The development of corporate management

SupportCo-authored by Nick Wilkins and Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron

How do corporate leaders develop the competences they need? And how should they be supported in their development?

These are important questions, because the answers determine the precise forms of support executives and managers will need at particular stages in their professional development. This article briefly reviews the various forms of developmental support available to corporate management, outlining their appropriate applications, and highlighting key issues concerning the most suitable roles for coaching.


Training methodology has evolved considerably over the past century. In essence, however, training can be defined as the communication of information to someone in a systematic way to achieve the knowledge and understanding required for the development of a specific competence. Training is necessary for young people entering the job market to attain the necessary technical and professional skills they will need in their vocations.

Can corporate leaders be trained? In the basic principles of management, certainly. experiential learning, developing competenciesHowever, one of the hallmarks of a good leader is the wisdom to always know exactly what to do next. And managerial wisdom is difficult to teach – it develops through the use of all four phases of Kolb’s (1984:68–69) experiential learning cycle (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, active experimentation). In one key respect, leading and managing is similar to driving a car or flying an aircraft – the only really effective way of learning is by doing.


A mentor’s role is to directly share their experience, expertise, advice and wisdom with the “mentee”. In contrast to the broad definition of best-practice coaching that is steadily gaining ground, it is arguable that being “directive” and giving advice is the function of a mentor, rather than a coach (Stout-Rostron, 2009:16).

When combined with appropriate training programmes or qualifications in specialised competences, mentoring can be a particularly useful form of support for younger managers learning the ropes. To be fully effective, however, the role of mentor usually needs to be fulfilled by an older person with greater experience in the same industry and job type as the younger mentee. Domain-specific expertise and experience therefore need to be carefully matched between the two parties if mentoring is to work – in addition to compatibility or “chemistry”, mutual respect and trust on a personal level.

Careful consideration



When things go wrong in life, managers invariably benefit from competent counselling, whether professional or non-professional. Counselling is a form of help and support for people troubled by emotional trauma or other personal challenges, involving sympathetic listening and a modicum of (often commonsense) advice, usually on a short-term basis, typically in response to a particular event or concern.

Counselling generally deals with the personal side of a corporate leader’s life, including such issues as bereavement, divorce or dependence issues. Mentoring, in contrast, would focus on the leader’s working life. Counsellors (and mentors) need to be able to refer the person involved to an appropriate professional (such as a psychotherapist) for help with more intractable challenges, such as clinical or personality disorders.


A business coach uses question frameworks and coaching models to help the corporate leader work out solutions to specific issues (Stout-Rostron, 2009:16). Or, to put it even more simply, “Coaches help someone to think clearly about something” (Wilkins and Stout-Rostron, 2010:3). The role of coaching in Kolb’s experiential learning cycle is to help leaders and managers to reflect on their corporate experience, so that they work out how to address critical issues facing them. “Coach and client reflect the client’s experience and behaviours, devising new thinking, feeling, behaviours and actions” (Stout-Rostron, 2009:118).

The issues identified by managers as important topics for coaching sessions could include:

  • developing their leadership competences;
  • developing, motivating and managing the performance of their teams;
  • addressing issues around diversity and corporate culture;
  • dealing with workplace conflict and managing difficult people and situations;
  • gaining insight into their own personal and professional motivators or drivers;
  • coping with high stress levels; and
  • balancing business and personal life demands.

There are many different types of business coaching, including:

  • performance coaching, particularly useful for enhancing the competence of line managers and other mid-level corporate leaders;
  • team coaching, helpful in boosting the cohesion and effectiveness of functional teams within companies; and
  • peer coaching, usually between people at similar levels and in similar jobs within the organisation.

And there are many different coaching models and frameworks to apply within each of the various types of coaching. These models need to be carefully chosen to fit the specific corporate context, and the particular needs of the corporate leaders being coached.

For example, the Thinking Partnership™ framework developed by Nancy Kline (1999) as part of the Thinking Environment™ model is arguably the purest and most high-level form of coaching, because it is completely and absolutely non-directive. In most forms of best-practice coaching, the coach will directly intervene in the coaching conversation to help catalyse the manager’s thinking, by asking a carefully considered and appropriate question that will “unlock” any confusion or blockages. In contrast, a Thinking Partner does not intervene directly in the coaching conversation at all – in fact, they ask only a limited and carefully-defined range of absolutely neutral and non-directive questions. Because the key principle underpinning the Thinking Environment™model is that the thinker is fully capable of thinking through the issue and working out the solution themselves. The critical role of the Thinking Partner is simply to provide a supportive “thinking environment” within which the thinker is entirely free to think for themselves, without interruption, or prompting, or “help”.

Managers are likely to reap greater benefit from coaching (as opposed to training and mentoring) once they are experienced enough to identify and prioritise the issues they need to be coached on. Similarly, corporate leaders are likely to reap the greatest benefit from the Thinking PartnershipÒ once they have achieved the further experience necessary to develop their self-confidence as entirely free and unfettered thinkers and visionaries.



Image created by Keattikorn

Corporate leaders and managers need different forms of support at different stages in their career development, and different forms of support to meet particular challenges within each stage. This means that business coaches need to be careful not to oversell the usefulness of their craft – coaching is not a corporate panacea. As Maslow (1966:15) famously remarked, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Good business coaches should know better than that!


Kline, N. (1999). Time to Think: Listening with the Human Mind. London: Ward Lock.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Maslow, A.H. (1966). The Psychology of Science: A reconnaissance. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

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

Wilkins, N. and Stout-Rostron, S. (2010). Business coaching: going beyond the balls. COMENSAnews, July.

