between winning a pitch and going home empty-handed, then a few coaching sessions are certainly worth investing in.

5) People management

There are plenty of employees out there who'd happily give some constructive feedback about their boss. While it's important to listen to them to find out how to get the best out of them, a neutral party is also worth consulting for expert advice on how to manage people effectively. 

Coaches can ask the right questions and get you to think about what you're really trying to do when you manage people. They can help you understand and define your leadership style, and equip you with a better toolkit for dealing with different character types. 

6) Concentration and discipline

The ability to do deep work - defined by Cal Newport as focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task - doesn't come easily. It needs a combination of good mental health, a conducive work environment, supportive colleagues and family, and a tightly organized personal schedule. 

But, with enough practice, it can become a habit, and the rewards of consistent deep work sessions can be tremendous. Coaches can help build systems and thinking frameworks to make deep work happen more often and for longer.

7) Creativity

Being able to come up with innovative ideas might seem like an innate skill that some creative souls are born with, but it's actually a systematic thought process that can be taught. Leaders that need a more pioneering skillset can make use of a coach to open their minds over time to new ways of combining, disassembling, reconstructing, and extrapolating from existing ideas to make way for new ones.

8) Physical coaching

Healthy body, healthy mind. If you're not close to your physical best, you won't be able to support the people that depend on you. Regular personal trainers will do the job just fine, although the emergence of trainers specifically to keep executives in good health is worth looking at - they tend to fit training regimes around the lifestyle demands of busy CEOs and managers.

How does performance coaching improve performance?

But, how does this work? How are these benefits achieved? A performance coach—whether it’s a manager within a company or a third-party professional—can help another person: 

  • Identify and address performance-related roadblocks or problems
  • Establish actionable and motivating performance goals
  • Understand and maximize their existing strengths
  • Reduce, work through, or prevent conflict with colleagues
  • Recognize and address their self-defeating behaviors and mindsets
  • Become an even more effective contributor on their team
  • Boost their self-esteem and self-perception 
  • Hone specific skills, such as public speaking or their executive presence

All of that translates to improved performance in their position. In fact, 80% of people who have received coaching reported positive impacts in numerous areas including work performance, communication skills, productivity, well-being, and business management strategies.

Plus, a coaching model increases accountability. When someone else is looped into your goals, they can provide some friendly nudges to keep pursuing them—especially when your motivation starts to fade.

Research from the Association for Talent Development found that most people have a 10% chance of completing a goal if they simply have a broad idea or objective in mind.

However, their chances of achieving their goal increase to 65% if they share that goal with someone and say they’re committed to achieving it. Even more amazing? Their likelihood of achievement skyrockets to 95% if they have a specific accountability appointment with the person they committed to.

That’s the power of a performance coach in a nutshell—they not only support you in identifying your goals, but they keep you on track in accomplishing them. That results in improved performance.

Who is performance coaching for?

A properly customized performance coaching program can benefit almost anyone, whatever their industry.

For those new to a profession, it might not make sense - gaining competence through initial training and experience is going to be necessary before thinking about taking their skills to the next level. But you might be surprised at what kind of job type or character can benefit from performance coaching.

Some of the highest achievers in the world use performance coaching, with sport being an obvious example. Conor McGregor is one of the most successful MMA fighters of modern times, and certainly one of the most confident. Yet after a single loss in 2018, he brought in coaching guru Tony Robbins before his next fight for some last minute pep talks. And of course, like any prominent fighter, he has a whole crew of coaches working with him during the months leading up to a fight. It's a team effort.

In business, high performance coaches are mostly sought for particular reasons at particular times. According to David B. Peterson, an executive coaching expert at 7 Paths Forward, it's a growing field:

"Twenty years ago, coaching was mainly directed at talented but abrasive executives who were likely to be fired if something didn’t change. Today, coaching is a popular and potent solution for ensuring top performance from an organization’s most critical talent."

In particular, the services of a coach can be useful for those who:

  • Are at a career crossroads or inflection point
  • Have an ambitious goal
  • Want better clarity in their plans
  • Are returning from a sabbatical
  • Are dealing with setbacks or fallout from negative life events
  • Want to beat burnout, stress or overwork

Debunking the myths

There’s a tendency to believe that performance coaching is meant for a specific type of person, mainly:

A) An existing high-performer within an organization

B) Someone who is struggling in their position and needs to be put on an improvement plan

It’s true—both of those types of people could benefit from the support and guidance of a performance coach. But, they certainly aren’t the only ones who can reap the benefits of this type of relationship. 

That’s because performance coaching can be beneficial for anyone who wants to improve their career performance and reach their full potential. 

Performance coaching isn’t limited to a specific industry, position, or experience level. We all have room to grow and improve, and performance coaching can be the catalyst for that development—regardless of who you are.

What is performance coaching in management?

Let’s talk about that concept a little more. It’s the leader’s job to coach their employees, but many managers aren’t equipped with the expertise and knowledge they need to make that happen.

That’s where performance coaching in management comes into play. Through this process, a company’s leaders are coached on...well, coaching

As mentioned in the previous section, some companies and leaders hire outside coaching professionals to come in and shape the conduct and achievement of their leaders. You might hear this referred to as an executive coach or a leadership coach. 

