Training vs. Coaching: Which Path to Developing Better Teams?

During my 25-plus years in large organizations, I have participated in dozens of leadership training sessions, along with a handful of leadership coaching experiences. Reflecting on those many training sessions, I struggle to recall many ideas that drove actions that led to meaningful, measurable results on my team or teams around me. In contrast, nearly 25 years ago, I received intensive coaching during the Center for Creative Leadership‘s week-long Leadership Development Program (LDP) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In addition to the spectacular scenery, I can recall much of that week as though it was yesterday. More significantly, that early career coaching influenced the actions I took to improve the performance of my team at that time, and it triggered my passion for building great teams that continues today. So why the dramatic difference in the training vs. coaching experiences?

Training vs. Coaching

Research into leadership training effectiveness shows that my experience is not unique. In a January 2014 McKinsey Quarterly article, Why Leadership Development Programs Fail, the authors describe the results of hundreds of conversations with corporate leaders about their expectations of leader training versus their actual experiences. The leaders were unanimous in expressing that their investment in training did not meet their expectations. The McKinsey study identified four primary reasons for the disappointing outcome:

  1. Generic ideas and one-size-fits-all approaches that fail to consider the specific context vs focusing on two or three actionable recommendations.
  2. No plan to turn ideas into actions, given the reality of already overloaded workdays.
  3. Underestimating the challenge of building the habits that drive new behaviors.
  4. Failure to measure progress and results.

A couple of years later, HBR published a similar article, Why Leadership Training Fails – And What To Do About It. Consistent with the McKinsey study, the researchers looked at leadership training across multiple industries. They identified barriers that prevent leadership training programs from resulting in more effective teams, and defined six actions that are essential for organizations to take for leader training to be effective:

  1. The senior team must clearly define values and an inspiring strategic direction.
  2. After gathering candid, anonymous feedback from managers and employees, diagnose barriers to execution.
  3. Use coaching and process consultation to help people overcome barriers and close gaps.
  4. Add training where needed.
  5. Use metrics to gauge progress and performance.
  6. Adjust systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent.

The common theme across the research (and my own experience) is that most leadership training fails to deliver because it is disconnected from the daily reality of team leaders and their teams—which is often akin to changing the tires on a moving car while navigating to a new location. Many training programs present good ideas, but few connect the dots between ideas and actions with the level of mindfulness, discipline, and perseverance required to make a measurable impact on results. Coaching, on the other hand, is typically less focused on big ideas and more focused on building skills, competencies, and confidence immersed within the messy day-to-day work of teams. Moreover, the best coaching is metrics-driven, measuring the progress and outcomes.

Developing Better Teams

Exceptional teams and team leaders combine the best of both training and coaching. Training is used to introduce new ideas and frameworks and reinforce concepts. Coaching is used to turn those ideas into actions that can be measured in terms of progress and impact. For maximum impact in the shortest time team coaching should be focused on developing the discipline of gathering candid feedback, identifying gaps across key relationships, and consistently working to close those gaps.

Simply put, training introduces ideas that can bring change and improved performance, coaching helps people to develop the habits that actually deliver that performance.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.