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Family Enterprises

Family enterprises are the foundation of big business, with many multinationals having their origins in a small family start-up.  Family dynamics, however, often impede growth and sustainability of these businesses.

family business, coaching family, executive coaching, Richard L Narva, Globe Law and Business

Family Enterprises: How to Build Growth, Family Control and Family Harmony

Family Enterprises: How to build growth, family control and family harmonyedited by Richard L. Narva, is a collaboration of experts from a variety of fields, offering processes, procedures and structures to eliminate the challenges common to family businesses.  Sunny is a contributing author, with a chapter on “Challenges facing an executive coach in a family firm.”

Get your copy of the book here

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Family Enterprises: How to Build Growth, Family Control and Family Harmony

Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron has contributed a chapter to Richard Narva’s latest book:

family business, coaching family, executive coaching

Family Enterprises: How to Build Growth, Family Control and Family Harmony

Family Enterprises: How to Build Growth, Family Control and Family Harmony.  The chapter is entitled “Executive coaching challenges with family firms”.  Further details on the contents of this essential guide to working successfully with family firms can be found here

Recognition of the power and importance of businesses controlled by family shareholder groups has grown steadily over the past 30 years. Apologies for working in the family business in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by public pride on the parts of leaders of family controlled firms for their enduring growth under family control and contributions to all stakeholders in the enterprise.

What has been missing from the business literature is a guide to the processes, structures and interventions that assist family-controlled enterprises to sustain continuity of growth, family control and family harmony.  This book compiles the wisdom of experienced leaders of family growth companies and those who advise them, focusing on what works to sustain business success without sacrificing family relationships or control. Each of the contributors is grounded in deep management or professional expertise guiding or advising family-controlled enterprises.  And each chapter contains clear, practical advice on how to address issues that challenge family firm leaders and their advisers on a regular basis.

This new book demonstrates to members of family shareholder control groups, their non-family executives and members of the boards of directors, as well as lawyers and other long-term advisers, that there are ways to address the emotionally powerful issues and challenges that are specific to family controlled enterprises. Many of these proven solutions to the special requirements of leading family firms have broad global applications, assisting them to grow, without sacrificing their culture or strategy (Source: Global Law and Business website)

Pre-orders can be placed with the publishers and with Amazon.  Make sure that you don’t miss out on getting your copy.


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Coaching Leaders: Experiential Learning for Client and Team

stack of books; learningLearning from experience and client stories

Learning, and particularly learning from experience, seems to be one of the major components of the coaching conversation. Learning from experience implies an understanding of the language and content of the client’s story, with the coach helping the client to reconstruct their own reality by searching for meaning through dialogue.

There is so much power in the client’s language and the content of their stories. The significance of the client’s story comes from both the structure of their telling it, as well as the interpretation and significance given. In some cultures, for example in Latin America, Africa and India, oral history and storytelling remain very important methods of passing on ritual, tradition and customs. The coaching conversation can literally be seen as an extension of “telling one’s story” and looking for meaning and significance in the telling.

With this as a precedent, we can look at the “coaching conversation” not just as experiential learning, but as experiential education: learning from one’s own life experiences. These definitions suggest that learning is the key. This indicates that helping your clients grow, develop and become who they want to be, requires asking for their best thinking, rather than sharing yours. The four levels of coaching intervention with which we are working as coaches are interconnected:

  • Doing: What tasks and goals need to be accomplished?
  • Learning: How will you develop the competences needed?
  • Way of Being: Who are you as you grow and develop; how do you do you? (Weiss, 2004).
  • Transforming Self: Who are you stepping into becoming as you grow and develop? (Stout-Rostron, 2013).

Measuring results

In working with an individual client, there is no point in simply developing a leadership teamsplan in isolation from the rest of the business and team processes. If the coaching intervention is to be successful, it is critical to develop a systemic, fully integrated coaching strategy that is in alignment with both the business and the talent strategies for the organization. Two key factors will be to identify the efficacy of internal and external coaching interventions at an individual level, and the use of group or team coaching to develop key leadership competences that are aligned with organizational strategy. Team coaching can also be a way to develop talent at subordinate levels.

Once you begin to work with an individual executive, their team often comes to the fore within a few months. Gaps are identified in terms of decision making, communication skills and facilitating meetings. Team coaching is becoming more affordable than individual executive coaching, and ensures that the team is working together in alignment with organizational values and goals.

Team coaching can help new leaders and their teams manage all aspects of transition, transformation and change. There is a strong link between business results and emotional intelligence or EQ (defined as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill). Team coaching will need to ensure that both the leader and members of the team improve their emotional intelligence skills, which will lead to better organizational performance. This will move the team to balance the needs of the individuals, the team and the organization. If the team members have grown in terms of self-awareness, the organization will want to see this “demonstrated” at work – in relationships, management competence, leadership behaviors and EQ.

But, in order to do so, the coach needs to have an in-depth understanding of organizational systems – seeing the coaching intervention from a systems perspective, and understanding the need for “structure” in the interaction between coach, individual client, team, and the organizational system. A danger of not understanding the “system” in which the client operates is that the coach risks becoming another part of that system.

Behavior change

As a business coach, whether working with individuals or teams, you are helping your clients to learn from and interpret their own experiences, and to understand the complexity of the environment in which they work. Team coaching is essentially about the results experienced through the relationship between the coach, the individuals in the team, and the resulting team dynamic.

Until we have reliable research from a wide variety of organizations, no one can guarantee that behavior change is truly sustainable as a result of coaching. However, based on research currently available, there are certainly guidelines for coaching which can help ensure that behavior change is indeed sustainable.


Stout-Rostron, S. (2014). Leadership Coaching for Results: Cutting-edge practices for coach and client, Randburg, South Africa: Knowres.

Weiss, P. (2004). The Three Levels of Coaching. San Francisco, CA: An Appropriate Response.

