“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has to see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”
TOM LANDRY (US Football coach)
An executive coaching session

What is ‘Executive Coaching’?

There’s a lack of agreement about precise definitions, when it comes to coaching in general and Executive Coaching in particular, but it typically involves a senior manager, working on a ‘one to one’ basis with a professional coach, to improve some specific aspect of their performance.

David Peterson, Director of Leadership and Coaching at Google, sums it up like this:

“Executive Coaching is one-on-one, relationship based, methodology based, provided by a professional coach, scheduled in multiple sessions over time, goal-oriented for both individual and organizational benefit, customized to the person, and intended to enhance the person’s ability to learn and develop independently.”

When should you use Executive Coaching?

There are many methods for developing top executives (e.g. getting involved in professional bodies, taking training courses, secondments, volunteering etc.) but the highly personalised nature of coaching means that it can be an extremely effective way of building new capabilities in a short time scale. It works well when…

There is a challenging goal to be achieved and the Executive concerned could do with some support e.g. moving into a new business area, or undertaking a restructuring exercise.

There is a ‘gap’ or ‘weakness’ of some kind in an Executive’s capability that needs to be closed for them to perform at the top level e.g. maybe they need help to get better at making inspirational, motivational keynote speeches? Or perhaps they need to be better at the way they handle their relationship with shareholders and other investors.

Needs like this are often identified by the Executive themselves, but in larger organisations they often come out as a result of 360 feedback exercises and/or attendance at Development Centres.

Push Me – Pull You
(choosing the right Coach for you)

One of the most contentious areas when defining Executive Coaching concerns the issue of directive vs. non-directive approaches.

In Directive Coaching the Coach will encourage the Coachee to be introspective and question what they are doing, but they will also provide what we might call ‘content’ suggestions. For example, they might recommend an article, or TEDTALK, or explain a model, or suggest an action.

In Non-Directive Coaching the Coach will only provide what we might call ‘process’ suggestions to the Coachee. For example, they will ask questions (usually as part of a set methodology) that will allow the Coachee to reflect on what they are doing and find their own answers, in their own way, using their own resources. What they won’t do is offer any direct guidance.

Clearly, if you do want some ‘direction’ as part of the coaching, then the Coach you work with should ideally have some expertise in the topic being worked on e.g. Strategic Planning, Team Building, Conflict Management etc. While with process coaching it is sufficient that the Coach is expert in whatever coaching methodology they are planning to use.

It is of course possible to move between approaches, but some Coaches have very definite views on how things should go, so, (if you’re hiring a Coach) it’s worth understanding what type of experience you can expect if/when you work with them.

Who can be an Executive Coach?

Anyone can call themselves an Executive Coach. There are no mandatory qualifications or set of requirements, and coaches are drawn from a very wide variety of backgrounds e.g. Occupational Psychologists, HR professionals, experienced managers/leaders etc.

By 2012 the International Coaching Federation Global Coaching Study reported the number of professional coaches was estimated to be 47,500 worldwide and that number has grown since then. Worldwide the number of coach specific training schools/programs increased from eight in 1995 to over 164 today.

So, it is a crowded marketplace, and it pays to make the time to choose your Executive Coach with care!

Models used by Coaching Professionals

In the same way as definitions of coaching vary, so does the choice of coaching methods and tools used by Executive Coaches. These tools are often the same ones used in counselling interventions, just given a slightly different emphasis. Approaches include Expert Models, Competency Based Models, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Psychometric Based Models, Thinking Sessions, Clean Language Coaching, Rational Emotive Therapy, etc. etc. For the sake of example, let’s review two commonly used approaches in more detail… Solutions Based Coaching and WDEP Coaching…

Solution Centred Brief Coaching (SCBC). This is both a counselling and a coaching methodology. This approach was developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Berg, two American social workers, and comes out of the ‘Brief Therapy’ school of psychology.

The method starts by asking what is called the ‘Miracle Question’. This involves asking the person to imagine that (unbeknownst to them) a miracle happens while they are sleeping and the problem or issue they face is resolved overnight. Of course, when they wake up in the morning, they don’t initially know that anything has changed. The question is then – what small thing (or things) they would notice, as they go about their day, that would make them think, “Wow, something must have happened, the problem is gone!”

Next come Scaling Questions to help to quantify the issues involved e.g. On a scale of 1-10 what’s the worst the problem could be and what’s the best it could be? What would it take to move one point up or down the scale? What score would be good enough?

Followed by Exception Seeking Questions, e.g. is there ever a time (or scenario) where the issue doesn’t occur or is minimised?

Then Coping Questions, to show to the Coachee that they are already having some success at handling the issue at hand e.g. “How have you managed so far?”

Next, comes, Problem Free Talk and Solutions Talk, for setting realistic, short term, improvement goals.

