Client confidential

In this fifth and final article in the Masterclass series on Executive
Coaching, Ina Smith examines ways client relationships should be managed to
ensure real success for both individuals and the organisation

It is inevitable that careful purchasers of executive coaching have a range
of criteria for selecting coaches and evaluating the success of a coaching
programme at its conclusion. They need to feel reassured that:

– Appropriate boundaries and contracts are established with the coach

– Clear levels of confidentiality can be ensured

– The coaching provided is of the highest quality available

– Effective ways to evaluate success can be created

Executive coaches need to have a good understanding of these issues and be
prepared to be scrutinised and assessed on their ability to maintain the
highest standards. By addressing some of these issues in the relationships with
the individual and his organisation at the start of a coaching assignment,
there is a much greater chance for a positive evaluation at the close of the


Our assumptions about executive coaching have a deep impact on our
expectations and evaluation of the success or otherwise of the coaching process
and practice.

Some people would characterise coaching as a social exchange, where an
individual client’s performance can be measured and monitored to provide a
rational cost-benefit analysis of coaching for the organisation.

Others see coaching as a way of providing support to key people within an
organisation, enabling them to enact the core values of the organisation as
members of a community. Such behaviour then becomes the norm. This latter view
recognises executive coaching as a strategic process in the service of
sustainable change. An evaluation from this perspective would require very
different enquiry methods and success criteria.

It is vital the executive coach examines the assumptions of both the coachee
and his organisation, to ensure expectations are realistic and to establish a
true understanding of the benefits of coaching beforehand.

The initial stages of any coaching need to be focused on the particular
goals for the whole coaching process, then for each specific coaching meeting.
This agenda setting, along with a clear understanding of the roles and
relationships involved, are what make up the coaching ‘contract’.

The complexities of this contract were examined by Charlotte Sills in the
second article of this series (Training Magazine, February 2003). Issues such
as whether the coachee or the organisation is the client, need to be addressed
at the outset by the coach.

Clear contracts where specific goals are set, the number of coaching
sessions agreed at the start and where confidentiality limits and the nature of
any reporting arrangements are clearly understood, all help the coaching
relationship to flourish.

However, some coaches may be concerned that having too formal contracts and
arrangements with the organisation will stifle the evolution of a creative,
safe and personal relationship. It is important the coach’s approach is
non-judgemental, and the coaching relationship is based on trust. Only within
the context of such a relationship can a coach help the client to be truly
innovative and creative, as Bill Critchley explained in the third article of
this series (Training Magazine, March 2003).

It is generally advisable to separate social and professional roles and to
allow only one relationship – the professional relationship of coach and
client. Most coaches decline social invitations to keep this boundary clear.


Individuals expect coaching to be focused on their specific requirements, to
be outcome-oriented and flexible in terms of their time. It is also expected to
be entirely confidential and offers a safe place to acknowledge self-doubts and
explore options.

Most executive coaches would acknowledge that although organisations have
the right to expect results, they do not have the right to know how these were
obtained. A sense that your coach is ‘on your side’ is essential – although
challenges should be expected as well as support.

Executive coaches generally offer a clear guarantee that they will not talk
about the client or share data with anyone else (including the sponsor, boss or
HR manager) without the client’s specific permission to do so. Although the
organisation pays the coach, the data collected and information shared belong
to the individual.

Many executive coaches encourage their clients to be open and share their
development goals and plans. By doing this, they model such behaviour to others
and show themselves to be leaders in fostering positive change.

But what happens if there is resistance to change or over-dependency on the
coaching relationship?


Writers attempting to explore the nature of executive coaching have pointed
to the dangers of dependency and how some people experience real difficulty in
ending a coaching contract. For this reason, some writers and researchers
recommend that all coaching should be done by fully- trained psychologists or
therapists, but the best coaches are well aware of the dangers of dependency.

High-quality coaching

An Ashridge research project into executive coaching identified a number of
key areas that distinguished great coaches from truly excellent ones.

The first was their training, qualifications and background. The coaches
studied came from a variety of backgrounds, and it did not seem that there was
one formal method of training that guaranteed excellent coaches. However, what
was more interesting, was that the excellent coaches had never stopped
developing themselves. They were constantly looking for new things they could
engage in to enable them to coach even more effectively.

Excellent coaches were much more eclectic in their approach. They worked
with a wide variety of ideas, theories and models that seemed to be appropriate
to particular individuals. They also continuously develop their thinking and
practice, reflecting on their current experiences and learning new ways of
working with individuals.

Executive coaches need to seek out and discover new training and development
opportunities that will provide them with the knowledge and insight to
understand their client’s organisation and business situations. An excellent
executive coach knows enough about business strategy, the core business
processes and typical management issues to be able to identify with their
client’s context and to be able to challenge appropriately.

One of the ways of ensuring continuous professional development is through
supervision. It is a concept widely developed and practised in the fields of
psychology, counselling and therapy, and in other professions such as social

Supervision in executive coaching means taking time either individually or
in a small group to describe your coaching work and examine the actual
approaches used, the relationships established, dynamics created and the
impact, results and outcomes reached. In this way, executive coaches can
reflect on their current levels of skill and with appropriate support,
challenge and feedback. They can understand where they might adapt and develop
their coaching to better help and support the individual.

For coaches faced with potentially difficult issues such as dependency,
supervision of their practice provides an important failsafe procedure to
ensure that contracts are monitored and endings managed effectively.

Evaluation of coaching

As with any other approach to learning and development, the coaching process
is not complete until it has been evaluated. A typical evaluation is done
through a questionnaire, which attempts to identify how committed the coach has
been to the development of the individual. Bearing in mind that coaches can
play a wide variety of roles – including counsellor, adviser, mentor,
go-between and devil’s advocate – we need to establish ways of understanding
the type of help and support the individual has received from the coach.

The results often show the original goals and objectives were not the ones
that emerged as important during the coaching process, and the final evaluation
demonstrates a greater number of positive outcomes than was anticipated at the
start of the process.

We can learn a great deal on the impact of executive coaching from the
consulting world. Some of the most useful qualitative measures for evaluating
the full impact of executive coaching are described by Peter Block in his book,
Flawless Consulting.

He suggests we look at the optimism and self-sufficiency left behind after
the consultant has gone, and recognise that true consultancy is fundamentally
an educational and capacity-building function. Real success is when the client
feels more accountable for their own systems and more able to learn, more
powerful and more confident in creating their organisations.

References: Learner-Centred Psychological Principles (1995); The
Coaching & Mentoring Conference proceedings, Bristol & West plc (1999);
Flawless Consulting, (Peter Block, 2000); Transference,Countertransference and
Mentoring, the Ghost in the Process, MJ McAuley, British Journal of Guidance
& Counselling, (2003); States of Excellence, V Wark, Ashridge research

Coaching for consultants

Transfer of skills, imbuing clients with the ability to learn
and the creation of learning organisations, are core values for Ashridge
Consulting. These are the themes and objectives which pervade its current
Coaching for Consultants programme.  

Enquiries about the ACL Coaching for Consultants programme
should be addressed to Tracey Field, Tel. 01442 841106,

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