In January 2010, The European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) – an organisation of which ASK is proud to be a member – will be holding an event in London called “The Myth of Non-directive Coaching”. Guest speaker Steve Nicklen, an experienced Executive Coach, acknowledges – to quote EMCC’s promotional email – that

non-directive therapy/counselling is a good thing because the power relationship between therapist/counsellor and client is such that the latter is often too suggestible for anything else …”

but that this is not the case where the coachee is a Senior Executive. And we’d agree – and not just because of the inherently different power relationship.

Executive Coaching is not ‘therapy/counselling’, and it has key attributes that distinguish it from coaching at lower organisational levels. Not least of these is the level of experience, skill and expertise that it demands of the coach. To provide a valuable service (even a non-directive one) at this level requires more than just an established coaching track record, affiliation to internationally accredited coaching body, and a commitment to on-going coaching supervision.

All those things are valuable, and serve to allow the coaching buyer to discriminate between potential suppliers in an unregulated marketplace over-crowded with those seeking to trade on their own business experience when straitened circumstances intervene. (We mean no offence here: there are places where their input may be appreciated and valued, but without more to offer, Executive Coaching appointments are not among them.)

One element that is crucial to the success of any coaching engagement is the relationship between coach and coachee. There are two aspects worth noting here: firstly, that one-to-one coaching can be an intense and personally exposing experience for the coachee, and the ability of coach and coachee to establish rapport and trust underpins many of the benefits that the process can deliver. Our Executive Coaching engagements always start with a ‘client matching’ process, to ensure that we proceed to a coaching relationship that will not be beset by inter-personal incompatability.

The second aspect is broader. If the process is to be produce meaningful outcomes, the coachee must respect and value the coach and the skills and experience that they bring to the experience. To coach effectively at this level, the coach must also bring extensive experience of operating at senior executive/board levels in major organisations: no coachee should be expected to value or respect the inputs of someone whose own credibility they have reason to doubt. Providing Executive Coaches without this level of professional (as well as coaching) experience undermines the coaching engagement, and – at a broader level – the value of coaching per se: it does a fundamental disservice to a potentially highly valuable approach to learning and development.

But there is a second element of the EMCC invitation that should give greater call for alarm:

Steve believes that many organisations are currently doing their leaders a disservice in sticking to non-directive coaching too narrowly.”

As we argued in our earlier posting, Talent, recessions and commitment, there is real potential value in investing in the deployment of learning and development interventions – including external Executive Coaches, providing that several important caveats are recognised. To apply those arguments to Steve Nicklen’s assertion, we should first of all point out that coaching should be offered – and taken up – to address a real development need.

While that need may be skills based, it is likely to also have some behavioural aspects – probably relating to one or more aspects of leadership behaviour. Insisting too adamantly on a non-directive approach is not only to tacitly accept that some development needs will probably go unaddressed – as the Executive in question (to quote Mr Nicklen again) may well be used to having “the power to reject anything that they don’t agree with” – but also to commission services that it is clear may well only be partially deployed.

As buying decisions go, this is unusual to say the least. Few other areas of an organisation would contemplate making a purchasing decision on the basis that, even the fees will be charged, employees (no matter how senior) may simply decide they don’t want the service and will be dismissive of it. And the provider is to quietly accept this state of affairs.

Coaching buyers should, like buyers of any other form of learning and development, ensure from the outset that the interventions’ outcomes are aligned with the business’s objectives: to insist on non-directive Executive Coaching is therefore a way of letting everyone off the hook – except the cheque-writer.

As we have also long argued, learning and development purchasing should reward providers for outputs. Where not just needs themselves, but clients’ awareness of them, acceptance that action is needed,  and willingness to act on them (while supported and encouraged in doing so) are potentially “off limits”, these outputs are unlikely to be achieved. While we have in the past criticised organisations for rewarding providers only for their inputs, the implication is that some organisations are happy to reward as long as they commit to only providing those that the client is happiest to receive.

“Directive” may be just what the doctor would order – barring him or her from writing the prescription must surely be counter-intuitive, if not counter productive. A straightforward ‘directive’ that changing our thinking and behaviour can be positive and liberating can be a powerful start. There’s a long tradition of best-selling books on exactly this theme – from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (which Warren Buffett cites as one of his biggest influences) to the most recent chart-topper, Michael Heppell’s Flip It.

While one of our team felt the latter was not designed for the task of challenging a deep-seated, complex issue, that is not the remit for this type of book: where the coach’s first hurdle is persuade the Executive to acknowledge change need not be threat, a tool that carries just this message can be a valuable lever. Horses for courses, as they say, and no-one can clear the second hurdle if they fall – or refuse – at the first. In one of our Crackers posts (pointing to nuggets we’ve found elsewhere on the web), we cited Meg Bear’s belief in the power of ‘micro-coaching’: a few wise, guiding words at the right moment that can make an important difference. There’s no reason ‘micro-coaching’ can’t take place within the context of a longer coaching assignment, especially where it will generate enthusiasm and willingness in the coachee. (And where more complex issue do need to be addressed, the experienced and skilled coach will, of course, have many levers at their disposal.)

At the heart of learning and development lies change – something that we all find both difficult and uncomfortable. The role of the provider is not simply therefore to soothe and sympathise – little benefit will be achieved by given an Executive client a ‘damned good listening too’ – but also to challenge. The challenge will, of course, take place in a supporting coaching environment (and in the context of the coach-coachee matching process) where both parties appreciate that feedback is two-way dialogue, but if the desired outcomes are to be achieved, a willingness to challenge is central to the task.

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