WDEP Coaching. This is both a therapeutic and coaching model
developed by William Glasser, based on Reality Therapy techniques. There are four stages…Wants + Doing + Evaluation + Planning; in a little more detail they involve…

  1. Wants (What are the person’s wants and needs? What motivates them? What’s important to them?)
  2. Doing (What are you currently doing? How are you spending your time? What emotions are you experiencing?)
  3. Evaluation (Is what you’re currently doing working? What could you do differently?)
  4. Planning (Develop a realistic, measurable plan to improve things.)

The Coaching Contract

A Coaching Contract is a service agreement designed specifically for the coaching relationship, where a professional Coach (as opposed to a Line Manager) is doing the coaching. It is at the heart of making sure that all the parties to a coaching assignment (the Coach, the Coachee, and the Sponsoring Organisation) have clear and aligned expectations of what will happen during the coaching process. They should cover:

Parties to the Coaching – Who will be involved in the coaching? Usually there are three parties. The Coach, the Coachee, and the Sponsor (a company representative who makes sure the coaching delivers results for the business, often the Coachee’s boss or the HR VP).

Coaching Goal – What specifically is the purpose of the coaching? How will success be measured?

The Coaching Process – Where and how does the coaching take place? What’s the expected time frame of the coaching and how long is the time between sessions? What is the policy for rescheduling sessions?

Expectations – What methods, and techniques will be used; what support is offered in-between formal coaching sessions etc.?

Reporting – How is progress captured? Who is entitled to updates e.g., will the Company (if they are paying for the coaching) be given feedback on the progress the Coachee is making?

Confidentiality – What information is deemed to be private and what information can be shared (and under what circumstances)?

Financial Arrangements – Fees, Payment terms, Cancellation policy and refund policy.

The $64,000 Dollar Question

In the USA in the 1950’s there was a quiz show called “The $64,000 Question”, where people answered general knowledge questions – the top prize being $64,000 (about $800,000 in today’s values). In time the ‘$64,000-dollar question’ came to be shorthand for ‘the most important question that needs to be answered’.

So, the $64,000 question for Executive Coaching is, “Is there any evidence that it works?” The answer to that question is “yes”, there are a number of studies that clearly show the benefits of executive coaching…

For example, Smither et al. (2003) conducted an impact study on Executive Coaching. It included 1202 senior managers assessed over two consecutive years. The results showed that multi-source feedback from clients’ supervisors, peers and subordinates, as well as evaluations by independent researchers, was found to be overall more positive for those managers who did work with a Coach. The specific areas of improvement were goal setting, soliciting ideas for improvement, and ratings from direct reports and superiors.

Grant et al. (2009) found that Executive Coaching significantly enhanced goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being, and reduced depression and stress in healthcare managers in comparison to a wait-list control group.

Theeboom, T., Beersma, B., & van Vianen, A. E. M. (2014) conducted a meta- analysis on ‘Does coaching work?’ and concluded that it has significant positive effects on performance/skills, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal- directed self-regulation.

What makes for effective Executive Coaching?

Research suggests that coaching effectiveness is not primarily a function of specific coaching techniques, but the quality of the coaching relationship, based upon empathic understanding, and positive expectations (De Haan et al., 2011 and 2013).

While Blackman et al. (2015) summarised the historical research into coaching effectiveness by highlighting the need to…

  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Display empathy and acceptance of the Coachee
  • Be organised
  • Communicate clearly
  • Display self-confidence

This suggests that some kind of ‘chemistry check’ is central to ensuring that coaching assignments proceed according to plan!

Putting it all together

Executive Coaching as an activity and a profession is booming. Done well it is an excellent method for developing people in a highly tailored way. However, given all the possible permutations of approaches, methods and techniques, it pays to plan any coaching intervention carefully to make sure that the Coach and the Coachee have a positive experience and the organisation sees an increase in performance!

So what’s next?

Examine your past for how you have used Executive Coaching; either by hiring a coach for yourself, or for a colleague. What has gone well and what could be improved?


Try reading this HBR Article on The Leader as Coach (Nov- Dec 2019)


Watch this 16-minute-long TED Talk on “Want to get great at something? Get a Coach!” by Atul Gawande


Consider signing up your managers to our 4-hour-long, in-company, Feedback & Grow Model Coaching Workshop, run either as a face-to- face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you to develop your skills.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.


So, to conclude we end with a quote from the Harvard Business Review…

“The goal of coaching is good management: to make the most of an organisation’s valuable resources.”

“A coach transports a valued
person from where they are to
where they want to be.”
Manager coaching a staff member

What is ‘Coaching’?

Coaching is defined in the dictionary as; “the act of training staff in business (or athletes in a sport).”

