Key questions on coaching supervision

By Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron

At the Rainbow Convention of the Global Coaching Community (question mark 1GCC) in Cape Town a few years ago, I facilitated a dialogue session on coaching supervision around the question “Should qualifications or the market place decide on who supervises?” This article outlines some answers to the following key questions raised by participants during the session:

  1. Definition: What is supervision, and what is it not? What is its intent and purpose?
  2. Benefits: What are the benefits and outcomes of supervision? How can these be measured?
  3. Types: What are the differing supervision needs of coaches? Should there be different types of supervision for these different needs?
  4. Organisational context: How should the organisational context of business coaching influence the type(s) and content of supervision received by business coaches?
  5. Supervisor selection: What or who should determine who supervises – the coach, or the supervisor’s competences?

1.      What is supervision?

The role of the supervisor is to support the development of the coach practitioner and to assess their competence. The term “supervision” describes the process by which the work of the practitioner is overseen and guidance is sought. What coaching supervision refers to is not the inspection of the coach’s work within a hierarchical power relationship, as in managerial supervision, but rather consultation arising out of the needs of the coach and their individual and organisational clients (Stout-Rostron, 2009:275, 277).

The purpose of supervision is to ensure that the coach maintains the highest standards of competence, best serves the needs of the client; is professionally trained and skilled in the practice of coaching; and is committed to a programme of continuing professional development throughout the years of their practice. The importance of coaching supervision is to ensure that the coach understands what the client goes through, and more importantly, to work through their own issues so that they do not become entangled with client concerns (Stout-Rostron, 2009:275–276).

A key component of a coach’s personal and professional approach to their coaching practice is to work on a regular basis with a supervising coach, counsellor or therapist. The purpose of this is three-fold: first, and crucially, to deal with any unresolved issues of their own (an ongoing process for any coach), and specifically to learn not to bring personal concerns to the coaching conversation; second, to benefit from invaluable and ongoing supervision for the individual’s coaching practice; and third, the supervision process provides the coach with an invaluable tool to understand the client/practitioner process from another perspective, i.e. from the client perspective rather than from the perspective of the practitioner. It provides an excellent alternate perspective on the coaching intervention (Stout-Rostron, 2006:14).

The origin of supervision within health and social care originates in psychological mental health care fields. The development of counselling has had a formative impact on the creation of a supervision model, and in occupational therapy, supervision has been in practice since the 1970s. The UK Department of Health defines clinical supervision as “a formal process of professional support and learning which enables the individual practitioner to develop knowledge and competence, assume responsibility for their own practice and enhance consumer protection and safety of care in complex clinical situations” (Jones and Jenkins, 2006:26).

The supervision process in coaching may differ in significant ways from that in other professions, such as psychotherapy and counselling. Usually, both coach practitioner and supervisor will be bound by the Code of Ethics of their professional body (Stout-Rostron, 2009:275).

Close-up of magnifying glass focusing on two people2.      What are the benefits of supervision?

Supervision helps practitioners to grow their skills and competence whether they are supervised individually or in groups. The capacity of the coaches to facilitate learning for their clients is also significantly increased. Other benefits are:

  • ensuring that the client organisation is getting a good return on investment (ROI) for their business;
  • ensuring that a high value is placed on truly understanding clients;
  • ensuring that the coach is as likely to enhance and develop self-awareness as the client; and
  • the creation of a safe space to explore the heart of the practitioner’s coaching practice (Stout-Rostron, 2009:281).

Group coaching supervision will observe the developmental stages of the practitioners within their group forum. This type of supervision is more collegial and consultative, encouraging the practice of self-supervision. The lead coach or supervisor also needs to take note of their own developmental stages in the profession as they gain in expertise (Stout-Rostron, 2009:282).

For the moment, there are no international guidelines to measure the positive impact of supervision for clients and coach practitioners. This is certainly a topic worthy of future practitioner research (Stout-Rostron, 2009:282).

3.      What types of supervision are appropriate?

Kadushin (1976) describes the three main functions of supervision as educative, supportive and managerial. He describes these functions as formative (namely educational), normative (which focuses on policies, organisation and evaluation), and restorative (including a debriefing of both positive and negative feedback on practice).

In organisations and coach training institutions today, there are several ways to access supervision. There is one-on-one supervision, peer supervision, team supervision and group supervision. Many coach training institutes set up a peer supervision process for senior and junior graduates to work together in the supervision process, either individual, peer or group. Following Kadushin (1976), we can define the four specific types of supervision as educational, administrative, supportive and managerial (Stout-Rostron, 2009:283).

Typically, in the South African marketplace, educational supervision is used to assess the skills and needs and to facilitate the learning for practitioner coaches. Administrative supervision is to monitor the workload of the coaches within the group or the organisation, ensuring that the purpose, vision and goals of the organisation are met. Supportive supervision is to provide an environment for practitioners where their emotional needs are met, and where they are able to build skills and competence, whether in a one-on-one or group forum. Managerial supervision is to ensure that individual client, coach and line manager meet regularly to ensure that the client is on track to meet the objectives set out for the coaching intervention (Stout-Rostron, 2009:283–284).