This article first appeared in the WABC Blog (22nd September 2014). Reprinted with permission of the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches. You warrant and covenant that you have the full authority to grant the rights and provide the warranties set out above. No part of the WABC Blog may be reproduced by you or a third party in any material form without written permission from WABC Coaches Inc. Please contact WABC if you wish to reproduce any of the WABC Blog material.

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Coaching Leaders: Understanding Complex Environments

Sunny Stout RostronBy Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron

“The term complexity captures the greater levels of uncertainty, ambiguity, interdependences and interrelatedness that now characterize the environments in which organisations operate” (Clarke, 2013:135).

Business coaches need to think systemically, and this article briefly looks at the importance of leaders taking decisions in alignment with the context of their organizational environment. At an individual level, leadership development in complex environments involves moving away from focusing on the structures and processes within the organization, to the behaviors required of leaders individually within the organization’s social system (Clarke, 2013:141).

Cynefin: the decision-making framework

Snowden and Boone (2007) outline four different contexts in which managers operate as simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. The Cynefin decision-making framework helps leaders determine the prevailing context within which they are operating, and explores how they can make appropriate choices and decisions to intervene (Figure 1). “Cynefin, pronounced ‘ku-nev-in’, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand” (Snowden and Boone, 2007:70).

As coaches we need to help leaders learn to shift their decision-making styles according to the type of environment or context in which they are operating. The Cynefin framework can help to correctly identify the governing context, stay aware of danger signals, and avoid inappropriate actions, thereby helping managers to lead effectively in a variety of situations (Snowden and Boone, 2007:75).

Figure 1 The Cynefin decision-making framework

Cynefin Decision-making process

Source:        Snowden and Boone (2007:72)

The Cynefin framework has five domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disordered. Disorder is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, and people will revert to their own comfort zone when making a decision (Stout-Rostron, 2014:105). The following four practices are useful for the business coach to help the leader make appropriate choices and decisions within their prevailing context.

Four practices: best, good, emergent and novel

Best practice (simple environment)

When working with a client in a simple environment where patterns are repeated and events are consistent, and we are dealing with fact-based management, the leader’s job would be to use best practice, communicating clearly and delegating – but with an understanding of the need for extensive, interactive communication.

Good practice (complicated environment)

In a more complicated environment which is the domain of experts, the leader would need to diagnose the problems in consultation with a series of experts, trying to discover the cause-and-effect of the problem, identifying one or more answers that might resolve the issue. In this instance it is important for the leader to create panels of experts and listen to conflicting advice.

Working with one client in a more complicated scenario means that there are a possible range of right answers. Snowden and Boone call this the realm of “known unknowns”. Whereas leaders in a simple environment must sense, categorize and respond, leaders in a complicated environment must sense, analyze and respond. Here good practice is needed.

Emergent practice (complex environment)

In a complex environment, there would be a great deal of flux and unpredictability with no right answers. There would be competing ideas, emergent rather than predictable patterns, and a need for creative and innovative problem-solving approaches. The leader would need to create an environment that would allow patterns to emerge, and to increase levels of interaction and communication. More important would be the need to open up discussion, allowing large group methods and encouraging dissent and diversity.

Novel practice (chaotic environment)

In a chaotic environment, there will be high turbulence with no clear-cut cause-and-effect, many unknowable’s, and many decisions to make with possibly no time to think. Tension will be high. The leaders’ job will be to look for what works instead of seeking the “right” answer, and to take immediate action to re-establish order. This may require a “command and control” type of leadership to begin with, moving into another style of leadership as the context changes. Clear and direct communication will be essential.

The Cynefin model explores working in differing environments where adaptability and systemic thinking are needed to help leaders make decisions within contexts and systems which are continually changing.


Clarke, N. (2013). Model of complexity leadership development. Human Resource Development International, 16(2):135–150.

Snowden, D.J., and Boone, M.E. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11):69–76.

Stout-Rostron, S. (2014). Leadership Coaching for Results: Cutting-edge practices for coach and client, Randburg, South Africa: Knowres.

This article first appeared in the WABC Blog (21st October 2014). Reprinted with permission of the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches. 
You warrant and covenant that you have the full authority to grant the rights and provide the warranties set out above. No part of the WABC Blog may be reproduced by you or a third party in any material form without written permission from WABC Coaches Inc. Please contact WABC if you wish to reproduce any of the WABC Blog material.

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Coaching Leaders: The Importance of Values and Motivation

Sunny Stout RostronBy Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron

The critical value of business coaching is in helping individual executives to think clearly about the core issues which present challenges to them in their career, their organization, their job, and their daily working life.

The focus of the coaching conversation is to help leaders work towards achieving their desired outcomes. It is in this process of reflection – where coach and client reflect on the client’s experience –  that potential for learning and action emerges. The coach also explores with each client what it is that is holding back or preventing the client from achieving their goals. But, for the coach working with the business leader, what are some of the considerations in terms of their expertise and learning, particularly in understanding where the client is in their own leadership journey?

This raises an important question for executives: if goals are to be motivationally achieved, are they in alignment with the individual’s values, beliefs and feelings? Organizations often pay lip service to organizational values, and don’t necessarily create them as a synthesis of the core individual values which make up the culture of the organization. Ethical dilemmas can arise during the coaching process if the executive needs to make difficult choices which are incompatible with their own value system.

Motivational theories focus primarily on the individual’s needs and motivations. I have typically worked with coaching clients to help them understand more fully their intrinsic motivators (internal drivers such as values, beliefs, and feelings), and how to use extrinsic motivators (external drivers such as relationships, bonuses, the environment, and titles) to motivate their teams. If an individual’s goals are not in alignment with their own internal, intrinsic drivers, there will be difficulties for them in achieving those goals.

