Most of us consider coaching to be a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to behave honourably with our clients. After all, those of us who coach leaders and managers in organisations often find ourselves working with people who hold powerful positions, and listening to deeply held hopes and fears that are unlikely to have been expressed to many others, maybe even to no one else at all. We might hear of behind-the-scenes power struggles or great acts of humility or hubris. Given this, we have to be sensitive to issues of ethics, trust and confidence.1 We propose that there is another sensitivity we need to attune to: that is, consciously and wilfully giving away our skill set. As this might initially scream of turkeys voting for Christmas, our aim here is to explain why we should do this and how it might be done.
Most training courses with any of the professional coaching bodies or associations will cover the issue of managing dependence; that is, managing clients who continue to lean on us as their coach for longer than is healthy or necessary.2 The debate around dependence generally centres on how long an engagement should be and how we build in our own exit, leaving a client better equipped to work through their own issues, perhaps with the possibility of returning to coaching at some point in the future. These are necessary issues for us to hold in the foreground of our client contracting. Clearly, the responsibility sits with us, the coaches, to broach these issues, especially given that clients often have limited experience of the appropriate parameters for coaching.
In addition to this ethical question of managing dependence, we want to raise the possibility that we need to ‘teach’ our clients too. The idea of teaching may at first appear to be in conflict with coaching, but we are arguing that we might teach, not in the manner of a teacher, but in the manner of a coach – consistent with the normal ethos and ethics of coaching. This is because the skills we develop and hone as a coach are exactly the skills that most leaders need.3 These are not skills that should be divorced from leadership, nor should their existence in the workplace rely solely on the provision of external professional coaches.4 And those in need of these skills cannot wait until the next time they see an external coach – rather they are needed in the moment, ‘on the go’. We work with coaching in at least two distinct ways: we coach managers and leaders in the traditional sense, at all levels of responsibility and in a wide range of contexts; and we also train business people in the skills of coaching to support their leadership capabilities. It is through these two related, and yet often disconnected, activities, we’ve come to the view that simply coaching to answer the needs or desires of the coachee (and their line manager) is insufficient. We need to coach our clients to learn to coach as well.
Our logic for this position is supported in several ways. First, despite the increasing supply of qualified coaches, it is untenable for organisations to be able to afford external support for all those who would benefit from coaching – given that, logically, everyone can benefit from coaching. Second, we see busy leaders outsourcing some of their ‘people development’ conversations to coaches – and yet they would be far more effective doing it themselves. Third, there is a danger that unskilled leaders may be using coaching for remedial conversations that they are uncomfortable having themselves. How many of us have found ourselves discussing, in our own supervision, how the person who would benefit the most from our coaching would appear to be the coachee’s boss, only we’re restricted to coaching the coachee? These situations may be good business for us as coaches, but they are not good for the long-term success of the organisation in question and, as such, are fundamentally questionable from an ethical standpoint.
Great leaders coach
Instead, we argue that great leaders coach. This is a premise gaining traction with many academics and practitioners: that everyone has the capacity to lead5; consequently, we argue that all leaders should coach. In the academic literature on leadership, this is not a new refrain; see, for example, the many papers and books centred around the work of Bass and Avolio on the topic of transformational leadership.6 In this model, the transformational leader (distinguished from the transactional leader operating under the status quo, the management-by-exception leader and the laissez-faire leader who is not leading at all), relies on four key mechanisms or interventions. One of these fundamental interventions is that of coaching (or ‘individualised consideration’ in academic speak). In other words, effective leadership seeking to achieve success in a changing environment, must draw on the skills of coaching.
An alternative academic example supporting the need for coaching skills is that of situational leadership, exemplified through the work of Hersey and Blanchard.7 This argues that leaders need to use different skills and capabilities in different circumstances. The aim of the productive and successful leader is to delegate and empower others as much as possible in order to maintain focus at the appropriate strategic level. To achieve this, the skill of coaching is critical to move a colleague or team member from requiring directive, time-intensive behaviour, to that of the sweet-spot of delegation.
Next in this issue
While these leadership theories are relatively mainstream and are but two examples of many others in which the role of coaching is important to effective leadership, we are yet to see this narrative arise in the professional coaching field. The connection may not even be recognised in the training and development materials of the coaching professional bodies. And yet, for a profession that excels in helping others to see different perspectives and understand different links,8 this feels somewhat ironic. It may be that, in the long term, our industry is afraid that identifying the significance of this relationship will potentially diminish the pool of coaching assignments. This may be, but is, in our view, unlikely.
Building an element of teaching-about-coaching into a coaching assignment makes good sense. Certainly, it reduces the concerns we might have about clients developing a dependence on us. More than that, it builds long-term sustainable solutions and puts the key conversations between leaders, and those they collaborate with, back where they belong. Indeed, we would argue that many coaches and coaching models embed this premise. For example, the coaching model advocated by David Rock follows a deliberate rubric, through which the coachee learns not just to address the initial dilemma that triggered the intervention, but develops the ability to re-use that methodology to address any future challenges they face.9 However, we are pushing this to the forefront in arguing that at the end of the engagement, the coachee will benefit from a clear awareness of the concept of coaching as a leadership skill of their own. They will learn that they can draw on this, and how to do so, at least to a reasonable degree of quality.
Coaching on the go
As professional coaches, in our view, it is inadequate to work on the assumption that our role ends with either the initial dilemma or challenge set by the coachee, or indeed further issues that the coachee identifies during the coaching journey. As part of our responsibilities to challenge our clients, we must go further and draw attention to the importance of coaching skills in leadership and hence the greater impact that can be gained from a coaching engagement. Without effective coaching skills to use as leaders, from the basics of contracting skills, to high quality generative listening and more, your coachee will not be the most effective leader they can be. Some clients - for example, the CEO - simply need to confide in someone, and that might be the exception to our proposition. But usually, any client benefitting from a professional coaching engagement will gain even more from skills that have the potential to make them a brilliant leader-coach.
