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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Jeff Jacobson on the Coaching Profession and Leadership

Jeff Jacobson on the Coaching Profession and Leadership

In this podcast, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Jeff Jacobson about why professional coaching adds value, how leaders can take a coaching stance and the benefits teams and individuals can get from engaging with a coach.

Key Takeaways

  • Coaching is not therapy – it is forward looking and aims to help people achieve their own goals
  • Leadership can and should have some coaching aspects but generally leaders should not coach their teams as they as not likely to be unbiased about the outcomes
  • The folks that really want to become coaches and make good coaches are the ones that really love being a part of helping someone unlock their potential
  • Coaching has explicit ethical guidelines which coaching professionals must adhere to
  • Coaching is a different set of skills from teaching and mentoring



00:21 Shane: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down with Jeff Jacobson. Jeff is a coach of coaches, and I recently had the privilege of attending one of the classes that Jeff delivered, so I decided it would be good to share some of the thoughts about coaching with the InfoQ audience. Jeff. Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

00:44 Jeff: Thanks for having me on today. Shane, I'm excited to talk about a favorite topic that we both share

00:49 Shane: before we get into it. Would you mind just giving us a little bit of your background? Who are you and how did you get to where you are now?

00:55 Introductions

00:55 Jeff: Sure. I began coaching in 1994, although the term back then that we used, it was in a organization that used a form of peer to peer counseling, and it was very coach like in it's an approach, but it was not a professional setting. So I gained the skills or cut my teeth, so to speak. And then in 1997 is when I found out about the Coaches Training Institute and heard the term coach and thought that's what I'd like to do.

I was born in 1968 in Seattle, Washington. I'm from the US and was always drawn to languages and interpreting and thought I would become either an interpreter, I actually did that for awhile, a language teacher or somethin, because I didn't know any better, international business that seemed to be sort of a catch all for folks that didn't know what they wanted to do but liked languages. I studied Mandarin for quite some time and lived in Asia for awhile. Got my undergrad degree in Asian studies with a Chinese minor and then I was pursuing, interpreting in grad school, and I was also had just joined this community in Central Coast, California, where we were practicing this peer to peer coaching.

And I thought, I think I'm too opinionated to be an interpreter and instead I like this, sort of, deep dive approach into people getting clear on what they want separate from some of their conditioning, things like gender conditioning, or, you know, we looked at racism, sexism, homophobia, things like that and I just thought this is much more interesting than where I thought I was headed. So spring forward to 1997, I took a class at the Coaches Training Institute, they're located in Northern California. That's the organization where you took your class, Shane, and I fell in love with both this idea that you are job is to help bring out a person's own authority.

It can sound a little fluffy at times when I hear people talking about this and as a  linguist, I get a little frustrated with the discussion of coaching, and by fluffy, I don't mean unimportant. I just mean, it sounds vague. To me it's not vague at all. The ambiguity or the vagueness  I think that we uncover is "well, I'm not really sure what I want so I'll try to put my emphasis or I'll put my attention on a professional who can help me and then I'll decide if I like them or not, and resent them for giving me advice that I may or may not take".

I think that's a lot of what we do out there in general and coaching comes in and says "no, not so fast, I'm going to sit you down metaphorically and have you be the expert in your own life, and the stuff that you don't know I trust you can go find out about it" and my job is to put on some guardrails so that you stick with your own sense of truth. I know I'm jumping ahead to the question of what coaching is.

03:41 Coaching is not Therapy

03:41 Shane: No, this is good. How is this different from therapy?

03:45 Jeff: Sure. I'll give you a broad brush stroke difference, and the thing to keep in mind is I know a lot of therapists, as I'm sure you do, or are aware of the profession that practices more of a coach-like approach these days than maybe a really traditional, even like a Freudian approach to therapy and coaching.

One of the standard differences is that coaching looks at where somebody is currently and where they're headed, so, what they currently have in terms of their resources in their life and where they want to go. 

Therapy can address that, absolutely, but it also deals with where they are now and where they came from in their past. Especially issues like family of origin, trauma, trauma from their past, and just places where they are stuck in that moving forward.

I've heard people sort of derogatorily say that coaching is like therapy light, and I think there could be some truth to that, especially there's a kind of therapy called CBT or cognitive behavoral therapy. And that is much more about what somebody wants, maybe triggers that get in the way and how they can move forward.

