This article is adapted from Sunny Stout Rostron’s book, Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2013), which is available from Knowledge Resources (www.knowres.co.za)
Business coaching often involves a three-cornered relationship between the coach (or team of coaches), the client organisation paying for the coaching, and the individual executives, managers or other staff members being coached. It is neither easy nor straightforward for the coach to balance the interests of the client firm and the individuals actually being coached, yet failing to get this balance right can land a coach in trouble. To tackle this critical issue, important actions need to be taken well before the coaching process starts.
Business coaching typically aims to improve an organisation’s results through enhancing performance, and the client firm will expect the coach, as a contracted service provider, to help the organisation achieve its objectives. Complications may arise if an inexperienced business coach forgets to consider who the actual client is. Is it the organisation that hires and pays the coach’s fees to help with a business need? Or is it the individual who is seeking to grow, develop and move forward in their career? The question is essentially answered when an executive personally pays the coach’s fee. But to whom does the coach owe loyalty when the company pays the bill? In fact, it is to both the client firm and the individual participants, which can sometimes create an ethical dilemma.
Understanding, agreement and commitment
A critical first step for the business coach in balancing the interests of client firm and individual participants is to ensure that everyone involved understands and explicitly agrees on:
- what business coaching is, and
- how the coaching project can improve the firm’s results, through
- using coaching conversations with individual participants to improve their performance.
Negotiations and contracting between all three parties involved in the coaching intervention should produce a prior and explicit understanding, consensus, and acceptance of the coaching project which ensures support for and commitment to the project by both senior management and all other participants. It is useful to include a definition of coaching within the project contract, specifying how coaching differs from the other helping disciplines such as psychotherapy, counselling, consulting, mentoring and training. For example, coaching can be defined as “a process that creates sustained shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour – and ultimately in performance (Stout Rostron, 2009: 40). It is crucial, for instance, that coaching is not viewed as a remedial process inflicted by management on underperforming staff members to “fix” their “problems”.
It would help if the coach can provide the firm and its prospective coaching participants with a set of their own standard coaching guidelines, terms and conditions, based on best-practice principles and codes of professional practice, to serve as a basis for negotiation and contracting. This requires the coach to consider what their policies should be on specific issues and ethical concerns, such as:
- How do you handle the need to report back to the senior manager and the organisation, while maintaining the confidentiality of the coaching conversations?
- What do you do if the coaching conversation leads an individual to decide they want to leave the organisation which contracted you?
- Is it ethically acceptable to coach all the members of one team, including the team leader?
- How do you honour confidentiality when coaching a senior manager as well as their boss?
- What should your policy be about meeting with the individual executive and line manager together? How do you manage the issue of confidentiality if you meet the line manager with, and without the individual client?
- How should you address interference in the coaching intervention from a leading executive?
- Should you disclose knowledge of illegal activity by an individual coaching participant to the management of the client firm, and/or the relevant authorities?
In essence, the contract sets out ground rules for the coaching relationship so that all parties are aware of their obligations. The contract describes the relationship between the coach and multiple parties, such as the individual participant, the client organisation, the HR unit, and line management. This helps prevent future misunderstandings and provides a firm basis to deal with disagreements.
Since the relationship between coach and individual client is set within the context of the team and the organisation, and is part of the overall system, this “bigger picture” needs to be part of the contracting process. The coach should therefore ask the following types of questions during contracting with the client firm and individual coaching participants (Stout Rostron, 2009: 264–265):
- What are the needs of the individual executive client versus those of the organisation?
- Which performance improvements are desired?
- What are the organisational goals for the coaching programme?
- What are the organisational conditions and are they conducive to coaching?
- Are the line manager and senior management supportive of the process?
- Is the individual ready for coaching and is coaching appropriate?
Aligning values and goals
It is important for the coach to ensure that the coaching intervention is aligned strategically with the overall values and objectives of an organisation, and aligned with other leadership development initiatives being undertaken within the firm. Often within the complexity of the organisational environment, the individual coaching participant’s overarching goals may be set by a more senior power; where that senior person may have different worldviews, different paradigms, and differing limiting and empowering assumptions. But if organisational goals are to be motivationally achieved, are they also aligned with the individual coaching participant’s intrinsic motivators? It is important to ensure that the values and goals of the individual coachees are aligned with the values and goals of the client firm. Ethical dilemmas can arise during the coaching process if the executive needs to make difficult choices which are incompatible with their own value system.
Professional development plans
The job of the business coach is to develop the core competences of the managerial leader. The development of those competences needs to show up visibly in work-related and behavioural changes. The client’s work often starts with growing self-awareness, increased emotional maturity and improved interpersonal skills and competence. Performance improvement should have a direct effect on business results. This may require a systemic and developmental approach on the part of coach and client, integrated with an understanding of the complexities of the client’s working context, market environment and level of competence. Within this systemic context, a useful way of defining and structuring coaching objectives for individual coaching participants is to formulate a professional development plan with them which contains:
- Purpose: a clear definition of the overall aims of the coaching journey.
- Developmental objectives: developmental objectives,
- Strategy: An outline of how to achieve the purpose and developmental objectives.
- Monthly actions: core tasks enabling the coachee to achieve and implement their plan.
- Obstacles to achievement: outline of challenges and constraints envisaged and encountered.
- Results achieved: summary of progress each month.
- Overall learning from the coaching journey: regularly updated summary of learning to date.
The Professional Development Plan is an organic, evolving document that is shared with the coaching participant’s line manager or sponsor. Rather than sharing the content of the coaching conversation, client and coach can share the development plan and results achieved, protecting the confidentiality of coaching conversations. Ultimately, however, it ensures that the coaching objectives of the individual participant are aligned with organisational objectives. It’s a balancing act.
Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the secrets of business coaching. Randburg: Knowres.