That is a broad description, so it’s common for professional organisations to add extra details to explain what precisely they feel good quality coaching involves.

There’s a lack of agreement about precise definitions, but some (more or less) agreed principles are that Coaching is:

  • Goal orientated (there is a specific focus, work related, for the desired improvement).
  • Short term (when done by managers the focus is usually on making an improvement within minutes, days, or occasionally
  • Typically conducted on a ‘one to one’ basis (though ‘group coaching’ is possible).
  • Tailored to meet the needs of the individual Coachee.
  • Most interventions used by the Coach are open questions which are aimed at stimulating the self-awareness and personal responsibility of the Coachee.

We can sum workplace coaching up like this:
Coaching is one to one, personalised development in the context of improving performance in the workplace.

How did Coaching in the workplace evolve?

Arguably, coaching has been occurring as long as there have been people helping each other to improve their skills. However, the term ‘coaching’ comes from Oxford University in the early 1800’s and refers to the practice of private tutors meeting with students to help prepare them for exams, or to help ‘carry them through an exam’; like a coach (or carriage) and horses takes (or carries) someone to where they want to be. By the mid 1800’s the term also began to be used to describe training in sports as well as education. 1937 sees the first reference to workplace coaching in an academic paper (Gorby). In the 1980s, the use of coaching and mentoring became a more common practice by managers (Crompton, 2012; Evered & Selman, 1989),but it’s in the 1990’s and 2000’s that Coaching as a formal discipline starts to boom.

The Manager as Coach

If they are going to be effective, a manager will need to use several communication styles as they go about their work. This will include giving instructions, consulting (i.e., asking employees what they think), negotiating, abdicating (just letting people get on with a task as they see fit), offering employees advice and, very importantly, coaching.

Coaching can occur with managers engaging employees in either, ‘sit-down’ coaching sessions or informal, ‘on-the-run’ coaching. But either way, taking the time to say to an employee, “let’s just take a moment and reflect on what you’re doing and how we might improve on that approach”, is vital if employees are to be developed to their full potential.

Of course, having coaching conversations are more time consuming than just telling an employee what they are doing wrong (i.e. giving them advice) but the development impact of helping people think through the issues for themselves is huge.

Coaching vs Mentoring vs Counselling

Coaching, mentoring, and counselling are three related and overlapping activities, and (confusingly) the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. When choosing what to do in each situation it’s useful to make a distinction between them, so…

Coaching (as we know) is one to one, personalised development in the context of improving performance in the workplace.

Mentoring is assigning a senior member of staff to assist a junior staff member with their career development.

Counselling is guidance to help people resolve social and personal problems. It is often conducted by a medical professional, but managers can also engage in counselling activities. For example, if someone has clinical depression then counselling with a trained therapist would be the preferred option, but if an employee was experiencing (say) ‘a lack of motivation’ then their manager might well be the one to help them.

How to run a Coaching Conversation

There are two commonly used coaching models for Managers doing routine coaching as part of their everyday work…they are the GROW model and OSCAR. Both can be completed in a session lasting 3 minutes or less, (where a relativity small topic is being addressed) or they can be used as part of a much longer conversation.

Using them well (like any management process e.g., interviewing, problem solving, giving feedback) requires the use of a range of communication skills, such as active listening, empathy, assertiveness etc., but the frameworks themselves are simple enough to apply.

GROW Model Coaching. This approach was made famous by a book by Max Landsberg, called the Tao of Coaching, first published in 1996, and it is probably the most commonly taught coaching methodology. This is the process that is most likely to be used by line managers to coach their staff, ‘on the job.’ There are several different versions of the GROW model, but a standard definition would be to ask the Coachee to consider 4 topics in sequence. Namely:

  1. Goal (What specifically do you want to achieve?)
  2. Reality (What’s happening right now? What obstacles do you face in
    reaching the goal?)
  3. Options (What choices are available for moving forward?)
  4. What’s Next or Way Forward (Pick an option(s) and develop an action
    plan, implement, and review results.)

OSCAR Model. The OSCAR coaching model was originally described by Karen Whittleworth and Andrew Gilbert in 2002. The aim of the authors was to develop a model that built upon and enhanced the GROW model, The OSCAR acronym stands for:

  1. Outcome (What is the goal of the session?)
  2. Situation (What is the Coachee’s current situation?)
  3. Choices (What options are available for moving forward and what are
    the likely consequences of each of those choices?)
  4. Actions (What are the next steps?)
  5. Review (Implement the actions and review the results.)

How to start a Coaching Conversation

Sometimes an employee will ask (directly or indirectly) for coaching support from the manager and then the coaching can flow quite naturally from that request. For example, they might say, “Can I bounce some ideas off you?” or even, “Can you help me with X please?”