But as coaches, we are not trained to, and I don't think we should pretend that we can, to go back into someone's past, delve into root cause, give diagnosis and prognosis. I mean, that needs to be left to the field of therapy.

However, there's a lot of emotions in people's lives, in the things that they want to go after or create, and where I can get on my soap box is when people say oh, this person is emotional, they need therapy. I say they're emotional because they're human, and we're coaching humans.

05:17 Shane: So that forward looking, where you're at, where you want to go to. Who needs coaching?

05:25 Who needs and asks for Coaching?

05:25 Jeff: Folks that have a desire to set goals and achieve goals. Folks that are stuck in work, or oftentimes trying to achieve a big, hairy, scary goal, like run a marathon or write a book or grow their team at work. Things that they could figure out on their own, absolutely, but they're craving a form of efficiency that a coach can bring.

Just like a top-level athlete can absolutely improve her game, improve her score, improve her workout, but if she works with a coach, she's going to achieve these things faster and probably with a wider viewpoint. Because, you know, she's in the game, training herself, she may be missing certain things because she's on the court or in the field and a coach can say, Hey, you may want to look over here, also. 

06:08 The Limitations of Leaders as Coaches

06:08 Shane: If I'm a leader in an organization, I've got a team of people - do I coach them?

06:15 Jeff: Uh, good question. Yes and no. So, let's talk about pure coaching and then let's talk about a coach approach to leadership. Honestly, I think that coaching can stand alone as a profession, or it's a subset of a leadership skill.

There's the side of leadership, and I think we talked about this in class, in terms of the continuum. There's a side of leadership that needs to be directive, hierarchical, you know, a leader who takes responsibility, who has to say no to one thing and yes to something else. And also, when leaders need to take responsibility for the results of their teams or their direct reports. So that's going to be more hierarchical, more top down, telling someone what to do and being focused on getting tasks done. That's a part of leadership.

However, I think we ended up thinking then that's all there really is to leadership. Or we think that there are more things in organisations, but the way to tackle them is with that same top down, directive approach and it doesn't work everywhere. It just doesn't.

So, if you shift over to another side of the continuum or on the other side, it's this idea of how do you help ignite and grow the best thinking in someone else? So a) they can solve their own problems, but b) they can develop as a leader and I believe that leaders need to be able to think long term and to grow their team in a way to work themselves out of a job.

If they're not, they're always going to have to be present to get tasks solved and to get the bottom line for their organization or their department, which is exhausting, it's inefficient. So I think a good leader knows how to use coaching skills when having meetings and growing their team and talking with their direct reports.

07:51 Coaching needs to be Unbiased

07:51 To use peer coaching, you also have to be unbiased. So for example, Shane, if you're my leader, I'm your direct report, and you're asking me an open ended question about how I think I can solve a solution and let's say I'm completely out in left field and I want to go try it. A standard coach approach would be to evoke my intelligence, to ask me what I think I could do, and then to come up with a plan. If I march off to do that thing, and you, as the leader are white knuckling it because you see me taking myself and the project over a cliff, you know, at some point you would have to intervene.

And a pure coach approach, the job is not intervening. I know that can sound a little edgy. People come into our classes and say, well, what if I ask them what they want to do and they say they want to do something crazy and what if they fail and a pure coach approach is that's not your responsibility. It's to let them fail and let them crash and burn and in the process, rise up, gain strength and gain some knowledge.

Sometimes a leader can't hold that unbiased approach. So you have to be able to ask yourself, can I coach this person in an unbiased way? That's why we say, don't try to coach your family and friends. It's really hard. I'm terrible when it comes to that. You ran into that yourself?

09:10 Why would Someone Become a Coach?

09:10 Shane: I can empathize there, for sure. So, leaders have an element of coaching or can have an element of coaching who else, who wants to become a coach and why would somebody want to become a coach?

09:21 Jeff: The bottom line requirement, and this may sound flippant, you have to like people.

I have probably come across maybe four people in the entire training of coaches that I've done since 1999, who probably don't like people and shouldn't be doing it. You have to be willing to like someone's foibles, to be at least patient with the human story of success and failure. So that's a starting point.

The folks that really want to become coaches and I think make good coaches are the ones that really love and love being a part of helping someone unlock their potential. I mean, to me, it's a similar spark when I see a parent get excited by maybe when their child starts walking or has an achievement at school that they weren't directly responsible for, but they're parenting or their engagement with that child, that child get to where they want it to go. And I think that can draw a lot of people.