The coach’s intervention and questions help the client to discover their own motivators, and help both coach and client to identify whether the client’s personal, professional and organizational goals are in alignment. Richard Ryan (2013) talks about how a coach can support motivation for change. He asks, “What do people really need to flourish?” and explains that, “Not unlike a plant that needs water and sunlight to thrive, the human psyche has some nutrients that it needs to survive. It’s in our nature to flourish – to flourish is to develop, and to become fully functioning. But it requires nutrients, and those nutrients are the three conditions that facilitate intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy: manageable pressure, goal choice, strategy choice and task involvement.
  • Competence: optimal challenge, positive feedback, and informational rewards.
  • Relatedness: empathy, warmth, and acknowledgement of emotions” (Ryan, 2013).

If clients are to learn how to learn, they need to cultivate self-awareness through reflection on their experience, values, intrinsic drivers, the impact of these on others, the environment, and on their own future goals. The development of self-awareness is often implicit in the coaching relationship through the process of questions that develop critical reflection, and subsequent actions that develop practice. As a coach, or leader working with a coaching approach, you will be asking questions to help clients or direct reports to reflect, review and gain useable knowledge from their experience.

Learning, and particularly learning from experience, is one of the major components of the coaching conversation. Learning from experience implies an understanding of the language and content of the client’s story. The significance of the client’s story comes from both the structure of their telling it, and the interpretation and significance given to it. This indicates that helping your clients grow, develop and become who they want to be, requires asking for their best thinking, rather than sharing yours (Stout-Rostron, 2014: 26-28).


Stout-Rostron, S. (2014). Leadership Coaching for Results: Cutting-edge practices for coach and client, Randburg, South Africa: Knowres.

Ryan, R.M. (2013). Self-determination. Notes compiled by Stout-Rostron, S., from presentation to Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare Conference 2013, Harvard / McLean Medical School, Cambridge, MA, 28 September. 

This article first appeared in the WABC Blog (22nd September 2014). Reprinted with permission of the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches. You warrant and covenant that you have the full authority to grant the rights and provide the warranties set out above. No part of the WABC Blog may be reproduced by you or a third party in any material form without written permission from WABC Coaches Inc. Please contact WABC if you wish to reproduce any of the WABC Blog material.

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Be Upfront About Ethics

ethics 4Co-authored by Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron and Nick Wilkins

This article is adapted from Sunny Stout-Rostron’s best-selling book, Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2009), which is available from Knowledge Resources (

Ethics are most often recognized as the rules of conduct in respect of a particular group or culture, or the moral principles of an individual. Ethics is known as the branch of philosophy dealing with values which relate to human conduct (Webster’s, 1983).

Perhaps the key difficulty for any emerging profession is thrashing out an agreed set of ethical guidelines. It is a vital task but more complex than may at first appear. There will be differences of opinion as to what our guidelines should be. Nevertheless it is an urgent task, one without which the profession can neither prosper nor argue our claims to be taken increasingly seriously.

For now, the most important work business coaches can do on ethical issues is done before the issues arise. This is because coaches can work ethically only if they know in advance what the ethical code of their professional body prescribes, what ethical principles actually mean in practical terms, and how they would handle ethical issues that arise in their everyday work. And business coaches need to contract explicitly with their clients on the basis of this understanding.

Know your code of ethics

Ethics is often a neglected competence in coaching. Consequently, one of the reasons it is ethics 5crucial to belong to a professional body is that this commits practitioners to the ethical code of that body. Because coaching is not yet regulated like a profession, or even rigorously self-regulated, it is still up to each individual business coach to uphold the ethical standards of their professional body, as well as their own individual standards. The importance of an ethical code is that it identifies the core values, standards and fundamental principles with which practitioners align themselves and their work. Also, it provides a benchmark against which individual practitioners agree to be assessed.

COMENSA’s Revised Code of Ethics (COMENSA, 2009) defines four core values: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. And it defines six guiding principles: inclusivity, dignity, competence, context, boundary management, integrity, and professionalism. But how should a business coach actually apply these core values and principles in specific practical situations within their day-to-day work?

Understand what ethics mean in practice

As we have suggested in a previous column, for a business coach to be prepared to deal ethically with potential situations in coaching practice, they need to think through their optimum responses to contingencies which might arise. They need to consider what their policies should be on specific issues and ethical concerns, such as (Stout Rostron, 2009:292–295):

  • 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 (a) with, and (b) 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 (a) the management of the client firm, and/or (b) the relevant authorities?

Let’s take the first of the above questions as an example. How do you handle the giving of information to the senior manager and the organisation? The business coach should ensure that the written contract specifies the bounds of confidentiality between all parties, with agreed terms for reporting back to the organisation. However, it is also important to verbally contract with the individual coaching participants to ensure agreement about how each of the coaching conversations will be held, and how written reports to the organisation will be handled. In general, any written communication to a third party should be seen and agreed to by the individual coaching participant concerned before it is passed on to senior management.

In addition, a useful way of defining coaching objectives for individual coaching participants is to formulate a “professional development plan” with them. This should specify the purpose, objectives and strategy of the coaching intervention; regularly define actions to be undertaken and potential obstacles; and review results achieved and overall learning. The plan should be shared with the coaching participant’s line manager. In this way, rather than sharing the content of the coaching conversation, coach and coaching participant can share the development plan and its results with other stakeholders in the coaching process, without infringing the confidentiality of coaching conversations.

Include ethics in your contracting

The coaching contract sets out ground rules for the coaching relationship between the parties involved, including the coach, the client organisation, the individual coaching participant(s), their line manager(s), and the HR department, so that all parties are aware of their obligations. This helps prevent future misunderstandings, and provides a firm basis to deal with disagreements. The purpose of the contract is to open up the potential for trust between coach and client, and it must be adhered to in action for trust to develop.