In coming to our view that coaching the issue we are presented with is not enough, we started to consider how best to close the gap. We have presented part of the answer, namely the extension of the goals of the coaching engagement. Nonetheless, this will not provide sufficient development to practise and build the leadership skills of coaching – there is simply too much to cover within a standard short-term, one-to-one coaching engagement. Our attempt to address the needs of the busy leader or manager led to us writing our book, Coaching on the Go,14 which explains each of the key components of coaching and offers a range of behavioural experiments that the reader can try out to test and develop their capabilities accordingly. The book provides something we can use both during the client engagement, and leave with clients to continue their journey developing coaching skills for use as leaders after our engagement. Our hope is that the book can help address a serious leadership development need. We are also suggesting further reading for our clients, which adds another learning dynamic to our conversations.
There are more than 600,000 senior executives in the UK alone, who share a common objective: to get the best out of their teams and others they work alongside.15 Meet these unsung potential coaches. They do not wish to become professional coaches, but are instead, professional managers or leaders who nevertheless search for ways to develop others. These non-coaching professionals deserve to walk away from a coaching engagement with a wider array of skills than they started with. As coaches, we can teach. We are ideally placed to do this.
Leaders come to coaching for a variety of reasons. Whatever we do, whatever tools we use, whatever relational bridges we build, there is an opportunity for them to take away a skill set that is immensely valuable. That is a truly sustainable solution and we owe it to the organisations we work for to change our mindset and theirs.
BACP Coaching responds...
I read this article with great interest because a large percentage of my coaching work is with leaders, often with an explicit focus on developing leadership skills. The authors make many valid points, underpinned with useful theories. I absolutely agree that passing on information and developing skills through experience is a key part of leadership coaching. As a coach, I seek to value the client’s thinking above my own and only share information, including tools, when they have gone as far as they can with their own mind and when they ask for it. In practice, with permission, I have shared many tools and frameworks and recommended books for coachees to read, though offering these lightly. Often, those new to leadership or to a particular role soak these resources up with enthusiasm and run with them, applying them in their own way in their own unique context. It’s interesting to think about whether this constitutes ‘teaching’. It is certainly enabling learning and sharing of information, though I think it’s important to avoid being didactic in the sense of taking the position that ‘we know best’.
I also agree with the authors that there is a danger that managers and leaders outsource difficult conversations to coaches. This robs the leader and their direct reports of opportunities to really understand one another’s position and to strengthen and build the relationship by appreciating difference and holding one another accountable in terms of performance, both of which can increase confidence and efficacy. Mary Beth O’Neill articulates this clearly, outlining the differences between what she identifies as adopting a ‘rescue model’ versus a ‘client responsibility model’ of coaching.1 The need to resist rescuing and unwittingly taking responsibility and power away is equally relevant in terms of leaders and their direct reports. Coaching skills can also be useful when managing up in an organisation, as well as with the teams for which leaders have a responsibility. I have found that leaders who are able to consciously distribute leadership and who are aware of different leadership styles for different stages of development, such as the situational leadership approach, are likely to be far more effective. It’s also important to note that we can all benefit from the generative attention of another person, however skilled we are; coaching ourselves is not quite the same proposition as coaching someone else. While I always end coaching sessions with an invitation to the client to articulate what they are taking away, the authors of this article have inspired me to go further, by inviting clients to reflect on the tools used to generate the outcome and asking them to consider where else or how they might use them.
1 Duffy M, Passmore J. Ethics in coaching: an ethical decision making framework for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review 2010; 5(2): 140–51.
2 Kauffman C, Coutu D. The realities of executive coaching. Harvard Business Review 2009; 2 (January): 1–25.
3 Bolden R. Leadership competencies: time to change the tune? Leadership 2006; 2(2): 147–63.
4 Boyatzis RE, Boyatzis R, McKee A. Resonant leadership: renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion. New York: Harvard Business Press; 2005.
5. Crevani L, Lindgren M, Packendorff J. Leadership, not leaders: on the study of leadership as practices and interactions. Scandinavian Journal of Management 2010; 26(1): 77–86.
6 Avolio BJ, Bass BM, Jung DI. Re-examining the components of transformational and transactional leadership using the multifactor leadership questionnaire. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 1999; 72(4): 441–62.
7 Hersey P, Blanchard K. Management of organizational behavior – utilizing human resources. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall; 1977.
8 Passmore J, Fillery-Travis A. A critical review of executive coaching research: a decade of progress and what’s to come. Coaching 2011; 4(2): 70–88.
9 Rock D, Schwartz J. A brain-based approach to coaching. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations 2006; 4(2): 32-43.
10 Cooperider DL, Whitney D, Stavros JM. Appreciative inquiry handbook: the first in a series of AI workbooks for leaders of change. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers Inc; 2003.
11 Dunbar A. Clean coaching: the insider guide to making change happen. London: Routledge; 2016.
12 Thaler R, Sunstein C. Nudge theory. Yale University Press; 2008.
13 Knight S. NLP at work. The difference that makes the difference. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 2020.
14 Renshaw P, Robinson J. Coaching on the go: how to lead your team effectively in 10 minutes a day. London: Pearson; 2019.
15 BoardEx. April 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ BoardEx (accessed January 2020)
BACP Coaching responds
1 O’Neill MB. Executive coaching with backbone and heart. A systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges (2nd edition). San Francisco: Wiley and Sons; 2007.