Pampallis Paisley (2006:108–110) considered the nature of working within different contexts in her supervision research, while working with a group of coaches from widely diverse backgrounds:

All may be utilising different models and frameworks, and have varying levels of competences, training and consciousness, which impacts on what is brought into the supervisory room. Unlike therapeutic supervision for example, where an object relations therapist would work with a supervisor who is skilled in object relations theory and practice, this in-depth but narrow band – or what I call “vertical depth of field” of specialisation may not be the domain of the coaching supervisor.

There may be specialist areas that would require a mentoring process. With regards to the supervision of coaches working with leadership in complex organisations, coaching supervisors would need to have a broader focus, or what I call a “horizontal depth of field”. It follows then that the supervision of coaching is in itself a complex discipline – one that requires levels of understanding and a comprehensive framework of knowledge and skills which cover both the horizontal planes and vertical depths that coaching encompasses.

There are multiple benefits for the individual coach in supervision, as well as for the individual or team being coached, and the client organisation. The coach practitioners have a chance to meet, with the supervising coach ensuring that all practitioners have a sound understanding of the organisational systems at play. Coaching supervision is an important regular meeting where the coaches can connect with each other, and can begin to understand the connections between their clients. It is an important meeting where the individuals in the group facilitate learning from each other (Stout-Rostron, 2009:280).

4.      How important is the organisational context of supervision?

Huge investment is often made in executive development programmes, sending executives off to expensive business schools who are often unsure of what they need to develop as leaders. On their return to the organisation, however, the environment is not supportive enough to allow them to nurture any new-found or critical leadership capabilities. In addition, coaches often work in isolation with their executives, not aware of the systemic issues within an organisation, eventually becoming another “cog” in blocking systemic change due to their own lack of systemic knowledge. This is why supervision of coaches is crucial within any systemic change process which involves coaching (Stout-Rostron, 2011).

Supervision in business coaching is useful as it ensures that the coach works to the executive’s agenda, not to the coach’s agenda (Stout-Rostron, 2009:278). However, without lead coaches/supervisors overseeing the entire coaching intervention within an organisation, there is no way of harnessing the “systemic” issues or “systemic” trends that are emerging; “silo” coaching has become the norm (Stout-Rostron, 2011).

There are multiple benefits of group supervision for the individual coaches involved, as well as for the coaching team as a whole and the client organisation. The coach practitioners have a chance to meet with the supervising coach, ensuring that all practitioners have a sound understanding of the organisational systems at play. Coaching supervision is an important regular meeting where the coaches can connect with each other, and can begin to understand the connections between their individual clients, particularly if they are working within one organisation. It is an important meeting where the individuals in the group learn from each other (Stout-Rostron, 2009:289).

There are some disadvantages to group supervision, and practitioners need to be particularly careful when managing client confidentiality. The advantages are the observations that the group can make when observing each other. The 1:1 supervision encompasses more intimate learning on the part of the individual coach with the time to go into depth about the client situation and one’s own individual issues or concerns as a coach. It is almost inevitable that the coach can become enmeshed in some of the organisation’s systemic dynamics. It is helpful to have an observant supervisor who can help the coach to step into a bigger picture position, looking at the client-coach-system dynamics from a fresh perspective (Stout-Rostron, 2009:281–282).

Some of the main themes that have arisen from research into executive coaching supervision are (Pampallis Paisley, 2006):

  • boundary management;
  • whether supervision interventions need to have a client-centred or coach-centred focus, or both;
  • how to cope with the complexity of the supervisory system in which client, coach and organisation are represented – the triangulations;
  • the depth to which one should go in the coaching relationship; and
  • the importance of creating a space to think.

5.      Who should supervise?hire me

The question is far from resolved whether market supply and demand, or qualifications and competence, should determine who acts as a coaching supervisor. In the meantime, professional associations such as COMENSA do not prescribe rigid requirements for practice as a coach supervisor, but simply recommend guidelines that coaches should follow.

When hiring a supervisor, a coach should look for someone who:

  • has knowledge of ethical, legal and regulatory aspects of the helping professions;
  • is able to form a peer/collegial relationship as a supervising consultant;
  • is sensitive to diversity issues of culture, ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic and educational background;
  • has knowledge of current research in the coaching supervision field;
  • has competence and expertise as an executive/business coach; and
  • has training in supervision (Stout-Rostron, 2009:283).

References

Hawkins, P., and Shohet, R. (2000). Supervision in the Helping Professions. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Jones, R., and Jenkins, F. (Eds.). (2006). Developing the Allied Health Professions. Oxford: Radcliffe.

Kadushin, A. (1976). Supervision in Social Work. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Pampallis Paisley, P. (2006). Towards a Theory of Supervision for Executive Coaching: An integral vision. Unpublished DProf dissertation. London: Middlesex University.

Stout-Rostron, S. (2006). Interventions in the Coaching Conversation: Thinking, feeling and behaviour. Unpublished DProf dissertation. London: Middlesex University.

Stout-Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the secrets of business coaching. Randburg: Knowres Publishing.

Stout-Rostron, S. (2011). How is coaching impacting systemic and cultural change within organizations? International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, forthcoming.

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About Sunny Stout-Rostron Associates

Sunny coaches at senior executive and board level in corporate organizations and educational institutions. She has a wide range of experience in leadership and management development,  business strategy and executive coaching. With over 20 years’ international  experience as an executive coach, Sunny believes that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and business results – she works with leaders and their  teams to help them achieve individual, team and organizational goals, gaining  wisdom and knowledge through their own experience.
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