The two most critical areas in contracting are defining the scope of the coaching intervention, and defining a framework for handling ethical issues. In general, it would help if the business 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. These should include a clarification of the coach’s adherence to the ethical code of their professional body, together with a brief outline of the coach’s stance on, and ground rules for, key areas of ethical concern – such as the question of confidentiality discussed above. A business coach’s ethical position will be much easier to defend if it has been explicitly defined and demarcated, in advance, within the coaching contract – rather than merely asserted after an ethical conflict has arisen.


Being an ethical business coach means being prepared to coach ethically – which in turns means doing the homework, explaining your position to the client organisation and individual coaching participants, and putting it in writing.


COMENSA (2009). Revised Code of Ethics.

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

WABC (2007). WABC Business Coaching Competencies. popups/definition_and_competencies.html.

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ROI Warning – Your Mileage May Vary!

Businessman Carrying Pile of FilesCo-authored by Nick Wilkins and Dr Sunny Stout Rostron

Naturally business coaches want to market their services. And what more tempting way to sell business coaching than to quote nice big numbers about the return on investment (ROI) the client firm can reap? Like this, for example: “The latest study on executive coaching ROI is the International Coach Federation’s Global Coaching Client Study of 2009. It found that coaching racks up a whopping 700% ROI for organizations. That means that an $18 000 investment in a coach returns over $110 000 to the bottom line” (Banis, 2010:1). Trouble is, that’s not quite what the ICF study actually said. And even if it were, would it be a valid and useful claim to make for coaching?

How hard can it be?

The seminal ICF Global Coaching Client Study (GCCS) was carried out for the International Coach Federation (ICF) by the Association Resource Centre Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers. They were careful to point out that (ICF et al., 2009: viii–ix; 76–79):

  • While ROI is a “hot topic” in the coaching world, there are many debates about how it should be calculated.
  • While the formula to work out ROI is straightforward ((Gain from investmentCost of investment) ÷ Cost of investment), defining and measuring the costs of and gains from the investment is not. Costs of coaching (which include opportunity cost and logistical cost) are not always obvious or easy to estimate, while the financial benefits of coaching are difficult to isolate and to measure.
  • Most of the 2 165 individual clients surveyed around the world for the study either had not experienced a financial gain (or loss!) from coaching, were not sure whether a loss or gain had been experienced, or were unable to quantify the benefits and costs of the coaching they had experienced. Consequently, “the results of the ROI should be interpreted with caution due to small sample sizes” (emphasis in the original).

Corporate ROI estimates in the ICF study are summarised in Table 1 below. This shows that the return on investment in coaching for their companies could be estimated by only 4 per cent of the study respondents. In addition, it is not possible to assess how accurate these estimates of ROI were.

Table 1       Estimates of corporate ROI to coaching in ICF Study
Did your company experience a financial gain/loss due to coaching? Can you estimate the company’s gain/loss and the cost of coaching? Estimated ROI to the company? % of survey respondents
No n/a n/a 41
Unsure n/a n/a 19
Yes No ? 36
Yes < 100% 1
³ 100%, < 1000% 1
³ 1000% 2
Total 100
Source:   Adapted from ICF et al. (2009), Exhibits 8–5 and 8–6.

Put another way, what the ICF study actually said was that (ICF et al., 2009: 78):

  1. Among the small minority of survey respondents (169 people or 7.8 per cent) who reported achieving a personal monetary gain (or loss!) from coaching and were able to estimate the gain/loss and the cost of the coaching, the median ROI on coaching was estimated to be 344 per cent (i.e. half this segment of respondents estimated a lower ROI figure than 344 per cent, the other half estimated a higher ROI figure).
  2. Among the even less statistically significant minority of survey respondents (83 people or 3.8 per cent) who reported achieving a monetary gain (or loss!) to their company from coaching and were able to estimate the gain/loss and the cost of the coaching, the median ROI on coaching was estimated to be 700 per cent.

So, it is clearly not valid to infer (or to imply to prospective clients) that all business coaching generates an average ROI to companies of 700 per cent.

Credit or blame?

But there is another, fundamental conceptual difficulty involved in estimating the ROI for business coaching. Let’s assume that you, as a business coach, deliver a programme of individual and team coaching to senior executives of a large company, assisting them in formulating a medium-term strategic plan. The coaching, which costs the company R250 000, helps the executives clarify their thinking on key issues, so that they can draw up a robust strategic plan. The plan focuses on eliminating unnecessary expenditure, more effective product design, further staff development, and better marketing. It certainly seems plausible that the company should achieve an increase in net profit, due to this coaching intervention, of many times the R250 000 investment. But any of the following scenarios might then happen:

Scenario A: The cost-cutting works, and corporate net profit before tax improves by R10 million over the next three years. You, as the business coach involved, are happy to claim an ROI on coaching of 3 900 per cent.

Scenario B: Due to adverse exchange rate movements and stronger overseas competition, the company loses a major export market and net profits decrease by R120 million over the next three years. Are you as the business coach happy to claim a negative ROI on coaching of -48 100 per cent?

Scenario C: Some of the “unnecessary” expenditure eliminated by the strategic plan relates to safety measures. As a result, a serious accident causes an environmental disaster which lands the company with a clean-up bill, fines and penalties of R600 million. As the business coach, are you happy to claim a negative ROI on coaching of -240 100 per cent?

Growth (5)The point is that effective business coaching will deliver an immediate improvement in the quality of executive and managerial thought within the firm (an output, or an intermediate outcome). What the firm’s management does with that enhanced thinking is up to them – and whether those managerial actions in turn actually result in improved financial and other corporate results (an eventual outcome) is also up to a range of other factors.

