Key Principles of Coaching

Photo Credit:  michael podger

Photo Credit: michael podger


Components of being results-driven, a good thought partner, engaged in the challenge, and a connector of insights are important for an effective coaching engagement. How that is delivered requires certain qualities.

A few key principles fair better than long lists of models, worksheets, and tactics—no matter how road tested they are. We use the term guiding principles for a reason, because they literally guide us when we over overwhelmed by emotions that come up in stressful work situations, like anxiety, boredom, frustration, resentment, anger and disappointment. Guiding principles apply to when things are going well, too, like joy, euphoria, and happiness because they dictate what we do next. They guide us when we are under pressure and the stakes are high, like when our team doubles and our scope increases overnight and we are now responsible for teams in three geographic regions. Achieving personal and professional mastery at being, doing, and learning with attaining actionable results…in front of others, when our career is on the line—is hard work.

Coaches use the following principles:

  • Note their whole experience

  • Adopt a systems lens

  • Use their own experience and a systems lens in their coaching method


Note their whole experience

Often referred to as “signature presence”, “executive presence”, or one’s “whole self,” it is really about understanding what is it about that coach that we can’t get from any other.

Everyone has a unique presence that gives everyone else they come into contact with a particular experience they can’t get anywhere else. This isn’t to say that we can’t be replaced, but at the same time, we are unique beings and have unique perspectives to offer. A coach should not be performing techniques on clients. No one likes that experience, and it’s not helpful. A trainer, for example, who performs the same training in three cities is not a coach. They are giving a cookie-cutter experience to a high volume of people. I mentioned partnership as a key quality in coaching because it is a value I hold deeply. A coach is a sounding board, peer, and shoulder-to-shoulder collaborator presenting their unique perspectives on a client’s most intimidating challenges. This requires the coach to be candid, the ability to be truthful and authentic about oneself.

The coaching relationship is built on trust, the ability to provide candid feedback, and a genuine presence. The coach’s ability to be authentic helps elicit authenticity in the client. In this way, the coach helps the client bring their full self to their goals, challenges, and relationships crucial to their success.

Adopting a systems lens

Think of a system like a spider web, where the action of one person can impact the experience and potential reactions of everyone or thing else within that web. Coaches require a system lens to understand where their clients where their clients work. A systems view is by definition nonlinear. It enables the coach to spot patterns of interaction and interdependence within and across specific areas of the system.

A coach looks at the system both inside-out and outside-in. At the center of the web is the leader and their personal work. This is where the coach and the client reflect on the client’s values, motivations, goals, strengths, and core challenges. Next out is the client and their team(s), departments, vendors, customers, and strategic stakeholders or partners. The further area from the client is the market, the economy, the natural environment, and political shifts.

This last phase used to seem academic but is coming into the foreground now more than ever. When tariffs increase, whole revenue models need to be re-calibrated—as is the case with cars. When natural resources are recognized as finite, whole product lines and supply chains need to be reconsidered—as is the case with the paper coffee cup. When a company is questioned about their ethics and their impact on elections, how people approach launching their service requires more rigor in thinking through unintended consequences—as is the case with social media services. All of these external factors (and more) impact how we go about our day to day business and how we feel about our work. And, how we feel about work impacts how content we are ourselves and how we treat others.

When the coach focuses too narrowly on the client (their goals, challenges, and inner difficulties), the whole ecosystem in which they function is lost. And the client is influencing and being influenced by the interrelationships of that system (their team, departments, vendors and customers) all the time. Also important is the global area in which they operate.

Combining our experience and a systems lens with an approach to coaching

Combining the unique qualities the coach brings with a systems lens is what makes the application of the coaching method unique. Depending on how they’ve been trained and their professional experience, each coach will identify, emphasize and reflect something different from the systems in which we operate. This is one of the reasons we need to pay attention to what resonates with us when we choose a coach.

Coaching follows a predictable flow of contracting on what goals will be done, planning how to go about achieving those goals, determining how the coach intervene with the client and what interventions the client will then practice, and debriefing on what progress occurred and what next steps the client should take. This is an action research approach seeking business results while building client capabilities to identify, practice, and review their skill development across multiple contexts.

While these steps appear linear, human reactivity and responsiveness are not. A client might be on the verge of landing a vision and mission with their team or organization when they reach out for coaching. Another might be planning a big change initiative. Those projects will continue forward without the coach’s ability to influence it. The coach will instead focus on the heat and chaffing that arises in and between the individual, team, and larger ecosystem of the “web.”



By linking the coach’s whole experience with a systems perspective to the coaching approach, the coach brings ideas, particular filters and perspectives, and abilities to constructively challenge their clients. Coaches can take a strong stand in stating a position that might not be popular while remaining connected and engaged in the coaching dynamic, even when there is conflict.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.