On other occasions, however, the manager will be the one initiating the coaching, so it’s worth thinking about how to elegantly segue into a coaching conversation.

Sometimes the conversation will flow such that you can just naturally start the GROW process e.g., they say “X” and you say “Mmm OK, so what specifically are you trying to achieve when you tackle X?”
However, at other times it is necessary to formally initiate a coaching conversation. This involves a two-stage process…

  1. If time allows it’s nice to start with a couple of minutes small talk, just to create a relaxed atmosphere. As the manager and the employee generally know each other well this shouldn’t be hard to do.
  2. The next step is to ‘signal’ or ‘flag’ that you want to start a coaching conversation e.g., by saying something like…

You know, I have been thinking that it might be helpful if we had a talk about… (how you might handle the upcoming appraisal meetings). How does that sound to you?

I noticed that you seemed a bit uncomfortable when we were talking through (the annual pay rises for your team), would it be useful to chat about how you tell them about what’s been agreed?

So, you’ve got a big event next week (giving a presentation to the Board), would you like some help planning it?

Then, (assuming they say yes) you can flow into the GROW model questions e.g., “OK, so what specifically are you looking to achieve?”

Overcoming a reluctance to being coached

Mostly people are open to a coaching conversation – the aim is after all to help them improve their capabilities, and employees are generally motivated by learning new skills. Sometimes however employees resist coaching and then it is important to think through how to handle that resistance.

As with all problem solving, we start with root cause analysis; so, the first question to ask is, “why doesn’t the employee want to be coached?” Common answers to that question include:

  • They feel too stressed/over-worked to even consider the possibility of developing themselves. In which case it’s important to think about how to create some ‘space’ in their calendar to allow for their own development.
  • They don’t trust the manager and think that the offer of coaching is some kind of ‘trick’. This is a very awkward situation to deal with, but essentially it involves empathising with the employee and maybe trying humour, storytelling, and self-disclosure to create a more positive atmosphere.
  • They think that they are doing fine as they are and don’t need to change what they are doing. This then becomes a question of showing them how they will, in fact, gain from the coaching. It is about explaining how coaching can help them achieve their goals, develop their skills, and enhance their career prospects.

Putting it all together

Coaching drives higher levels of performance; 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, and over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. (Source: ICF 2009.) Coaching also improves employee motivation and reduces staff turnover. Consequently, coaching is a key managerial skill and one that needs to be prioritised with the employee/manager relationship. Fortunately, there are simple, easy to implement models (like GROW) that mean that managers can coach almost anytime, anyplace, and anywhere and get outstanding results.

So what’s next?

Examine your past for how you have used coaching as part of your managerial toolbox? What has gone well and what could be improved?


Try reading this HBR Article on How to Handle Coaching Challenges
(April 2015)


Watch this 3-minute-long video on how to carry out GROW model coaching


Consider signing up your managers to our 4-hour-long, in-company, Feedback & Grow Model Coaching Workshop, run either as a face-to-face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


Or, if you have a team of people to develop (your middle managers maybe?) why not take a look at how to develop key skills via peer group coaching using the Action Learning Methodology.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at
coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

So, to conclude we end with a quote from John Wooden (American
basketball coach)…

“A coach is someone who can give a
correction without causing resentment.”

Building High Quality Training Sessions

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
Designing training programmes

A Short History of NLP

Neuro Linguistic Programming – NLP – has its origins in the early 70’s, with John Grinder, who was a professor of Linguistics, and Richard Bandler, a physicist and mathematician.

Bandler was Grinder’s student, and in addition to his studies, he had a part time job editing books and technical journals. One of the books he edited was by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy. While he was doing this Bandler realised that he could model (or analyse) Perls’ methods, and achieve similar results as Perls with patients, despite his lack of true therapeutic training. He involved Grinder in this analysis, and they eventually had a team of researchers who modelled not just Perls, but also other therapists, who were noted for bringing about a change in their patients. One of these therapists was named Virginia Satir, a highly regarded family therapist. As they modelled Satir, Grinder was able to use his linguistic background to label the various questioning skills that Satir used to get patients to reflect on their actions and attitudes and so bring about a change in outlook. These were somewhat technical labels, taken from the language of linguistics – this was called the ‘Meta Model’. The early NLP work was all based on the Meta Model questioning system. Grinder and Bandler then met Milton Erickson, a very well-known hypnotherapist and from him they identified the structure of hypnosis and the ‘language’ of trance.

The Trail of Techniques

As work on NLP continued, the ‘modelling excellence’ process moved beyond understanding counselling and therapeutic interventions to also include top sales, business, and sports professionals.

If fact, one description of NLP is “an attitude and a methodology that leaves behind a trail of techniques”. Where the attitude is curiosity, the methodology is ‘modelling excellent performers’ and the ‘techniques’ are the many and varied ‘tools’ that the modelling uncovers.

