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  • Writer's pictureIrina Ketkin

Beginners Guide to Coaching for L&D

Learning and Development is always looking for ways to help people recognize and develop their strengths and weaknesses, improve their leadership and communication skills, and unlock their full potential. We do this because we want more motivated, skilled and productive workforce. But is there a simple way to achieve all of this?

Yes, there is! Don’t worry, it’s not magic. But we think it is something even more wonderful – it’s called coaching! It’s been around for a while and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. So let’s talk about coaching in Learning and Development.

Beginners guide to coaching for L&D

Table of contents:

What is Coaching?

Because of its popularity, coaching can mean different things to different people.

Let’s try and establish what we mean by coaching as a learning intervention. I really like the story about the origin of the word – back in the day, people traveled in horse carriages. The person responsible for the carriage to move or stop when needed was called a coach. So, technically, the horses made the carriage move, but without the coach’s guidance, they wouldn’t know which way to go, when to move faster, or when to slow down.

One of the founding fathers of modern coaching in the business world, Sir John Whitmore, defines it as a “process that unlocks a person’s potential to maximize their own performance”. Let’s try and make sense of this definition.

As someone responsible for other people’s learning and development, you can adopt either directive or supportive behavior. As trainers, we adopt a very directive approach – we tell trainees what they need to know, we show them how to do it, and we give them opportunities to practice and receive feedback on their performance. However, as coaches, we adopt a supportive behavior; that is, we encourage and help our learners explore their challenges and ways to resolve them on their own. Through conversations, we help them deal with issues that are relevant to them and therefore encourage self-learning.

In practice, if someone came to you with a problem, as a trainer, you would tell them how to fix it. However, as a coach, you would ask them a series of questions to help them explore all perspectives and come up with a solution on their own.

Coaching vs…

A comprehensive way to grasp the concept of coaching is by comparing it to some of the other developmental approaches, like training, mentoring, and counseling.

Coaching vs Training



Primary Focus

Enhancing an individual's thinking process

Imparting specific skills



Usually in groups


Uses questioning, tailored to suit individual styles

More instructional


Facilitator, no specific domain knowledge required

Requires domain knowledge and the ability to provide guidance/resources

Solution Generation

Encourages individuals to come up with their own solutions

The trainer provides the solutions

Coaching vs Mentoring




Facilitates individual's thought process using questions and feedback

Advice based on mentor's own experiences


Can guide on both short-term and long-term goals

Usually focuses on high-level purposes, life-long ambitions, and long-term goals


Facilitator, domain knowledge can be useful but not always necessary

Usually an experienced senior person in the field

Coaching vs Counseling




Focuses on professional or personal aspirations

Deeper, personal exploration, often involving childhood experiences


Enhance cognitive processes and achieve goals

Find and correct the root of a behavioral problem

Domain Knowledge

Anyone can coach regardless of domain knowledge

Requires a trained professional


Self-coaching is possible

Requires expert knowledge

How to Coach?

One of the most popular coaching models and the easiest to use is called GROW. It’s an acronym that describes the four stages of a coaching conversation – goal, reality, options, and way forward.


First, you explore the goal of the person – what is it that they want to achieve? What is their desired outcome? The more specific the goal is, the easier it is to measure it. As a coach, your task at this stage is not just to find out what the goal is, but also to make it SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic or relevant and time-bound). For example, “I want to become a better public speaker” is not a SMART goal. On the other hand, “I want to speak at 3 public events by the end of the year” is rather specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.


Once you know what the person wants, you can move on to the Reality stage. Here you help the person explore what is happening right now in the current state of things – who is involved, when and where is it happening, and how often? What kind of resources and skills do they currently possess? What steps have they taken towards their goal already? By exploring the reality, you can establish a baseline off of which to then proceed with the next stage – that of Options.


In the Options stage, you discuss all the possible actions they could take that would bring them closer to their goal. I like to think of this stage as brainstorming – the idea is to come up with as many options as possible. Two great questions to ask here are “What are some of the ways to reach your goal?” and “What else?”. This second question assumes there are more things the person hasn’t thought of yet and encourages them to explore in more depth. In contrast, if you say “What about this option?”, it limits their thinking to only this one option.

Way Forward

Once you have brainstormed all the possibilities, it’s time for the Way Forward stage. Here you select the most appropriate actions, and plan ahead. You can ask:

  • What the first step is going to be?

  • When are they going to do it?

  • What kind of support and resources would they need to perform this or that task?

  • How will they track progress?

In other words, this is about the practicalities of the chosen course of action.