The business coach is not going to be able to ensure (a) that the actions steps formulated during the coaching are the best options for the company, or (b) that those action steps are actually (and effectively) carried out by the individuals concerned. And there is a wide range of external economic, political, social, institutional and other factors impacting the company’s results, which may counteract the beneficial outputs and outcomes of the coaching process.

So it will not always be valid – or helpful – for business coaching to be viewed in terms of the logical fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”, i.e. the change in corporate results happened after the coaching, hence must have been caused by the coaching).

Better measures for business coaching

The ICF Global Coaching Client Study includes a much more useful “metric” on the potential impact of coaching – an index of “return on expectations”, which measures the impact of coaching on aspects of key importance to the client. This provides authoritative evidence, from a majority of the surveyed respondents, of very significant positive impacts on the areas of concern which had motivated clients to seek coaching in the first place (ICF et al., 2009: 79–81).

The study also cites invaluable qualitative evidence, including direct quotes of feedback from coaching clients, of the positive impact of coaching on these key areas – which include self-esteem/self-confidence, communication skills, interpersonal skills, work performance, work/life balance, wellness, personal organisation, business management, time management, team effectiveness, corporate culture, and financial organisation (ICF et al., 2009: 67–75).


The message is clear – ROI figures in general should be treated with a great deal of caution, and will not often be valid for business coaching. It is therefore risky to cite astronomical numbers on the alleged ROI of business coaching. Over-hyping potential benefits may well lead to disappointed and disillusioned clients, and a serious discrediting of business coaching in general. Business coaches should rather emphasise the very real and direct improvements in the quality of executive and managerial thinking that coaching can deliver to corporate clients – which is likely to translate ultimately into significant, but hard-to-quantify, financial and other results.


Banis, L. (2010). How can executive coaching impact your bottom line?, 5 September.

International Coach Federation (ICF), Association Resource Centre Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (2009). ICF Global Coaching Client Study: Final Report June 2009. Lexington, KY: ICF.

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Practise safe coaching – always use protection

Businessman Wrapped in Caution TapeBy Nick Wilkins and Sunny Stout-Rostron.

Coaches need to protect themselves from a range of professional risks, such as accusations of malpractice due to ineffective or damaging interventions, being caught in a conflict of interest, or divulging confidential information.

Protecting oneself against professional risk has much in common with protecting against road accidents, crime or infectious disease: it is unglamorous, unexciting and tedious but critically important, and it involves some effort and foresight in (a) learning what fundamental actions are needed, and (b) carrying them out unfailingly from day to day as a matter of routine. In coaching, the fundamentals of safe practice are focused in five key areas: competence, supervision, ethics, contracting, and accreditation.


“Competence” can be defined as knowing and effectively applying the skills and expertise necessary to practise coaching at or above the required standard. Specified and benchmarked competences provide clarity on how coaches might be selected, what is expected from them, and how the emerging coaching discipline could develop and improve greater professionalism (Stout Rostron, 2009a: 198). In the meantime, various national and international coaching associations have drawn up competence frameworks in an attempt to self-regulate and professionalise the industry as far as possible, including:

  • the International Coach Federation (ICF, 2008), which groups its defined competences into four clusters (Setting the foundation; Co-creating the relationship; Communicating effectively; Facilitating learning and results);
  • the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC, 2008), which focuses on competences in three areas (Self-management; Core coaching skill-base; and Business and leadership coaching capabilities);
  • the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC, 2008), which defines core competences in four categories (Who we are; Our skills and knowledge; How we coach and mentor; and How we manage the process); and
  • COMENSA (2009b), which adapted its Membership Criteria and Standards of Competence (MCSC) Framework from the EMCC competence framework. The MCSC Framework, which was approved by COMENSA members at the national AGM in May 2010, focuses on four categories (Self-awareness/Who we are – personal attributes for coaching; Managing the process – what we will do as part of our coaching practice to maintain and develop an effective and professional approach; Ability to coach – skills we will use during the coaching process; and Facilitate learning and development – how we will demonstrate that we are able to apply what we have learned).

From the specific competences outlined in the above competence frameworks, and from global studies of coaching competences which have been undertaken, it is clear that business coaches should focus on developing the following core competences (Stout Rostron, 2009b: ):

  • building the coaching relationship;
  • listening and questioning;
  • developing self-awareness through the process of self-reflection;
  • continuous learning and development;
  • expanding your knowledge and core coaching skills base;
  • business and leadership coaching abilities; and
  • upholding ethical guidelines and professional standards.

Developing competence in coaching means undergoing effective education and training at a suitable coaching training institution, and then carrying out the necessary level of continuing professional development (CPD) every year after qualifying. It is important to ensure that coach training will qualify one to practise at the standards of professional competence defined by one’s coaching association, and that the training institutions has appropriately qualified and experienced staff and facilities to deliver this outcome.


Supervision of practitioners has long been a key professional underpinning of psychotherapy, but is not yet a given for the coaching industry. The key roles of coaching supervision are to ensure that the coach understands what the client goes through, to support the coach in working through their own issues so that they do not become entangled with client concerns, to support the development of the coach practitioner, and to assess the practitioner’s competence. The term “supervision” describes the process by which the work of the practitioner is overseen and guidance is sought.

The benefits of supervision include (Stout Rostron, 2006:14):

  • For the coach 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.
  • For the individual’s coaching practice to benefit from invaluable and ongoing supervision.
  • To provide the coach with a helpful tool to understand the client/practitioner process from another perspective, i.e. from the client’s perspective rather than that of the practitioner.
  • Practitioners who are coaching specific individuals within a particular organization have a chance to meet each other. In addition, the supervising coach ensures that all practitioners have a sound understanding of the organizational systems at play.
  • Coaching supervision in groups can become an important regular meeting where the coaches connect with and learn from each other, beginning to understand the systemic connections between their individual clients.