For example, David Gordon developed the concept of therapeutic metaphors. Christina Hall further developed the use of language patterns for change. Lesley Cameron Bandler developed the NLP concept of meta programmes (which describe common thinking patterns).

Training Design and Modelling Excellence

Most training design is based on (i) ‘mapping’ or ‘modelling’ what good performance looks like in a given area e.g. selling, leadership, skiing, baking, accountancy etc. and then (ii) assessing people against that ‘gold standard’ before (iii) designing a programme to ‘close the gap’ between current and good performance. With NLP the system most people use to design training events was developed by Robert Dilts and it’s called ‘Neurological Levels’, or sometimes just Logical Levels.

Of course, there are people from other disciplines who have (quite independently of NLP) developed their own methods for modelling excellence. For example, Professor David McClelland (1917-1998) developed the theory of behavioural competencies. His technique involves selecting two samples: people who have been rated as outstanding in their jobs and those who are just average performers. Interviewees are quizzed in-depth about the way they do their work, focusing in particular on occasions when things have turned out well or badly. Transcripts of the interviews are made and each separate behaviour is noted. These “behavioural indicators” are then clustered together into “competencies” that differentiate the two samples. Finally, the competency model is validated using new samples. So, McClelland found out, for example, that good sales people typically exhibit 11 key competencies, which include: Resilience, Seeking Information, Showing Empathy, Driving for Results, Displaying Initiative, and having a Problem-Solving Focus. It is a lot of work (and expensive) to develop competencies in this way, but the results are robust and reliable. Also, for many training projects it’s not necessary to build a whole new model; it is sufficient just to adopt an existing competency profile.

But in NLP we tend to focus on using Dilts system…

Dilts’ Neurological Levels Model

In Dilts’ Neurological levels theory there are five interconnected topics that need to be covered in sequence if a person is to learn a new task or skill effectively.

To develop a model for a particular topic (sales, leadership, presenting etc.) top performers are identified and then interviewed to uncover their responses to the 5 topics. It is also possible to identify published research that can cast light on each of the 5 areas, and that data can also be included in the model.

These 5 topics are:

  1. Identity – who the person believes themselves to be; their self-image or role perception.
  2. Beliefs – the values and principles that the person applies when carrying out the task in question.
  3. Capability – the process that the person uses to carry out the task and the knowledge they possess.
  4. Behaviour – what you can actually see or hear the person do when they carry out the task.
  5. Environment – where the person carries out the task (e.g. an office, an
    oil rig) and the systems and ‘tools’ that are involved.

Using the Neurological Levels Model

To use the model for training purposes, we decide on a learning goal (e.g. to Develop People Management Skills, to Master Problem Solving Techniques, to Facilitate Sales Meetings etc.) and then model what is required, against each of the 5 levels, to achieve that goal.

Then it’s a question of assessing the delegates against the criteria in each of the 5 levels and deciding what interventions are necessary to raise their capability to the required standard i.e. do the proposed participants need to be trained in all 5 levels, or is it enough to just work on one or two of them?

Of course, there may be some important success factors that the Dilts’ Model (or any other model you might be using) reveals for which training can’t be used to improve people e.g. if there are certain physiological requirements needed for high performance in a given topic, for instance, some sports require people to possess exceptionally good eye sight, or an extraordinary lung capacity etc. and you are either born with that attribute or you’re not. The same is true for innate intelligence, some people are just smarter than others, and if the task requires a high level of intellectual capacity (e.g. a brain surgeon, or maths professor) then you have the necessary IQ or you don’t. However, for most tasks, most people can be helped to improve their performance with the appropriate training programme.

The 5 Levels In-depth

1 Identity

We begin by considering the Identity (or role perception) that a person needs in order to be effective at a given activity i.e. what does the person think they should be trying to do?

For example, effective managers think of themselves as “achieving results through the effective use of resources (classically those resources are; men and women, money, methods, machines and materials).”

Poor managers, in contrast, may want to get results, but they don’t identify themselves as doing this by positioning the resources they have available to do the work: they want to do the work themselves. So, for the expert manager, involving staff in decision making is important because their knowledge is a resource that can be drawn upon to get good results. To the inexpert manager, involving staff is a time-consuming nuisance that gets in the way of prompt action.

So, in this instance, training would begin with a conversation about what the manager’s role is about, and why it is important to have clarity around what the primary focus of the role should be.

2 Beliefs

Once the issue of Identity has been addressed the next step is to move onto the subject of beliefs. In the first few years of life people make decisions about the rules by which they will live their lives. As they grow older they become only dimly aware of these ‘rules’ or ‘beliefs’ but they still apply them to their home and work life. Sometimes the beliefs that people have directly contradict the requirements of being effective at some task or activity. When this happens, the person can understand what he/she should be doing but finds himself/herself unable to apply ‘good’ practice.

For example, some beliefs of expert problem solvers include:

  • Take the time to understand the root cause of the problem
  • There may be more than one right answer, so be open to exploring the options
  • Use a method or process to guide your efforts in a systematic way

In contrast some of the more common ‘in-expert beliefs’ which hamper problem solving are believing that it is important to:

  • Look for the ‘one’ right answer to each problem
  • Never make a mistake; always be seen as getting things ‘right’
  • Act quickly at all times

Thus, for example, someone may implement solutions without first obtaining a clear definition of the problem because the principle of ‘gathering the facts before you act’ conflicts with their ‘belief’ that says ‘I must act quickly’. Or, if the person has a need to ‘be right’, he/she may react badly to any suggestion that he/she hasn’t done something properly.

So, part of an effective programme is to explicitly consider what underlying assumptions, principles or beliefs the delegate currently has about the topic in question, (bearing in mind that these might be subconscious thoughts) and then examining the principles that underpin and support the tools, techniques and methodologies that will be taught on the course.

3 Capability

The third step in the Dilts’ training design model (Capability) concerns knowledge about tools, systems and techniques as they apply to the topic in hand. For example, in problem solving this would include having a problem solving process to follow (e.g. Kepner Tregoe Method, Means Ends Analysis etc.) and some analysis tools such as: Process Maps, Brainstorming, Data Checklists, The 5 Why’s, Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, and Ishikawa Diagrams. These methods can be taught through the use of lectures, case studies, demonstrations, role plays and simulations. The content can be delivered in the form of pre-work (completed via an e-learning or an on-line training package perhaps?) or delivered ‘live’ via a standard lecture format. It’s also possible to ask participants to carry out their own research on specific topics and report back their findings.

4 Behaviour

Understanding a technique or process is one thing; being able to do it is another. The fourth step in Dilts design is about physically being able to perform the task or technique, especially under pressure. For example, in boxing, you might know the mechanics of ‘slipping a punch’ but that doesn’t mean you are able to get out the way of a ‘right cross’ when someone starts an attack during a bout. Or you may have been exposed to sales methods for handling customer objections and/or hostile questions, but that doesn’t mean you can find the words you need in a ‘live’ customer meeting with a million-dollar sale on the line.

Being able to actually do something in real life means practise, and lots of it, via case studies, role-plays, exercises, worked examples, simulations, etc. It also means providing people with structured feedback and coaching as they do those exercises, so they have the chance to judge the progress they are making and to make timely corrections to any weakness that might be uncovered.

5 Environment

The fifth and final part of the model is Environment. In the training context the environment is that of the training room or lecture theatre. So, we explicitly think about how to create a safe, relaxed space for people to feel comfortable as they learn the task in hand.

However, participants want to be able to use the new skill in the work place. This means that some support and encouragement must be provided to help them to bridge the gap between the ‘safety’ of the training course and the ‘hurly burly’ of the office, shop floor or retail outlet. Typically, this will involve some kind of project-based activity to help the delegate to practise the new techniques until they become second nature.

This support activity will also mean helping them to use their tools in the context of their organisation’s culture. Also, making sure that (before any training actually runs) the culture will encourage them to use the skills they’ve been taught. There is little point (for example) in training Team Leaders in how to run Staff Appraisal Meetings but then never letting them run one because they are always conducted by the Departmental Managers.

Putting it all together

When faced with the need to develop a group of people, the first step (as it is with most things!) is to have a clear objective in mind i.e. who specifically do you want to train, and what specifically do you want them to do? E.g. to make sure our managers are managing employee performance professionally; to make sure our sales people can defend our pricing structure and aren’t conceding unnecessary discounts; to make sure that managers know how to identify and hire good quality staff etc.

The second step is to appreciate what’s involved in doing that thing well, and this is where Dilts’ Neurological Levels Model helps to map out precisely what good performance looks like.

Step three is to assess the participants against the model and work out where the gaps are.

Then step four is to build a training intervention that will close those gaps!

So what’s next?

Reflect on how effective your current training design is; are you identifying needs across all five of the Dilts’ Model Levels (Identify + Beliefs + Capability + Behaviour + Environment)?


Read this article on the fundamentals of training design (4 minute read) Designing a Training Program


View this 12-minute-long video of Robert Dilts Talking about the Neurological Levels Model… NLP Logical Levels of learning & change


You may be interested in how we can help you design and run a Bespoke Training Programme… boulden.net/what-we-do

And finally, remember…

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

“For an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment.”
Action Learning meeting

The Art of Learning by Doing

Action Learning; a definition

Action Learning is a flexible, dynamic, peer group coaching based method for solving problems and developing people. It involves taking action to address a real-life issue or problem and reflecting upon the results achieved, with the support of colleagues, who are also attempting to solve their own problems.

The Origins of Action Learning

Action Learning was developed by Professor Reg Revans (1907-2003) in the
1940’s. It was inspired by his work as a research scientist (when studying
astrophysics) at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University in the 1930’s.

During that time, he was struck by the way that the scientists (many of whom were Nobel prize winners) were, in their regular weekly seminars, completely open about not understanding fully the work they were doing and were welcoming of their colleagues’ questions, suggestions, and observations. Consequently, he formed the belief that people learn best when working together to help each other with their problems, and then taking their answers away and implementing them in the workplace. To explain the collaborative aspects of action learning he would often quote Leonard Cheshire (the philanthropist); “The best way to deal with your own troubles is to go help someone else.”

Furthermore, his experiences at Cambridge also led him to make a distinction between being ‘clever’ and ‘wise’.

So, clever people know things (which is good), but wise people understand that there are often unforeseen factors associated with real life events (that can be very complex) and are always ready to ask themselves testing questions to make sure that they really do understand what’s happening. That is, they don’t feel the need to come up with the right answer immediately, or to dominate a discussion, and they realise that, in a volatile situation, it’s very easy to make mistakes. Revans noted that when asking these ‘testing questions’ in the company of others (as happened at the Cavendish Laboratory) real insights and learning can occur.

Revans’ Law

Revans’ Law is the principle “that for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment”. And for that to happen (in a volatile and uncertain world) people have to be willing to (i) experiment and crucially, (ii) learn from the results they achieve. The increasing rate of change that was occurring throughout the 20th century made Revans think that the ability to respond to change was a key success factor in business and life, and that Action Learning Programmes could help people to meet that challenge.

The Action Learning Equation

The formulae Revans’ used to explain Action Learning is: L = P+Q

This means that Learning [L] is based on Programmed Knowledge [P] (the things that can be formally taught) plus Questioning Insight [Q] (the ability to apply what has been taught to ‘messy’ real life problems, across a wide range of situations). Questioning Insight matters where there is no fixed body of knowledge that commands a strong consensus, or where the situation is subject to constant change.

So, Programmed Knowledge makes you ‘clever’, but the ability to develop ‘Questioning Insight’ makes you ‘wise’. Of course, both aspects of Learning, (P+Q) are important. Clearly, acquiring a good understanding of a topic is vital to success, for example, no one would hire an electrical engineer who didn’t understand circuit analysis – but Questioning Insight is the more difficult of the two ‘learning components’ to acquire (and that’s what Action Learning helps with).

Question Insight itself is a function of (A + R) i.e. [A] ‘action’ – actually doing something in the real world – and [R] Reflecting on the results achieved, and discussing your observations with colleagues.

So, in summary, advocates of Action Learning believe that people learn best from trying things out in practice and reflecting on what happens as a result of their actions and why. (At its heart Action Learning is about taking real world action to solve a real-life problem; it is not about recommending an action; it’s about owning the implementation of an action and learning from what happens as a result.)

The 7 components of an Action Learning Programme

An Action Learning programme consists of seven key elements. By changing the shape of these elements, it is possible to use Action Learning to achieve a variety of different outcomes. E.g. develop high potential managers or grow business leaders, or implement a change programme etc.

1 The Problem

The focus for any Action Learning programme is the problem or problems that are to be tackled. It follows therefore that problem selection is crucial to an effective programme.

The three main issues to consider here are that the:

  • Problem(s) must reflect a real business need.
  • There must be a genuine willingness by senior managers to have the problem(s) ‘fixed’ by the programme participants.
  • A specific senior manager must be prepared to ‘own’ each of the problems selected and be willing to use his or her influence to ensure that any changes are actually put into practice.

2 The Sponsor

The Sponsor is the person who has the authority to ensure that the Action Learning programme runs its full course. In a large-scale programme this person will normally be the COO or CEO.

3 The Client

The Client is a senior manager who takes ownership of a specific problem and its eventual solution. His/her role in an Action Learning programme is to delegate the responsibility for tackling the problem either to a specific individual or to a team of people. He/she is often defined as the person who ‘knows and cares’ about the problem and who can implement any changes that are suggested by the nominated problem solver(s).

4 The Fellow (or Participant)

The term ‘fellow’ is used to describe the people who are tasked with solving a problem on behalf of a ‘client’ i.e. they are the programme participants. The term ‘fellow’ is a reference to Revan’s University experiences (i.e. research fellows). Identifying the people with the right mix of skill and experience, and at the appropriate level of seniority to participate in a specific Action Learning initiative, is one of the key factors in determining the success of the programme.

