By 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.
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 of 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 www.comensa.org.za.)
Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA). (2009b). Membership Criteria and Standards of Competence Framework. (Available at www.comensa.org.za.)
Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA). (2010). Coach/Mentor Supervision Policy. (Available at www.comensa.org.za.)
European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). (2008). EQA – The European Quality Award. (Available at www.emccouncil.org).
International Coach Federation (ICF). (2008). Core Competencies. (Available at: www.coachfederation.org.)
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 www.wabccoaches.com.)