Coaching misunderstood

Rebuttal of article in Workplace magazine, Jan/Feb 2009: Coaching has become a common term for many different activities and initiatives in the last 10 years. Many related professions are using the word “coaching” to “dress up” their services – presumably to appear more current, and to have their service appear more attractive to the buyer. How is the market supposed to understand what a professional coach is, when there are so many different professions offering this misunderstood activity and most of them not following a common set of standards?

In the January/February 2009 issue of Workplace magazine the Blessing White study, “The Coaching Conundrum,” notes that coaching in organizations have received very mixed reviews from employees. As a study on coaching in general it is limited in that it refers mostly to coaching between managers and employees – not to all initiatives involving professional coaching in organizations. This omits what is arguably the largest sector of coaching activity within organizations – professional coaches working with their clients in clearly defined professional relationships.

If we are to understand what to expect from a professional coach, it is crucial to differentiate the mandate and the role of a professional coach from managers taking “a coach approach” with their employees and teams. We must differentiate what a trained coach can achieve, and why, and what a manager using a coach-approach can and cannot be expected to achieve.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) is the leading global organization dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting standards, providing independent certification, and supporting a worldwide network of over 16,000 credentialed coaches. It defines the coaching relations between coach and client as follows:

The role of the coach is to provide objective assessment and observations that foster the individual's or team members' enhanced self-awareness and awareness of others, practice astute listening in order to garner a full understanding of the individual's or team's circumstances, be a sounding board in support of possibility thinking and thoughtful planning and decision making, champion opportunities and potential, encourage stretch and challenge commensurate with personal strengths and aspirations, foster the shifts in thinking that reveal fresh perspectives, challenge blind spots in order to illuminate new possibilities, and support the creation of alternative scenarios. Finally, the coach maintains professional boundaries in the coaching relationship, including confidentiality, and adheres to the coaching profession's code of ethics.

It is clear from this description that not all of these activities can be done, or done with any level of competency, unless there is substantial training to attain professional competency. There are several prerequisites and competencies required for the above activities:

    * Self-management
    * Absence of personal or conflicting agenda
    * Ability to create an environment of trust
    * Singular focus on client success

In the current marketplace there are basically three types of coaching arrangements that are effective if parameters are clearly defined at the outset:

I.    The external coach
This is a professionally trained (and preferably certified) coach who is a member of at least one professional coaching association, who either works as an independent contractor or works with an external coaching provider. External coaches are typically hired for senior level management. Benefits to hiring an external coach are:

    * Coach is neutral to organizational politics or agenda
    * Coach’s perceived ability for “new thinking” – not “jaded” by industry
    * High level of trust in the relationship due to high level of trust in confidentiality
    * Perception of dealing with a specialist, not a generalist

II.    The internal coach
Some organizations employ professionally trained (and preferably certified) coaches who are members of at least one professional coaching association, and who coach employees. Internal coaches typically work with mid-and lower level management. Benefits to hiring an internal coach are:

    * Coach understands context of internal culture, politics, organizational structures, and industry
    * Coaching service can be provided to large number of employees cost-effectively

III.    Manager uses “coach approach”
Many organizations believe that coaching “works,” and as a result they expect their managers to engage in coach-like behavior. Managers are encouraged to use a coach-approach in order to:

    * create a workforce that benefits from higher engagement, reduced conflict, and higher performance
    * contribute to a coaching culture
    * improve employee satisfaction ratings

The Blessing White study points to the disparity between managers’ intent, employee expectations, and the disappointing end results of managers coaching employees. Frankly, the results in the study imply that this whole approach is a mess. This is not a surprise. Most organizations do not train their managers in coaching skills. What is needed to help managers develop their coaching competencies is a cohesive, organization-wide design of strategy-driven, management-supported initiatives that involve appropriate manager training, systematic and standardized, with clear and measurable competencies and accountabilities.

To be clear, a manager will never be able to assume the role of a professional coach, because of the prerequisites and competencies required to fulfill the role of coach as described above. Managers have a clear agenda as to their mandate and expected deliverables within the organization, and this agenda will certainly conflict with that of her employees at times – thereby the trusted relationship a coach/client relationship enjoys can never be designed between manager/employee. However, a manager can learn how to use the coach approach as a management competency – and this will have a positive effect on his employees and teams relationships.

He or she will be able to:

    * shift his/her focus to overall productivity rather than focus on short-term time savings – he or she can ask staff to come up with options rather than “tell them” what to do
    * design goals for his/her team and individual employees and challenge them to come up with strategies towards attaining them
    * design accountabilities with employees and create appropriate follow-up
    * ask for and consider employee needs and motivation towards overall team effectiveness
    * provide feedback and encouragement competently in service of employee and team development
    * share his/her own mandate, restraints and accountabilities and adopt a “we” approach” versus the “I know best” approach

Organizations where coaching initiatives show sustainable results often use a mix of the three types of coaching mentioned above. Other success factors include choosing well credentialed coaches who use a well defined methodology, goal setting and monitoring ROI results.

All this confusion is quite normal in an industry as young as the coaching industry – an industry which is just starting to define itself and the parameters of the profession per se. While the industry is still not very transparent to the consumer (and not even to many coaches), we do know that coaching works. Many studies show it, and they show WHY it works. (see list below).As professional coaches we feel we have a mandate to continually help clarify and define boundaries, in service of the public gaining a better understanding what type of coaching is available, and how to choose the appropriate coaching initiative for a given situation.

Coaching as a leadership development tool is here to stay. Let’s use all the success recipes we can get for competitive advantage in the marketplace – especially in this current economic climate.

For further reading on coaching and leadership, click here.

Sabine Fischer is a partner with Integra Leadership Inc., which specializes in organizational development solutions that result in enhanced communication, collaboration and cohesion in their workforce, leading to higher productivity and superior results. Integra partners with organizations throughout Canada and across North America to integrate leadership, team and culture solutions into their people programs, drawing on their team of pre-screened credentialed coaches and facilitators in various North American centers. For more on Integra, visit