Making Virtual Coaching Work

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Video-conferencing has been used as a medium for information exchange, and as a collaboration tool for quite some time. So, it’s not surprising that some will ask, “What’s new about virtual coaching?”

Its information-exchange uses notwithstanding, there is something new and different about doing coaching over a virtual medium like video-conferencing. It concerns both the purpose (development versus information exchange) and the capacities to realize this purpose via the video-conferencing medium.

I’ve previously addressed the appeal and positive reasons for making virtual coaching work.[1] We can get world-class coaching wherever we might be, and it enables pricing that makes coaching more accessible to all. It can be pursued after business hours, with or without a stipend from your employer.

In this article, I describe what well-trained coaches with extensive experience in face-to-face coaching at the most senior levels of leadership have learned about making virtual coaching work. It’s more than the technologically mediated use of video-conferencing that’s critical.

About Purpose & Capacities

When I say that one big difference in using video-conferencing for coaching is purpose, the purpose I have in mind is twofold: It’s developmental, the focus is on self and one’s personal capacities to learn, grow, and adapt in the face of new roles and challenges. Coach and client meet when the client is at an inflection point[2] and something is at stake. There's a felt sense of urgency.

Thus, coaching engagements are properly framed at the outset as “problem-focused.” What is it that brings you to coaching now? What are you wrestling with or anticipating that you’ll be wrestling with that calls for a deeper, sustained kind of learning? It feels personal because this learning goes to our sense of identity, how we think, feel, act, relate to others, and how we live our values.

That’s different than the rational-instrumental purposes for which video-conferencing is most often used – coordination of work, announcement of new products, information about organizational change. Developmental coaching requires intimacy, confidentiality, trust, and openness for self-disclosure and for “tough-love.” We must read the implicit and explicit levels of client behavior.

It’s a helping relationship. And in helping relationships of this kind the move to a virtual medium must be approached with great care. Professional and ethical concerns cause us to proceed more slowly, to learn from incremental advances that allow us to ascertain when and how it can meet or closely approximate the quality and efficacy of the face-to-face encounter.

Those of us who’ve practiced face-to-face for years, set the bar rather high. We’ve learned that we must consider case by case whether a client engagement is a good fit for the virtual medium. We’ve learned how to adjust our approach and interaction to optimize engagement and quality. We’ve learned about how to best schedule, prepare beforehand, and leverage assessment data.

What we’ve concluded is that the quality of our professional training and experience may even matter more in the virtual context: 1) our skill in mining assessment data for meaning; 2) our ability to use graphical models to bring practical ideas to life; 3) and our use of outside-of-work situations and experiences to promote skill-building.

When it's done well, there are some distinctive benefits of the virtual approach too.

Empowerment & Responsibility

There are unique advantages of the client owning the relationship, it’s purposes and goals, the task of making time for it (often after business hours) and investing the time and effort to make it work. All of this is very important. The client and coach jointly make decisions on goals, priorities, and methods. It’s up to them to make something happen. Clients become the agent of their own development.

The more jointly this work is done, the more the client owns it. A good coach knows this and will not let the client off the hook:

  • You say you want to figure out why you’re struggling with speaking up, commanding respect, and becoming a “go-to” resource? If you’re serious, we’ll need to look at you, the situation, and your key stakeholders objectively, with fresh eyes, without defensiveness.
  • You will need to trust me (your coach): a) my intentions – that I’m not here to judge you, but to help you learn and grow; b) my competence – that my observations, suggestions and recommendations are well-grounded; and c) that I really care about your success.
  • Still, you’re not here to please your coach. When you receive assessment data and feedback, you must neither accept nor reject it too quickly. Your job is to understand how it might be relevant for you, to adopt an attitude of curiosity, to make practical sense of it.
  • You say you want to see change happen, and that you want to have your change make a difference? Then you’ll need to step out of your comfort zone, try some new ways of doing things – you must experiment, persist, and adapt your efforts based on experience.

Both parties need to show up ready to work together. Sometimes there will be a lot to talk about. Other times a client may wonder “what the heck” are we going to talk about. We must trust the process. We are both responsible for making our time valuable. In each meeting we must jointly reaffirm our purpose, take note of where we are. And sometimes we must slow down to speed up!

Summary Advice to the Client

You’ll want to know that there is some sort of overall roadmap and process components to anticipate and benefit from. But be cautious of a “shiny object”, a too-well-structured approach. Best principles are often more important than best practices. There must be room for jointly shaping the relationship and the work you do together. Ask for references and talk with them.


[1] See Virtual Coaching – It’s Your Choice and Coaching After Hours.

[2] See Development at the Inflection Point, a basic summary of our theory of development