Organizationally, it's the folks that are much more interested in the human side of getting the tasks done, then getting the tasks done and finding ways to do that efficiently, but also to remember that I think emotions drive the entire marketplace.

We say, don't be emotional at work. I think that's a ridiculous thing to tell somebody because they're driving the market and they drive projects anyway. So, folks that are instead willing to be more emotionally intelligent and are interested in that field and how to help folks manoeuvre the field of emotions rather than avoid.

I think that can make an interesting coach and that would draw people to the field of coaching, coaching, and organizational development and leadership potential, all those things that help to pull out the potential in someone.

11:06 Shane: An area that InfoQ's been looking at recently is ethics and professionalism in the various professions, the InfoQ audience is largely technical and there's been a lot of discussion about technical ethics, but what does ethics mean in a coaching context? And how does this trip people up?

11:26 The Ethics of Coaching

11:26 Jeff: Ethics? Gosh, when I started, I think the concept was a lot narrower, which is simply some version of do not share the content of what a coachee - I'll use, the term coachee and client, by the way, interchangeably, the person receiving coaching.

You're not going to share the content of what a coachee brings up in a coaching session. If there's any kind of reporting structure that needs to happen, if it's in an organizational setting, it's up to the coachee to take it back to their manager or a leader.

Maybe some obvious things similar to the therapy world:

A coach is not going to engage in a romantic relationship with a coachee, engage in sexual relations with a coachee, but then it broadened as the coaching field broadened.

So, ethics around, gosh, if I'm brought into an organization and I'm hired to help a team grow. But say their sales force needs work, it would be unethical for me to receive a percentage of payment based on their improved sales scores. It could seem like a good idea from the outside, but if my job really is to help them achieve their own potential around sales and yeah, and I'm going to benefit when those sales improve by benefiting financially, that can very much narrow the approach I take with them and I might start steering them in a direction that would benefit my portfolio. So that's going to be unethical.

I'm glad we're having more conversations about this these days. It's high time we are. There are also some unethical practices around power imbalances. So when you've got a position of power over somebody, you sign their paycheck, you can say whether or not they come or go, you can't honestly coach this person wide open with a sense of trust  unless you also have a discussion about the power imbalances in your relationships.

If you bring in gender imbalances, racial imbalances. Lots of the different micro and macro inequities at work they're not discussed, but they're just acted on, and then you try to coach them in that where you've got a very polluted playing field. I say it's ethical and required to address these things. As a colleague of mine says, you don't have to back up your Winnebago and park it there for the rest of your life, but you do need to say let's discuss the different relationships that we have, and there is rank and privilege here and how do we deal with them respectfully? And then if there's space to actually bring it in coaching, that's a great way to be able to do that.

13:51 The Profession of Coaching vs Just Coaching Someone

13:51 Shane: In a similar vein, what is the profession of coaching versus just coaching someone?

13:57 Jeff: Well, in pushback, if you'd like me to give examples outside of organizations, but I think one of the biggest hang-ups is within organizations or in sports or in any kind of arts, when you say I'll coach you on that, it means something very different than what I'm talking about. I actually sometimes wish we had a different label than coaching, because it means so many things to so many different people, but in organizations or sports or art, coach means I have a skill set that you might not, or I'm better at it then, and you are and so I'm going to teach you or train you how to do that skill. Oftentimes at work, we'll say, well, you need coaching, I can coach you on your communication style, but that means I have content that I'm an expert in that I'd like to teach you.

And I personally love receiving that kind of training from someone, I love to learn, but I don't call that coaching. I call that training, maybe mentoring.

Mentoring,  where you're sharing skillsets and also maybe your network. The profession of coaching itself holds more to the definition that I'm talking about, which is, its job is to evoke the authority or the intelligence or the expertise in the person they're working with and have it be on an equally equal - I'm holding my hands up - level so that the coach and the coachee are on the same playing field, whereas the stuff that I mentioned earlier, the training, the mentoring, there's a difference in terms of one's more of the expert I'm holding my expert hand up a little bit higher, and then the other one is the acolyte or the learner or the receiver of that information.