These experts will work directly with a company’s managers and supervisors to teach them how to become effective coaches for their employees. The executive coaches coach the supervisors, and then the supervisors coach their direct reports—resulting in an all-around high-performing organization. 

With that in mind, performance coaches that specialize in this area generally fall into one of two buckets:

  • A company leader who manages employees and is responsible for their success
  • An external coach who specializes in performance coaching for company leaders

What to look for in a performance coach

You’re sold on the benefits of performance coaching, and you’re eager to collaborate with someone who can help you reach your full professional potential. 

But, how do you find the right performance coach for you? 

The best place to start is within your current organization. Connect with your human resources department or your manager to ask some thoughtful questions about your performance coaching options. These can include:

  • Does your company have an established coaching or mentorship program in place? If so, how can you get more information about that program?

  • Does your company work with a third-party coaching professional or service?

  • Has anybody in your company worked with a performance coach previously? What was their experience like?

  • Does your company offer any resources or reimbursement for employees who wish to work with a coach?

  • What other growth or professional development opportunities are available to you? 

The answers to these questions will help you determine how to move forward—whether it’s with someone internal to your organization or with an external coaching professional.

If you choose to look for an external coach, it’s smart to have a list of criteria you’re looking for so that you can find someone who’s a good match for you and your performance goals. As Harvard Business Review explains, there are a number of things to evaluate them on, including:

1) Experience

  • Experience coaching in a similar setting
  • Experience working in a similar role themselves
  • Experience working with someone with similar goals and/or experience
  • Experience as a psychological therapist (if that’s important to you)

2) Clear coaching methodology

3) Processes for measuring performance and success

When you find a coach you want to consider working with, ask to see a list of some of their past clients or if they have any previous clients you could reach out to and learn about their experience. You can get a lot of valuable information that way.

Additionally, many coaches offer free consultations. That’s worth taking advantage of so you can ask questions and get an overall sense of how well you connect. 

You'll also want to find one that takes feedback themselves and tries to ensure effectiveness. In a HBR study on executive coaching, this was found to be lacking in more than a few of their subjects:

"...coaches can be very lax in evaluating the impact of their work and communicating results to executives and stakeholders. While 70% of coaches surveyed said they provide qualitative assessment of progress, fewer than one-third ever give feedback in the form of quantitative data on behaviors, and less than one-fourth provide any kind of quantitative data on business outcomes of the coaching engagement."

The solution? According to the authors, organizations that hire coaches externally should insist on getting regular, formal progress reviews to make sure their investment is worth it - with as much data as possible.

Learning cultures are earning cultures

A culture of consistent learning and personal development will orient any company toward success. In the supersonic environment of modern business, a company's ability to adapt and improve is only possible if its people can adapt and improve themselves.

Recent research quoted by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that only 10% of organizations have a 'true learning culture' - one that "supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization".

Alongside that, only 20% of employees surveyed showed 'effective learning behaviors'.

Put another way, that's 90% of companies and 80% of employees leaving untapped potential on the table. Sounds like a pretty good reason to invest in a little coaching, don't you think?

As put eloquently by the School of Life's Emotionally Intelligent Office book, a productive workplace must first be a wise one:

"Because its culture recognizes and normalizes error, the wise office is correspondingly always open to learning, taking constant care to instruct and guide. Learning is not a process that ended with a university degree. The wise office accepts that pointing out to every individual - with infinite tact - the many ways in which they are imperfect is not a violation of their dignity, but the foundations of care; even of a certain kind of love."

Maybe now's the time to give that coach a call.

How can you find a performance coach?

Now that you know what you’re looking for, how do you know where to find them? There are a few different places you can look:

  • Your current employer: Again, start with your employer. They might have a mentorship program in place where a leader in your organization can serve as your performance coach. Or, they could be connected with a third-party coach who could offer support and guidance.

  • Your professional network: You have a whole web of professional contacts, and you never know who’s connected with who. Reachout to some of your professional acquaintances to ask if they’ve used a performance coach or if they’ve heard of someone who could be a good fit for you. You might be surprised by the professionals who are right under your own nose.
  • Yelp or LinkedIn: Use the search functionality on these platforms to search keywords like “performance coach,” “executive coach,” “leadership coach,” and more. You’ll find profiles you can peruse and you can also filter by location if you want to work with a coach in-person. Additionally, Yelp will even show you reviews of each coach so you can hear about other people’s experiences. 
  • Fingerprint for Success: Create a free account to access the world’s first AI-powered coach (Coach Marlee) that makes effective, personalized performance coaching available to everyone, for free! Coach Marlee will learn about your unique working style and deliver targeted and tailored coaching, unique to your traits and goals. Give it a try now

Maximizing your performance and potential? You’re on your way

Maybe you know exactly what you want to achieve. Or perhaps you’re struggling to identify your strengths and hash out career goals that leverage those.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, performance coaching can help. A performance coach will collaborate with you to pinpoint your goals, develop an action plan for achieving them, and support you as you become the best version of your professional self. 

After all, you’re the only one in charge of your career destiny—but we all need a little help and support from time to time. 

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