Coaching is for tough problems. Here’s how to decide whether it's tough or easy.


Managers who want to help their employees perform better can use a range of techniques. They include: giving orders, giving advice, showing (by demonstrating how to do it), making suggestions and coaching. Unfortunately, it is trendy now to group every technique in one category: coaching. So consultants confuse managers by calling their advisory services “coaching services”.

No wonder most managers struggle to understand the difference. Advisory is, at its core, telling other people what to do. Coaching is using skilled reflection and asking questions to help others find the solution that fits best for them.

The difference: coaching is best used for tough problems, not easy ones. Tough problems start at the intersection of uncertainty and complexity. An easy problem is how to fire somebody. There is a clear legal process you have to follow as the employer. Firing somebody is neither uncertain nor complex, only uncomfortable for everyone.

Here’s a tough problem – where both uncertainty and complexity are high – that a good coach can help you with. Imagine, you have a dysfunctional team. The team is involved in many of the key processes in your Business Unit. This team slows thing down and negatively affects business results. You could make them all redundant and re-structure the business unit. But local labour laws mean it will cost you at least €700 000. That’s a high price and would hurt other investment plans. What are the other options and how do you implement them? In this case, the risk of getting it wrong is high (because there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of complexity).

As a senior leader recently said to me: “Your coaching questions helped me to find the right answer to my situation.” These are what I call Six-Figure Challenges. Because get the answer right and your business will gain at least €100 000. This is the world of coaching. It is not the world of advising, telling or showing. If the answer to these problems was on YouTube, everyone would be an executive or an entrepreneur – and enjoying it too!