COMENSA (2010) has developed clear, practical guidelines on supervision, and coaches should follow these in their own practices as closely as possible.

ethics 4Ethics

Considerable progress has been made in the development and implementation of the Revised Code of Ethics developed by COMENSA (2009a), with its four core values (autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice), and its seven guiding principles (inclusivity, dignity, competence, context, boundary management, integrity and professionalism). Apart from informing and educating the coaching industry and its clients on ethical practices, one immediate practical benefit of this policy framework has been the institution of a system for dealing with ethical grievances within the Association. The further strengthening of ethical regulation in coaching will yield even greater benefits, as coaches and their clients realise that membership of COMENSA means adherence to a meaningful and binding code of ethical practice.


The process of contracting with a coaching client involves:

  • explaining what best-practice coaching is, and how the coach will apply it;
  • clearly defining the potential benefits and risks of the coaching intervention;
  • outlining what inputs, efforts and commitments will be required from the client organisation and individual clients; and
  • negotiating how long the intervention should last, what it should cost, and on what terms the project should be delivered by the coach.

It is essential for the coach to brief the management of the client organisation, and the individual coaching participants, as clearly and effectively as possible, and to explicitly ensure that all three parties have reached the same understanding and consensus on the nature and details of the coaching intervention. This is critically important to minimise the risk of future confusion and non-compliance during the actual coaching process, and to avoid the possibility that the intervention may fail altogether.

It follows that the actual contract between coach, client firm and individual coaching participant(s) must explicitly define the nature and purpose of the coaching intervention, including:

  • the nature of the coaching services to be provided;
  • objectives and intended outcomes or results for the organisation and for the individual coaching participant(s);
  • ethical ground rules and boundaries; and
  • confidentiality and reporting requirements and boundaries.

Since the relationship between coach and individual coaching 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 question during contracting with the client firm and individual coaching participant(s) (Stout Rostron, 2009a: 264–265):

  • What are the needs of the individual executive client versus those Resultsof the organisation?
  • What is the organisation looking for?
  • What are the goals for the individual client?
  • 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?
  • How do you know?

The whole process of contracting with clients is probably the most neglected area of coaching practice. This is extremely unfortunate, as much misunderstanding, conflict and mutual disappointment between coach and clients could be avoided by spending a modicum of time and effort on this unglamorous and tedious but potentially invaluable routine. To paraphrase Gypsy Rose Lee, coaching is love – but get it in writing. Or as the old Middle Eastern proverb advises, trust in God, but tether your camel.


Efforts are being made by a range of national and international representative bodies, and within forums such as the Global Community of Coaches (GCC), to promote the professional development of coaching. What type of professional status these initiatives will eventually achieve for coaching is a wide-open issue, and the possible options range from the continuation of the more or less self-regulated status quo, through the evolution of a form of semi-professional specialisation, to the creation of a full profession.

In the meantime, coaching associations such as COMENSA, the EMCC, WABC and the ICF play a crucial role in providing at least an interim form of accreditation. Accreditation is very important to coaches, because if it is done properly, with effective implementation of standards of competence and codes of ethics (including meaningful sanctions for their contravention), prospective clients will feel confident that accredited coaches will know what they’re doing. The development of authoritative accreditation is, however, a two-way street – not only must coaching associations such as COMENSA institute the necessary benchmarks, standards, codes and guidelines, but coaching practitioners must support them in doing so.


Putting the above fundamentals of coaching practice in place is crucial to ensure the professional success and well-being of any practising coach. But it will also inevitably protect the interests of their clients, which is a key reason why prospective clients of coaching need to be informed of the benefits of engaging coaches with the relevant qualifications, experience and professional accreditation. And this is the very rationale for the existence of COMENSA – to serve the interests of coaches and mentors, and also their clients.


Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA). (2009a). Revised Code of Ethics. (Available at

Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA). (2009b). Membership Criteria and Standards of Competence Framework. (Available at

Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA). (2010). Coach/Mentor Supervision Policy. (Available at

European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). (2008). EQA – The European Quality Award. (Available at

International Coach Federation (ICF). (2008). Core Competencies. (Available at:

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

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

Stout Rostron (2009b). Business Coaching International: Transforming individuals and organizations. London: Karnac.

Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC) (2008). Business Coaching Definition and Competences. (Available at

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Business coaching – going beyond juggling the balls

You have mailCo-Authored by Nick Wilkins and Sunny Stout-Rostron.

You’re a 40-year-old executive heading an operational division of a large company. You get to work at 07:30, scan the business news, then respond to 57 priority e-mail messages that you can’t delegate to your line managers or PA.  A message from the CEO reminds you to forward him a key strategy proposal with headline budget by noon Friday, for discussion by the Board next week. You must get to grips with this today, or you won’t have a fully worked-out proposal ready in time; and there are some tricky issues to consider. But HR calls: one of your line managers has objected to an unfavourable performance review and non-promotion, and is threatening a CCMA action; you quickly draft a brief for HR and the Legal Department, and schedule a meeting with the manager. You field a call from a journalist wanting comment on an allegation that company officials rigged an environmental impact assessment. Then your husband calls; your son’s teachers want to meet with both of you to discuss his “behaviour issues”, which you suspect are due to bullying, of which the school denies all knowledge. You rush to chair two scheduled meetings with prospective clients, and one with a project management team. You planned to snatch 40 minutes during lunch to work on your strategy proposal, but are asked to advise procurement on an unresolved dispute with a supplier about faulty equipment. You quickly read through your last round of direct report performance reviews and have a tough meeting with the disgruntled line manager and the Deputy Director of HR. Then it’s a two-hour return trip through heavy traffic for a site visit to a major project; while driving you conduct seven cellphone calls with HR, a client, the Finance Director, a project manager, a project accountant, and two engineers. You get back to the office in time only to rush off for your school meeting, and a difficult evening trying to communicate with your son. And this was just an average day. As you get into bed, exhausted, you realise you still haven’t thought through your strategy proposal.