So the idea of coaching is that peer to peer evocative conversation process, that brings out the best in the coachee and the profession has lots of guidelines, many different approaches and schools and then as you brought up earlier, ethics that govern the profession of coaching and you can hang a shingle now and say, I'm a coach. It's recognized by these professional standards. Or you can just say, I do coaching with your organization and you may or may not have ever had any training.

16:01 Shane: I do coaching. I recognize this is something I'd like to do myself. I want to build those competencies. What would it take? What is the process for someone who wants to become a coach? Where do I learn, what do I learn?

16:15 Jeff: First of all, to decide that you want to do that, I recommend not just because I think it's ethically important to have training from organizations, but these days people ask me where I've trained and if I'm certified, back when I started in the mid to late nineties, no one ever asked me that.

So for career choices, you do want to have professional training and you choose a school or an approach that most fits your desires, your needs, possibly that matches your style or that would stretch your style. There are lots of coaching schools out there. Of course I'm the most familiar with the Coaches Training Institute, and what a lot of these organizations offer is some kind of an intro course where you get a light touch overview of their model, and then you have a chance to go deeper in their model. These tend to be in person courses or online courses or a combination thereof.

Then at some point, if you decide to go onto the accreditation or the certification process, you have to actually have coaching clients that you're working with, and as you coach them, you're given supervision by train supervisors who give you feedback.

And there probably is an exam that you take either through this specific school or more through like a cherry-picking approach. You might take a couple of classes at school A and then at school B, then at school C.

If you decide to go on to have accreditation, there are bodies like the international Coach Federation ICF. They have several layers of accreditation. This can sound like alphabet soup after a while, but it's the ACC, the PCC and the MCC. And they offer also a written exam and then basically a recognition of the coach training that you've received in any kind of school, and then they require a certain level of coaching hours that you have done and can certify that you've done and says, yes, you put in this many hours, we'd recognize you at this level of the training. It sounds a little dry and boring as I talk about it, but what I find, anybody that I talk to, whether they've gone through our school or other schools that they really like, and you asked earlier who would make a good coach and who's drawn to it.

These are folks that love to have these kinds of inspiring conversations with coachees who care about things and so once we dive into the work, I think people tend to find it really invigorating,  challenging, because of course, for example, I, as a coach would love to give advice sometimes, but it's mostly not my job. So how do I instead evoke that in the person I'm working with? Anyway, that's the process. Some intro work, some intermediate coursework and lots and lots of coaching hours, just like a therapist or a counselor would go through of supervision and then an exam.

18:54 Shane: And there's a code of ethics in there that I do know.

18:57 Jeff: I can't even imagine the ethics involved in the tech world because I'm not a troglodyte, but I am not technically savvy. I can't even imagine. You know, for me, that just means, Oh, don't give your passwords to someone. I can just imagine the can of worms involved there. And I wonder how tech coaches dance around that stuff.

19:16 Shane: How do you ensure that the product you're designing is not used for evil and whose definition of evil?

19:22 Jeff: Oh, that could be a very interesting approach. And yeah. And the debate around that

19:28 Shane: There's an interesting debate in the open source community at the moment where a number of people are saying, I don't want my contribution to the open source movement used by governments

19:39 Jeff: who could use it for evil.

19:40 Shane: Yes. The open source licenses are opensource.

19:43 Jeff: Right. And is it ethical to say if it's open source, we're going to limit it? Yeah. Oh my gosh. I think the ethics issues that I have to deal with as a coach  are a bit simpler than that.

19:56 Shane: So what about coaching leaders, is there anything different?

20:00 Coaching Leaders

20:00 Jeff: As opposed to coaching someone who isn't a leader?

20:02 Shane: Well, somebody who's at that leadership level in the organization, is there a different type of engagement or is it just hold up the mirror?

20:10 Jeff: Well, honestly, I think hold up the mirror is the best approach to take with anyone, leadership level or not. I think the culture can be different. The approach that the way the coach would start, might be different and also who might be invited in to do that kind of work. I think that the requirements that lots of organizations have that a coach must have a certain level of leadership background acts as both a help and a hindrance because sometimes what's that quote, you can't solve a problem on the same level at which it exists.

Organizations may sometimes say we need this kind of coach for this kind of leader to solve these kinds of problems, not aware that, that I may just cement the same problem. I am a big fan though, for coaches to have different cultural entry points. So for example, if you have a law background, you would do much better than I would at starting off working with lawyers and law firms and litigation situations, even as a coach, even if you and I ended up doing the same work, because you understand the entry points, you understand the pain levels better than I would.

