Thought Series: Coaching, the map is not the territory


Thought Series are deeper pieces than to reflect on than daily thoughts from short blog posts. They provide actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work. 

Many think coaching is about finding a map. But the map is not the territory.


There are many kinds of coaches out there today (Sports Coaches, Trainers, Life Coaches, Mental Health Professionals, etc.) Most engagements emphasize one of three domains: content, process, and context. While every engagement includes some combination of all three, the most powerful coaching gets into what we call context.

Content is the “what.” With content-style engagements, clients asks to share particular
knowledge about specific areas of business. Examples might include:

  • Marketing

  • Business planning

  • Financial management

  • Productivity benchmarks

  • Competitive and strategic insights

  • Legal issues

  • Productivity improvements

  • Technology strategies

  • Legal issues

  • Recruiting, retaining, and developing people

  • Human Resources systems

  • Risk management

The “content engagement” is the safest, easiest type of engagement for clients to request. Content is generally intellectual, and doesn’t require much risk or even action. However, most content-style engagements require process and context in order to get measurable results.

The other challenge with content coaching is that – if you already have the answer – it is very challenging to stay in coaching mode, vs. shifting to the role of a consultant.

Process refers to the “how.” Process-focused coaching helps the client lay out a structure and an action plan to get things done. Typically process engagements are large initiatives that the client is undertaking. Examples include:

  • Transform the culture

  • Develop leaders through an internal Leadership University

  • Improve productivity by 12%

  • Complete a strategic planning exercise

  • Improve the board’s effectiveness.

  • Turn around profitability

  • Develop a plan to increase sales at a large client

  • Restructure the organization

  • Implement a mentoring program

For the most part, you will have an idea already about how to get it done – but for some reason, nothing moves forward. This is why coaches have to move to a deeper level of facilitation, what we call the context level.

Context engagements are engagements in which coaches help clients improve their behavior, attitude, and effectiveness as a manager. Context is about who you are as a leader, the tone you set, the messages you convey, the relationships you build, and what you do and don’t tolerate. Examples include:

  • Influence colleagues and managers without using formal authority

  • Get a better response from employees

  • Eliminate behavioral “blind spots” that are hurting performance

  • Build on talents

  • Be more assertive

  • Collaborate more effectively

  • Handle conflict appropriately

  • Improve relationships with superiors

  • Be more politically astute when recommending ideas

  • Transition to a new, unfamiliar role

Context is often the missing piece that prevents process- and content-related engagements from succeeding. That’s because sustainable results require all three domains: sound decisions based on good knowledge/content, a sound process to get results, and effective interactions and behaviors. In fact, the most effective and satisfying engagements involve content, process, and context.