Training vs Coaching

A question I frequently get is about the relationship and the differences between coaching and training. I don't believe coaching and training are either/or solutions to most engineering leadership problems. When used in the right context, both coaching and training can be powerful tools for building leadership skills. The critical difference is that coaching focuses on attitude, while training develops adeptness.

Coaching Develops Attitude

Coaching helps employees overcome obstacles caused by attitude. In other words, when a leader's behavior is creating issues, a great coach provides a mirror that allows the leader to reflect on their actions, motivations, and impact on others. Through well-timed questions, thoughtful suggestions, and sharp insights, a coach helps leaders change their behavior through self-awareness. Coaching doesn't tell you exactly how to be a leader, it allows leaders to develop their unique leadership style.

Coaching, however, must build upon a skill-based foundation.

Training Develops Adeptness

The foundation for successful coaching is effective training. Excellent training focuses on instruction, skills, and practice to develop the core competencies that create great leaders. Through instructional models and curriculum design, an effective trainer helps leaders reach a baseline in capability. Through training, leaders acquire good habits that are expanded upon later in their career through coaching.

To understand how coaching and training work together to develop talent, let's take a look at two hypothetical leaders on your team, Jan and Sara.

Helping Jan Overcome Challenge

Jan's a manager on your engineering team, and in this quarter's 360 feedback, you confirmed your gut feelings. Despite having managed teams before, Jan needs help. Jan's feedback packet contains several concerns raised by engineers in his group. The team's concerns focus on the fact that Jan is still writing code and making technical decisions; one employee referred to him as a micromanager. To help Jan, our first instinct is to consider getting him a leadership coach because we see these problems as issues with Jan's management style.

Unfortunately, bringing in a coach to "fix" Jan's problems without any other development plans will fail every single time. Coaching will fail because Jan's issues are likely not rooted in attitude, but in adeptness. Even though Jan has managed teams before, his behavior implies that he does not understand his role as a manager. Coaching excels when self-reflection can be used to initiate change; however, it struggles to provide reflection when the underlying fundamentals are not in place. Getting Jan into a training program for managers that focuses on the expectations and skills associated with his role will give him the tools he needs to change the behaviors that are most damaging to his team while he develops his management capabilities.

Coaching still has an essential role to play in Jan's development. As Jan begins to put his training into practice, he will need the support and insight of a neutral third party who can help him develop his attitude and enable him to see the impact his behavioral changes are having in his team. This development of attitude is where coaching can soar, as the coach no longer needs to focus on skill development.

Expanding Sara's Expertise

Sara is also a manager on your engineering team. Similar to Jan, you conducted 360 feedback for Sara, but unlike Jan, Sara's feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People on the team felt that Sara was developing their careers, they felt confident in her abilities, and they trusted that she was keeping the team unblocked. To continue to grow Sara's skills as a leader, we absolutely should pair Sara with a coach that can accelerate her development even further.

This situation is ideal for coaching: extending and fine-tuning an individual's existing skills.

Sara could also benefit from the same training as Jan. Failing to include Sara in the leadership training would deprive both her and Jan of valuable growth opportunities, for Sara to develop her coaching skills working with Jan and for Jan to learn from Sara's skillful management practices. Studies have shown that educational cohorts build significant bonds between learners that last beyond the instruction period. Through training, Sara can practice the skills she's developed as a leader and help others in her cohort do the same.

You Need Both

The decision between training or coaching is a false dilemma. Ideal development happens when you combine both the consistency and foundation of training and the self-reflection of coaching. Adeptness and attitude play equal roles in developing talent. When you embrace both, your leaders can reach their full potential.