I think coaches that can understand the pain levels of leaders are going to be more successful. Coaching leaders, honestly, the higher up you go in an organization, the lonelier it gets. I think a lot of these people have, on the negative side, there can be a lot of power in their hands and they might need more ethical questions brought to them by a coach. But also there's a lot more pressure on them and they have more people coming at them for things. Let's say you've got a guy at the top and the higher up, he goes, there are more levels of people below him who demand his time, his resources, his decision making. And if you're farther down in the organization, you still have people that you can lean into who are at your peer level or above.

Typically, in an organization, once that person hits a very high level, they don't have anybody to lean on. Either officially, or more culturally, there's sometimes more paranoia and silo ism, or they've worked themselves up into kind of a lonely point where they can only tell others what to do and not get that advice.  And sometimes to have that trusted, neutral partner who as a coach, who can hear their pain point can share with the coach difficulties in the organization and the coach, isn't going to freak out because they're part of the C-suite team or part of HR or middle management that hears about these challenges in the organization and take it personally. But holding up the mirror, many times, it's the emperor's new clothes.

People aren't willing to hold up a mirror to the leaders higher up or higher up leaders aren't willing to look there.  Not always, and I don't mean to sell them short, but culturally it drives folks in that direction or that trend and so for the leader to be open to it and for the coach to hold up a mirror and say, here's what I see, can be incredibly, incredibly powerful. And in the process, many times, those leaders appreciate the approach that their coach takes with them and might start to think I'd like to do that with my team, I'd like to be able to share more of that mirror gazing with my team and not just stay hierarchical.

23:29 Training Coaches

23:29 Shane: Going slightly meta, you are a trainer of coaches and you coach coaches. What's different about doing that?

23:36 Jeff: That involves coaching and mentoring. For example, in the class that we took part of it is asking the students questions and bringing out their best knowledge and themselves and other times it's saying, do this and do this and don't do this and don't do this.

Sometimes coaches come to me, they hire me because what they really want is maybe what I've been able to grow in my own business. And they think they want mentoring, but when it comes down to it, you know, advice gets a little old after a while and they appreciate the more visioning conversations that we have about their own life, helping them really claim them own inner resources. But at times we do you step back and I can answer questions like you may want to think about this when you're working with this type of coachee or, you know, all the way to, it seems like simple questions, but how many sessions can you do in a day physically? And what kind of lifestyle do you need to support the work, which is to really put your attention off yourself for hours and hours and hours at a time and put them on someone else? How is your rest, how's your exercise? Do you have an inspired life? 

I notice coaches over-give and they'll get crusty or brittle. So what do they need to infuse in their lives to be able to do this kind of work? And I don't want to make this kind of work sound more noble than other helping professions, very similar, but if I'm going to sit there and really think mostly about someone else's life and their work and their relationships, what do I need to have handled in my own life so I can do that? And that's a question that I bring up a lot to the people that I train. Coaching has been a hot term for a long time, and I think a hotter term right now is leadership and leadership development. Just like with coaching, who really knows what that means, it's so broad, but the trend that I'm really appreciating is the style of leadership that's sort of evolving in our world and that's needed.

A style of leader that can hold much more grey areas and complexities, who is more willing to grow their team, rather than do all the work him or herself and to see how a lot of leaders these days and organizations who set aside budget for this and carve out time for this recognize the power of coaching within their leadership development. That to me is exciting. It's been something that the Coaches Training Institute has cared about for a while, but in a way we've been a little bit in the closet around saying that we're a leadership development company and we've outed ourselves as saying that and really enjoy seeing more and more people in organizations claim the power of coaching within their leadership style, rather than fight it like it seems like they used to in the late nineties and early 2000's.

26:14 Shane: Jeff, if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

26:18 Jeff: I have a couple of strange email addresses and even my website is actually more about the fiction books that I write, but they can email me at And the email address, which is quite strange, but I've stuck with it for a while. It's three JS in a row: The J are my initials. And then Jiefu is my Chinese name at Be happy to talk with folks about the profession.

26:50 Shane: Jeff. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

26:53 Jeff: Thanks for having me, Shane. I was excited when you invited me and it was fun. 



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