Executives and senior managers have to keep many balls in the air. They’re often so busy dealing with a never-ending series of urgent or challenging issues that they have little room for reflection on their work experiences, or for clear-headed thinking about future strategy. This is problematic: as Kolb (1984:68–69) pointed out, reflecting on one’s concrete experience is a crucial part of the experiential learning cycle (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, active experimentation). An executive who does not reflect on their experience, nor think about how to improve their practice, is unlikely to deliver excellent performance. And since executive performance leads the company’s results, the same applies to the firm as a whole – an organisation’s performance is shaped by the quality of thought of its management. In effect, if executives are not reflecting on and learning from operational experience, and thinking carefully about the future, the company is strategically brain-dead.

So how can busy and highly-stressed executives, having to field and shoot a myriad of different balls every day, make the time and space for high-quality thinking? Business coaching can help, in two fundamental ways.

The coaching intervention provides a formal and acceptable way of MP900438377taking executives out of their frenetic daily rush, and giving them time and space for discussion and thought. As Kline (1999/2004) says, “One of the most valuable things we can offer each other is the framework in which to think for ourselves”. An executive demanding an hour alone “just to think” risks being considered hopelessly self-indulgent by their colleagues. But a formal, structured and disciplined business coaching intervention, seen to improve executive performance and company results, is a different matter.

More importantly, within that quiet time and space, a good business coach will be a “thought partner” for the executive, helping them to think clearly about the issues they need to address. The coaching conversation is a thinking partnership, where coach and client reflect on the client’s experience, transforming it into potential for learning and action. The coach’s job is to help the client to think clearly about the core issues which challenge them – in their job, career and daily working life. The client is encouraged to think for themselves and to develop an awareness of their own conscious and unconscious behaviours, which may influence performance and systemic change.

By asking the right questions, in the right way, in the right order, the coach helps the client find their own solutions. The coaching conversation literally provides a “thinking environment” where business professionals are able to develop self-awareness and a depth of understanding of themselves and others. The coach’s job is not to provide answers or solve the client’s problems for them. The greatest gift the coach can offer is to help the client to consider experiences, approaches, ideas, strategies, behaviours, and actions they have not previously considered.

For the harassed executive in the example above, the most important issues a business coach could help her reflect on, and develop clear strategies for, would probably include:

  • developing her strategic leadership competences;
  • sustaining complex but rapid decision-making processes;
  • effectively motivating, developing and managing the performance of her direct reports;
  • managing complexity within her teams, the division and the firm;
  • effectively addressing diversity issues (particularly around gender, race, and age) in a sector historically dominated by middle-aged white males;
  • effectively dealing with workplace conflict, and managing difficult people and situations;
  • transitioning into a new position and role(s);
  • gaining insight into her own intrinsic personal and professional drivers;
  • dealing with corporate stress levels; and
  • balancing business and personal life demands.

And for any busy executive, under pressure to deliver big results in a competitive industry under difficult economic, financial and systemic circumstances, real help in getting to grips with these issues can be absolutely priceless.

Lost, Confused, Unsure, Unclear, Perplexed, Disoriented, BewilderedSo what do coaches actually do? Coaches help someone think clearly about something. That might sound naively simple, but it’s both the real core and the real value of best-practice coaching. Because business leaders the world over are finding it more and more difficult to think clearly about anything – for a variety of reasons. That is why executives are turning to business coaches – not because they need therapy, or mentoring, or consulting input, or moral support, or even to develop new skills – but because they need help to think clearly about the big issues currently challenging them, and to work out better ways of addressing them.

Coaching is unique. It involves helping people to systematise their conscious thoughts about the immediate actions needed to address specific practical issues, and to understand the mental and systemic processes that may be sabotaging their success. What other discipline does this? And it’s difficult to do that simple-sounding task well – to be an effective thought partner – which is why coaches need to be properly educated, trained and professionalised.

If this description of the core process of business coaching makes sense, and if the potential value of business coaching to clients is intuitively obvious, why does business coaching still struggle to articulate exactly what it is and what real value it can contribute? There is as yet no single clear and authoritative definition of “coaching”, and coaches have not yet reached agreement among themselves on what coaching is, what processes it involves (and doesn’t involve), and what it can really do for their clients. So, it is not surprising that prospective clients also remain confused, which has been noted by various external observers.

This situation stems partly from the fact that most coaches come into the industry from other disciplines, and continue to apply the methodologies of their earlier vocations within coaching. It is also partly due to a fundamental insecurity that coaches in general seem to have about the industry: many are tempted to hype what they’re doing to their clients in order to sell it, because they’re not actually sure of or confident in what they’re doing. This is manifested as a continuing urge to be all things to all people, to be the hottest thing in town, the next big thing.

As Nic Bednall, a highly experienced and respected MD, pointed out at a COMENSA chapter AGM two years ago, coaching is an industry in need of a belief in itself. If the discipline is to make progress in this regard, it might help to go back to first principles, and underline the very real and inherent value at the core of best-practice coaching. Only when coaches engage with this simple fact, and abandon the need to sell coaching by smothering the basic process with gimmicks, is coaching likely to receive the recognition and respect it deserves as an emerging profession. One that can give its clients real value – beyond all the balls.


Kline, N. (1999/2004). Time to Think: Listening with the Human Mind. London: Ward Lock.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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

Posted in Business Coaching, Coaching, Competencies, Executive Coaching, Leadership Coaching, Leadership Development | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment