Coaching Models for Business Success: The Nested-Levels Model

By Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron

Coaching as an Experiential Learning Conversation

One of the core areas where coaches work with clients is that of learning. However, the conversation with your client centers on what is meaningful to them. If significance and relevance are to emerge from the coaching conversation, it doesn't matter what is relevant to you; it matters what is relevant to them. It is therefore important to be aware of your own assumptions about what the client needs.

If you are guiding, directing, and giving your clients all the information they need, it will be difficult for them to ever be free of you. It is helpful if the client embodies new learning personally and physiologically; you can't do their learning for them. What you do as a coach is to help them reconstruct their own thinking and feeling to gain perspective and become self-directed learners. At the end of each coaching session with my clients, we integrate their learning1 with the goals they have set, confirming what action, if any, they are committed to:

  1. Vision-Refine their vision: where is the client going?
  2. Strategy-Outline the strategy: how is the client going to achieve their vision?
  3. Outcomes-What are the specific outcomes that need to be accomplished in the next few weeks in order to work toward achieving the vision, putting the strategy into action?
  4. Learning-Help the client summarize what was gained from the session in order to help underline self-reflection, continuing to help the client understand that they are responsible for their own thinking, their own doing, and their own being.

Nested-Levels Model

Although models create a system within which coach and client learn, it is essential that models are not experienced as either prescriptive or rigid. If the model is inflexible, it means it is fulfilling the coach's agenda, rather than attempting to understand the client's issues.

This nested-levels model was developed by New Ventures West (Weiss, 2004), and introduces the concept of horizontal and vertical levels in coaching models. The nested model works first at the horizontal level of "doing," eventually moving into deeper "learning" one level down; reflecting about self, others, and experience at a third "ontological" level where new knowledge emerges about oneself and the world (Figure1).

In her article, Pam Weiss talks about the two different camps of coaches. In jest, I call them the New York versus the Los Angeles camp. The New York camp says, "I'm the expert, let me fix you," while the L.A. camp says, "You are perfect and whole and have all of your own answers." Joking aside, each of these camps comes up short, even though coaches often fall into one or the other. The role of coaching is actually about developing human beings. It is not really about "I have the expertise" versus "you already have all your own answers."

The Expert Approach

Contrary to what experts might think, clients are not broken and are not in need of fixing. Clients may be anxious, stressed, nervous, overworked, and even narcissistic—but they don't need fixing. They are mostly healthy human beings going about their jobs and lives, experiencing their own human difficulties. Your job as coach is to help the clients learn for themselves, so that when you are no longer walking alongside them, they have become "self-directed" learners (Harri-Augstein and Thomas, 1991) and do not need you anymore. The second view about "expertise" also has limitations. The role of expertise is that, as coach, you are an expert; but coaching is not about the coach giving all the answers; that tends to be the role of the consultant, i.e., to find solutions for the client.

The "You-Have-All-the-Answers" Approach

The "you have all the answers" assumption is partially true, but there are several limitations. The first one is that we all have blind spots, and it is your job as coach to help the client to identify their blind spots. Secondly, it's perhaps a bit of "mythical" thinking that the client has all of the answers already; the flip side of that argument is that, if it does not work out, the client assumes blame and fault. In other words, "If I have all the answers, I should be able to do it myself without help." If that is not the case, they could feel, "Oh dear, if I am not able to do it myself, then perhaps I'm a failure."

Both of these approaches are "horizontal," i.e., they skim the surface of the work you can do with the client. Both help people to maintain the lives they currently have. The expert "New York" approach helps the client to do it better, faster, and more efficiently, and the "Los Angeles" approach may withhold key insights and observations from the coach that could help build the client's awareness of their blind spots. What is important, rather than "fixing" the client, is the skill of "observation" on the part of the coach. There is no problem in helping the client to do it better, faster, or more efficiently—that is often what the organization hopes for in terms of performance improvement. However, it is important for the client to gain the learning they need to address blind spots and to build their own internal capacity and competence.

Learning Level

If you continue to help people accomplish tasks, achieve goals, and keep on "doing," they risk falling into the trap of being "busy" and possibly overwhelmed. They may not, however, necessarily get the "learning" they need to develop self-awareness and self-management. I know all too well about this trap of being excessively busy. If we keep "doing" without reflection, we eventually burn out. To keep individual executives performing better and better, they need to work at one level lower-at the level of learning. They need to learn how to "do the doing" better. As soon as an executive begins to work with a coach, they begin the possibility of working at one or two levels deeper.

As coach, you will be asking questions to help clients reflect, review, and gain useable knowledge from their experience. In the nested-levels model, the higher levels don't include the lower ones, but the lower levels include the higher ones. So we need to help clients address their purpose one level down, at the level of learning. At this level you may ask questions such as, "How are you doing? What are you doing? What are you feeling? How are your peers/colleagues experiencing you/this? What is and what isn't working? What is useful learning for you here? What needs to change and how?"

Ontological Levels-Being and Becoming

The third and fourth levels of the coaching intervention using this model are that ofwho the client is and who the client wishes to become in terms of thinking, feeling, and being. Your questions move from "what do they need to do" and "how do they need to do it" (doing), to "how does their style of learning impact on how they do what they do; what do they need to learn in order to improve thinking/behavior/feeling/performance/leadership" (learning); to questions about "what do they need to understand and acknowledge about themselves, who are they, how do they be who they are, and what needs to change (being and becoming)?"

So what assists people in getting things done? Above all, it is about clarifying goals, creating action steps, taking responsibility, and being accountable. In order to perform more effectively, we need to help clients shift down a gear to learn how to work with competence (a set of skills) rather than just learning a specific new skill.


Your job as coach is to help the client be open to possibilities of learning something new, and to help them relate to themselves and others at a deeper level. To use the nested-levels model, you could ask questions such as:

  1. What is it that your client(s) want to do? What is their aim or purpose in working with you?
  2. What do they need to learn in order to make the change? What in their thinking, feeling, and behavior needs to change in order to do the doing better? How can they use their own experience to learn what is needed?
  3. How do, and how will, their thoughts, feelings, and behavior impact on how they "be who they are" and "who is it that they want to become"? In this way, we work at horizontal and vertical levels. At the end of the day, the client's new attitudes, behaviors, motivations, and assumptions begin to impact positively on their own performance and their relationships with others.

Our aim with this model is to shift any limiting sense of who the client is so that they can interact and engage with the world in new ways. As clients begin to shift, it has an impact on others with whom they interact in the workplace. It also means addressing issues systemically, from a holistic perspective, whether those issues revolve around health, stress, anxiety, performance, or relationships with others. Our task as coaches is to widen the circle, enlarge the perspective of the client, and help them learn from their own experience how to reach their potential.

A great way to start any coaching intervention is to ask your clients to tell their life story. The coach begins to understand some of the current issues and presenting challenges, and begins to observe patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior. Because we work with Kolb's theory of "understanding experience in order to transform it into useable knowledge," this model helps us to determine the context in which the client operates, where individual and systemic problems may be occurring, and how organizational values and culture impact on individuals and teams. It is at this level that the coach's ability to observe, challenge, and ask appropriate questions can be most transformational.

In Conclusion

Coaching models help us understand the coaching intervention from a systems perspective, analyzing the "structure" of the interaction between coach and client. This series of articles takes a practical look at how coaching models are constructed, and how they can help you to flexibly structure the overall coaching journey as well as the individual coaching conversation with your business client. In my next article, we will explore the use of the U-process model, sometimes known as the "process of transition," typically represented in Scharmer's U-process.

This article is adapted from Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2009, Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources).Business Coaching International will be published mid 2009 by Karnac, London.

Resource Materials

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching. Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources.

Stout Rostron, S. (2006). Interventions in the Coaching Conversation: Thinking, Feeling and Behaviour. Unpublished DProf dissertation. London: Middlesex University.

Weiss, P. (2004). "The Three Levels of Coaching." Available at:http://www.newventureswest.com/three_levels.pdf.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

1 "Learning conversations" refers to research into learning conversations and self-organized learning, developed by S. Harri-Augstein and L.F. Thomas (1991:24).

Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron, DProf, MA is an executive coach and consultant with a wide range of experience in leadership and management development, business strategy and executive coaching. The author of six books, including Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching(2009), Sunny is Director of the Manthano Institute of Learning (Pty) Ltd and founding president of COMENSA (Coaches and Mentors of South Africa). More about Sunnyin the WABC member directory. Contact Sunny.
If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Coaching Models for Business Success: How Can Coaching Create Sustainable Behavior Change? (Part 3 of 3) By Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron

In this series, we have been addressing the question: "Can coaching produce sustainable behavior change?" In my previous column, we explored four factors influencing how we can measure the effectiveness of the coaching intervention: (1) building the relationship, (2) learning from experience, (3) understanding the role of others in the system and (4) developing EQ. Following are six further considerations to how we can measure the effectiveness of the coaching intervention: (5) being flexible, (6) making your ethical code explicit, (7) being coached oneself, (8) creating a development plan with goals, (9) measuring coaching results and (10) evaluating and reviewing.

5. Being flexible 

Spontaneity is important, so beware of using a formulaic approach in your coaching. If the coach adheres too rigidly to a coaching model, it can get in the way of the coaching relationship—and the personal and professional growth of the client. It is important that both coach and client learn and change as the relationship grows.

In coaching, as in therapy, the practitioner is not always right. The practitioner is human and makes mistakes; it shows flexibility to admit those mistakes. This enhances trust and safety in the relationship and adds to the practitioner's authenticity.

6. Making your ethical code explicit

When client and coach work together, they enter into a verbal and/or written contract that specifies the parameters and boundaries of their work together. Part of a coach's code of ethics is to honor confidentiality in the coaching conversation; the client entrusts the coach with confidences and must feel safe to do so. In an organizational setting, the coach contracts what will and will not be communicated to superiors, and this confidentiality must be honored at all times. Most members of the professional association Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA) share the COMENSA ethical code with their clients as part of their contracting and setting of boundaries for the coaching process. With which organization's ethical code do you align your practice?

7. Being coached oneself

The importance of being coached or "in supervision" cannot be overemphasized. Both ensure that the coach understands what the client experiences, and both encourage the coach to work on his/her own issues so that they do not become entangled with those of the client. With the emerging professionalization of coaching, clients are now asking: "What are your coaching qualifications and experience, and how do you continually develop your competence?" Create your own professional development plan, no matter how experienced you are. Although not yet a given in coaching, supervision is a fundamental underpinning of psychological therapeutic practice, and it is similarly recommended by coaching professional bodies worldwide.

Take part in the variety of professional organizations available to you. Join a portfolio committee in your country's relevant professional association as a way to develop yourself and the coaching profession.

8. Creating a development plan with goals

To ensure that coaching achieves the intended results, it is critical to create a development plan with the client's overall purpose, strategy, developmental objectives, developmental actions, strengths, areas for improvement and obstacles to achievement. The coach is responsible for ensuring that goal-setting conversations get the best results. Mary Beth O'Neill differentiates between business goals and personal goals, and links the coaching effort to a business result by highlighting and prioritizing the business areas that need attention. Business goals are about achieving external results; personal goals are what the client has to do differently in how he/she conducts him/herself to get business results.1

According to Irvin Yalom there are two types of goals: content goals (what is to be accomplished) and process goals (how the coach wants to be in a session).2 If you as a coach are aware of your goal, you will stay in response rather than automatic mode when your stress is high. The next step is to ensure that your goal is related to your client's goal.3 Most executive coaches would first identify the client's goals and guide the client accordingly. O'Neill says be very clear about your goal throughout the session so that you lose neither signature presence nor "backbone and heart."

9. Measuring coaching results

Take measures of the outcomes of coaching from different perspectives. This could be from the client, their line manager, senior management, the client's peers and subordinates. At Resolve Encounter Consulting, we ask all our coaching clients to complete a questionnaire at the end of the coaching contract and then provide a quantitative summary that indicates the impact of coaching on performance.

Despite being more than 50 years old, Donald Kirkpatrick's four levels of evaluation (reaction, learning, behavior and results) are relevant, not just to training and capacity building, but also to coaching and leadership development.4 The levels can help determine whether the coaching intervention: (a) should continue; (b) helps improve performance; (c) demonstrates the value of the coaching and (d) gives a deliberate process to evaluate performance. In measuring results, coaches need to identify how factors such as leadership and management competence, interpersonal skills, decision making, conflict management, alliance building, teamwork, diversity management, collaboration, empathy and compassion show up in performance.

10. Evaluating and reviewing

At the end of the coaching contract, there are six factors to consider. First, celebrate achievements and plan for the road ahead. Second, highlight the client's recurring patterns that continue to sabotage his/her success. Third, to ensure long-term sustainability of the coaching intervention, finalize the development plan and who will be supporting the client in this work. Fourth, you may want to schedule a follow-up session for feedback in four to six months' time. In this way, you gauge the sustainability of the coaching work.

Fifth, to determine the sustainability of behavior change and performance, ask the client to keep a journal of reflections and learning during the coaching process. At the end of the contract: ask the client for their reflections on the entire coaching period, and where they see that insights and changes have occurred and impacted on their overall performance. Sixth, one of the most helpful post-coaching tools is a reflective, quantitative or qualitative questionnaire. Analyze these for each client to determine what shifted for the client during coaching and what new behaviors they continue to use. If possible, collate the information for all clients and produce an analysis of the coaching within that organization.


While we wait for further, definitive research, experience suggests that behavioral change as a result of coaching is possible and sustainable; one way to begin is to work with the ten guidelines outlined in this and my previous columns. My suggestion is that you contribute to the field with your own client research and evaluation of your findings. In future columns, I will begin to explore coaching models you may find useful for your business coaching practice.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide ( 2008, Volume 4, Issue 3). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

1 O'Neill, M. B. 2000. Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2 Yalom, I. 1980. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

3 Stout Rostron, S. 2006. "Interventions in the Coaching Conversation: Thinking, Feeling and Behaviour." Doctoral Thesis, Middlesex University London.

4 Kirkpatrick, D. L. 2006. Evaluating Training Programs, The Four Levels. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.



If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.