Who coaches the coaches?

There is a danger that coaching is still mostly talk and not enough results. Could coach supervision raise standards and improve results?

Certainly results from organisational development consultancy Blessing White’s research, Coaching Conundrum 2006, indicate that coaches have a lot of ground to make up. Respondents said the coaching they receive falls short of making an impact on job performance or satisfaction.

Many of those researching best practice in coaching are not surprised. “Coaching has no unified theory,” says Kate Kennett, founding partner of the Manchester-based Diverse Inclusion consultancy. “It has come to mean whatever people want it to mean and it has no edges to it. It has got to the point where you can put any word you want in front of coaching, be it ‘business’, ‘life’ or ‘team’.”

Kennett, who is developing an approach to reflective practice, is keen to see the unregulated coaching industry create measures for monitoring and self-management.

She is not alone. Professional bodies are considering how the competence of a coach should be assessed and developed. They are agreed on the concept of a supervisor for the coach, but the form of that supervision is still being debated.

At last month’s annual coaching and mentoring conference, held by the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring, its managing director Eric Parsloe proclaimed “the beginning of the end of cowboy coaches and mentors”.

He was expressing his backing for the standards, recently unveiled by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, which aim to tackle the competence of internal and external coaches and mentors.

Supervision is key
What is striking about the standards, which are still under consultation, is that each level – from foundation up to master practitioner – emphasises the importance of supervision.

At foundation level, which is equivalent to NVQ3, an “awareness of supervision” is compulsory and has to be demonstrated. Candidates taking the next levels must be able to show supervision on a regular basis. By master practitioner level – equivalent to a master’s degree – the participant is expected to “hold a specialist competency such as supervision”.

So supervision is going to be a key element of quality control, but what does it mean? It may sound like a policing activity, but is not. “The supervisor is not someone whom the client or buyer can go to in order to check that coaches are doing what they said they’d do,” says Gladeana McMahon, business coach and joint author of Essential Business Coaching. “Rather, it is a term used to describe the relationship between a coach who makes a formal arrangement to meet with a more experienced coach to discuss their coaching work. “

So will an increased emphasis on supervision help to stabilise the coaching profession? Will it give confidence to the buyer?

“Supervision is essential,” says Robin Linnecar, a partner in international executive coaching firm Praesta, who expects all his coaches to have supervisors. “Anyone buying or supplying coaching needs to realise that it’s all very well having quality delivery today but what about the next day when you come across different people? Supervision is needed because it helps to develop the coach’s skills. Otherwise, if the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”

Suitable background
Just as the buyer of external coaching must be sure that an external coach is the right match for the person being coached, so it is worth checking that the supervisor has a suitable background, because the general concept of supervision has come from the caring professions and clinical scenarios. For example, an NHS counsellor dealing with mental health issues will have a supervisor. He or she will usually have a similar background in counselling, psychology or therapy. This is not suitable for business.

Many people in coaching suspect that some of these counselling supervisors are marketing their experience as suitable for work in business. “Supervisors to counsellors in the caring profession can earn 50 an hour,” says Parsloe, “but they find that if they supervise a top business coach they can earn 500 an hour. Their interest is heavily influenced by money.”

There is a risk that if supervisors with a therapy background supervise business coaching they may lead it in the wrong direction by, for example, emphasising personal relationships instead of business results. “The business world needs to look to a learning model for supervision, not a counselling one,” says Kennett. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

Coach and supervisor Karen Frost agrees. “Supervision can give a sense of where the coach is, but the supervisor needs a good grounding in what coaching is about.” She says a supervisor should have four years’ experience in business and at least two years’ of coaching. “A lot of psychologists are coming out of private practice to look after coaches. But the coaches and buyers should be looking for evidence of their experience and whether they have membership of a professional body, such as the European Mentoring and Coaching Council or the International Coaching Federation,” she says.


Some reassurance for the buyer of coaching or supervision is that organisations such as the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring are offering qualifications in coach mentoring supervision. The minimum requirement, for its certificate in advanced professional practice in coaching and mentoring supervision, is to have practised as a coach for two years.

The CIPD also offers similar qualifications and is now taking its interest one step further with research into this confusing arena. “We want to get a picture of what best practice in supervision looks like,” says CIPD coaching adviser Eileen Arney. The results of the study are due to be published in September. They will outline the form supervision should take and how coaches and supervisors can discuss learning without jeopardising the confidentiality of the coach’s client.

In the meantime if a buyer of coaching services cannot get to the root of how far the coach is supervised, and if that supervision is adding any value, then at least be sure of the coach’s credentials.

Case study

Karen Frost acts as supervisor for an internal coach. They meet for an hour-long discussion six times a year.

“My client works three days a week as a training and development manager in a pharmaceutical company but divides her time between that job and acting as a coach to other employees,” says Frost.

Her remit is three-fold. It includes supervising the coaching work her client does within the organisation, monitoring the learning plan which the coach has written for herself and helping with self management.

“In terms of her work, we develop her insight into what she does well, and give her the opportunity to talk through, in confidence, how she feels she is motivating others,” says Frost. “Then we look at her personal learning plan – in that respect I am there to see that she is continually learning.”

She adds: “As regards self-management, we discuss how to operate in an ethical way, time management and practical issues such as maintaining professional indemnity insurance.”

Frost’s client spends her remaining two days a week working as a freelance coach. “She sometimes contacts me via e-mail to discuss issues arising from her freelance work,” says Frost. “My client says that our sessions have given her confidence and expanded her options on how she works with people. She has enjoyed the oppor-tunity to share her work with someone else,” says Frost. “Supervision has reduced her isolation.”

Top tips

When a coach says that he or she has a supervisor, the buyer of coaching services should check:

  • Who is the supervisor?
  • What is the supervisor’s background?
  • Is the supervisor qualified?
  • How often does the supervision take place? “It is usually one hour’s supervision for 20 hours of coaching,”says Eric Parsloe of the OSCM .
  • Is it recorded? “My approach is that supervision does need to be formalised,” says Karen Frost. “We log the number of coaching hours to supervisory hours.”
  • What is the purpose of the supervision?
  • Is it focused on business skills or therapeutic skills?
  • What arrangements are in place to protect the confidentiality of the person coached and his orher employer?

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