Some coaches call this stage Will instead of Way Forward. And that’s because you would also explore the motivation of the person to achieve their goal. A great question to ask here is “Why is this important to you?”. In looking for the answer to this question, you naturally dig for a deeper meaning. I’ve had cases where my client would suddenly realize that the challenge he was facing was not at all important in the great scheme of things. And in contrast, I’ve had people realize how important their goal is because it is connected to something much more important to them personally. For example, if the goal defined by the client is to find a work-life balance, upon asking the question, “Why is this important to you?” the client may realize that this will give them more time with their family or time to focus on a hobby that they have been neglecting for some time and that brings them a lot of joy.

Having said all of this, however, I prefer to stick to Way Forward instead of Will. And here’s why – I usually talk about the motivation and willingness to achieve the goal at the beginning of the conversation – usually in the Goal stage. It makes sense to establish if this goal is important or not early on instead of when you have spent some time in the Reality and Options stages.

Want to try your hand at coaching? Download the free GROW checklist with questions for each stage and practice coaching yourself or a colleague.

When to Coach?

Being such a great tool, once we learn how to coach, we may feel tempted to use it left, right and center. For example, coaching would be a great addition to any management or leadership development programs, part of training workshops or even as a standalone offer. We talk in a lot of detail about this in our article The Role of Coaching in Learning and Development.

But there are also times when coaching wouldn’t be appropriate. The first is when you are dealing with an urgent crisis. This is when you need to be directive and tell the person exactly what they should do to fix the problem here and now. For example, if the employee has discovered a data breach or the office is on fire, you need to act quickly and swiftly.

The second case when coaching isn’t appropriate is if the person doesn’t want to solve the problem. You’ll recognize these people by their responses – regardless of the question you ask them, they’ll tell you, “I don’t know”. And that is ok – not everyone wants to be coached. Again, this has largely to do with their motivation.

Finally, the third scenario is when the person doesn’t have the needed knowledge to make sense of a situation. You wouldn’t ask a non-musician to conduct an orchestra or a sailor to lead a desert expedition. They simply wouldn’t know how. And if they want to please you, they will come up with an answer without truly believing in it.

So, in a way, we can say that you can only coach people who genuinely want to, who have the capabilities needed to do the job, and provided you are not in a crisis.

Other Coaching Models

GROW is just one of the many coaching models out there. If you want to explore more, check out the following models:


Here's a step-by-step guide on how to use this coaching framework:

  1. Outcome: Help coachees define their desired goals and outcomes. Encourage them to articulate what they want to achieve and how they will measure progress.

  2. Scale: Use a 1-10 scale to assess the coachee's current position in relation to their goals. Explore where they are on the scale and where they want to be.

  3. Know-how: Identify the skills, knowledge, and resources required to bridge the gap between the current situation and the desired outcome. Help coachees develop a plan of action.

  4. Affirm & Action: Focus on what's working well and what actions coachees can take to move closer to their goals. Encourage reflection, adjustment, and continuous improvement.

  5. Review: Regularly assess progress, celebrate achievements, and identify areas for growth. Keep coachees accountable and motivated on their journey towards success.


The CLEAR model provides a… clear path to success (pun intended!). Here's how it works:

  1. Contract: Set clear coaching objectives and establish a strong partnership with the coachee. Define roles, expectations, and desired outcomes to ensure a focused coaching journey.

  2. Listen and Learn: Deepen your understanding of the coachee's unique needs, challenges, and aspirations. Active listening and open-ended questions foster trust, empathy, and insights that drive meaningful progress.

  3. Explore Options: Collaborate with the coachee to identify a range of possibilities and potential solutions. Encourage creativity, curiosity, and a growth mindset to expand perspectives and unlock new opportunities.

  4. Action Planning: Co-create a concrete action plan that outlines specific steps, milestones, and timelines. Break down goals into manageable tasks, and support the coachee in building accountability and momentum.

  5. Review and Reflect: Regularly evaluate progress, celebrate successes, and reflect on lessons learned. Adjust strategies as needed, and encourage self-reflection to enhance self-awareness and continuous improvement.

Coaching skills

Coaching is not just about knowing how to structure the conversation or what questions to ask. Coaching requires a lot of discipline, the ability to listen actively and deeply, to read verbal and non-verbal cues, to show empathy and great emotional intelligence in general. All of these skills require a lot of practice and deeper understanding.


And if you really get into coaching, there is the International Coaching Federation that governs not just the standards but also the ethics of coaching. Basically, they are the largest worldwide resource on all things coaching.


Coaching is an immensely valuable tool in the realm of Learning and Development. It provides an opportunity for individuals to unlock their full potential, drive their performance, and master new skills. With its focus on encouraging self-learning and individual growth, coaching can effectively complement and enhance traditional training methods.

Coaching may not be a magic solution, but it can work wonders when correctly applied. It's an art, a science, and a discipline that can truly transform learning and development processes, unlocking a world of potential for both individuals and organizations. So, whether you're a manager, a trainer, or someone passionate about personal growth, why not try your hand at coaching and experience the transformative power it holds?

How can you use coaching in your Learning and Development interventions?


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