5 The Action Learning Set

Participants in an Action Learning programme are assigned to a self-help group or ‘Set’ of around six to nine people. The Set meets once per fortnight and members tell each other about how their work is progressing and ‘bounce’ ideas off one another. In the Set ‘fellows’ learn with and from each other, and as a consequence the development that they experience is greatly strengthened. The importance of the Set is based on three key beliefs, namely that:

  • Human beings learn best from reflected practice. That is by stepping back and thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
  • The best test of any learning is trying it out in action.
  • The process of learning is greatly strengthened by regularly sharing the experience with others who are also learning by doing.

The Set provides an environment in which these beliefs can be put into practice.

6 The Set Adviser

Each Set has a ‘set adviser’ whose job it is to sit in on the regular team meetings to (a) help the participants to work effectively together to achieve the goals of their projects and, (b) capture the individual learning that is taking place. This is a highly skilled mentoring and facilitation role.

7 Programme Coordinator

For large scale programmes there is a Co-ordinator who monitors progress of the Action Learning Sets on a day-to-day basis (e.g. checks that the meetings are taking place, assesses what overlap, if any, is happening with work in the various Sets) and offers help to the team with their administrative arrangements e.g. timetabling meetings.

Types of Action Learning Programme

There are 3 variables that can be manipulated to build an action learning programme (Internal/External + Familiar/Unfamiliar + Individual/Group). The choices that are made will depend on the desired outcome and the available resources.

Internal Vs. External Participants

Action Learning Programmes can either be External, where participants from different organisations are involved, and where meetings are rotated around the participating organisations (or meetings are hosted by an organising entity, often a University). Or they can be Internal, with managers from the same company meeting together to discuss their progress on their project work.

External ‘Own job’ Action Learning programmes were designed for those organisations wishing to develop managers by exposing them to people from quite different backgrounds. The idea being that people from different industries could challenge each other’s views of what was ‘normal and acceptable’ and thereby help to generate creative solutions to the problems that were posed.

Internal programmes, on the other hand, are attractive because they are cost effective, and easy to manage. In addition, if each ‘Set’ or team of people who are attending the Action Learning meetings has a good mix of managers, then functional barriers can be broken down.

Familiar Vs. Unfamiliar Tasks

The Familiar Task format involves the participants working on tasks that they would normally be expected to tackle e.g. A Marketing Manager works on a marketing problem.

The Unfamiliar Task format involves the participants working on tasks that they would not normally be expected to tackle e.g. A Marketing Manager works on a quality problem.

Individual Vs. Group Projects

Individual Projects means that you have one person for each problem to be addressed and (obviously) Group Projects involve a team of people looking at each of the chosen problems.

The Most Common Format: The ‘Own Job Model’

The most frequently run type of programme (because it is the cheapest and easiest to do) is the Own Job Model. This is based on: Familiar Task + Familiar Environment + Individual Project format.

As the name suggests, the ‘problem’ is based on the participants getting better at their current jobs e.g. to develop their leadership skills, or to improve the productivity of their department, or to get into a position where they can be considered for promotion etc. The Client is typically their Line Manager (or sometimes the HR VP). So, the ‘scope’ of the problem being addressed is relatively small, but that doesn’t mean that the personal development (and the impact on the business) can’t be substantial. And (with a good mix of people in the Sets) there are additional benefits through improved internal networking and team building.

Other formats are much more difficult to organise logistically and consequently are much rarer e.g. An Unfamiliar Task + an External Participant + Individual Project format, might see a senior manager from (say) a steel plant working on an issue presented by a textile mill or electronics company. This can be a very powerful form of development but the commitment in time and energy (plus the amount of trust needed to share confidential company information) means that it is not a commonly adopted format.

Putting it all together

When faced with an unpredictable situation (or ‘unknown, unknowns’, as they are sometimes called) it is the ability to ask Insightful Questions that will determine the success of your efforts. And that process of asking questions, taking action, reflecting on the results and learning from your experiences is greatly strengthened if you have the support of a small team of colleagues as you do it. You help them and they help you and, as ‘comrades in adversity’, you are better able to keep learning and adapting in the face of high rates of change; this is what Action Learning was deigned to deliver!

So what’s next?

Reflect on how good you are at learning by doing? Is your rate of learning keeping pace with the rate of change in your industry? Who do you help navigate difficult problems, who helps you? Would a formal Action Learning Set be helpful to you (and them)?


Read this article on Scoping Action Learning Projects


View this three-minute long video of Professor Revans talking about
Action Learning in 1984


You may be interested in how we can help you design and run an Own Job Action Learning Programme…


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at
coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can
work with you.

And finally, remember…

“If you think you understand a problem, make sure you are not deceiving yourself.”