Executive Coaching: The Client-Manager-Coach Relationship

23 November 2010

Meeting the needs of a client as well as the manager who funds the training sessions can be a fine balance. In his new book, How to Coach with NLP, Robbie Steinhouse, discusses how to negotiate the many complex issues involved in executive coaching.

"Over-seriousness is a warning sign for mediocrity and bureaucratic thinking. People who are seriously committed to mastery and high performance are secure enough to lighten up." Michael J. Gelb, American writer and trainer

Executive coaching is three-sided, involving the coach, the client (the person being coached) and the organisation or, more specifically, the manager from whose budget the coaching is coming.

Ideally the following sequence of events will occur:

  1. 1. The client and the manager meet before the coaching session and agree a set of outcomes. The more that can be clarified in this session the better.
  2. 2. Client, coach and manager meet and discuss and further clarify this list. Requirements can still be rather vague ('he needs to improve his communication style') and need to be made more specific ('he needs to make his presentations more engaging'). There are also likely to be specific goals that the client is working towards that can be added to the list.
  3. These meetings can sometimes descend into something like relationship counselling where both parties have a row in front of the coach. This can be due to unhelpful suggestions from the manager ('Can you make him stop being such a difficult so and so...'). Often this is a result of not having had the previous manager/client meeting. If this happens, it's best to take control, and say something such as, 'There are obviously issues here – let's make a note of that and move on.' You certainly now have important material to work on!

    "Meetings can sometimes descend into something like relationship counselling where both parties have a row in front of the coach."
  4. This meeting is also a time for the coach to make sure both parties understand how modern coaching works. Some managers still see coaching as traditional sports coaching, where the coach tells the client how to become better at things.

  5. The coach needs to explain tactfully that, while there is an element of teaching (coaching at the level of capabilities) in NLP coaching (Neuro Linguistic Programming), the exercise is a much broader and deeper thing than that. (Such a view on behalf of a manager is not to be treated with disrespect: many people still associate coaching with men in track suits with whistles. Such a manager needs to be shown, with enthusiasm, how far things have moved on.)

  6. The coach and client have their first session, where the contract is created. The contracting has the addition of a discussion of the requirements of the manager. Two lists of areas of primary focus are created – one which the client sends to the manager, and which can be benchmarked against progress at the end of the coaching sessions. The second list will contain additional confidential issues that will only be seen by the coach and client.
  7. After the first session, it is worth trying to schedule the remaining sessions straight away. But be aware that many busy executives cancel coaching at the last minute. Applying strict cancellation terms can help discipline the worst offenders.
  8. The final session will involve helping the client prepare a report for the manager, or arranging a further three-way meeting.
  9. Divided loyalties

    A number of issues can arise from executive coaching. Although, strictly speaking, the coach is contracted to work entirely for the client, the organisation writes the cheque and conflicts of loyalty can emerge. Examples are managers who tell you confidentially that your client will be 'heading for the door', regardless of the coaching outcome, or clients who tell you they have already accepted another job and want to use the coaching to address other issues.

    Another problem can be when a conflict-averse manager uses the coach to do their job, getting you to deliver bad news or to deliver comments about the client's work. This is not the job of the coach: if you do find yourself in this position, the best thing to do is point this out, politely of course, to the manager.

    "Another problem can be when a conflict-averse manager uses the coach to do their job."

    Sometimes the coach can find themselves in an organisation whose culture they dislike.

    In all these cases, the coach needs to exercise judgement. There is an inevitable element of unease in the three-sided relationship that is executive coaching, and part of the skill of the job is to deal with this. But if there comes a point where you feel your integrity is being significantly compromised, you can always walk away.

    In the end, organisations tend to value coaches with integrity. If you compromise your coaching principles, you may get short-term gain (or relief from short-term annoyance), but in the long term you cheapen yourself. 'Firm but polite' is the motto.

    Keep it real

    On a more personal level, coaching can over-inflate people's ambitions or their colleagues' expectations of them. This is the flip side of the coaching sceptic: the person who thinks it is a magic wand. If coaching makes someone rush into a job that they are not ready for, it does them no favours. Watch out for this excessive faith, and inject realism into the proceedings where appropriate.

    Despite the difficulties outlined above, my experience is that most organisations, although not perfect, are reasonable in their approach. When executive coaching is done well, and the staff member is willing and able, it is an extremely effective form of development, with wins all round for coach, client and manager.

    This excerpt was taken from How to Coach with NLP by Robbie Steinhouse, published by Prentice Hall at £14.99, available from Amazon via http://tiny.cc/gitxe

    About the author

    Robbie Steinhouse built his property and insurance group, Grays Inn Estates, into a highly successful enterprise, managing more than 40,000 properties in the UK. As the company grew, he began to realise that business is ultimately about people and that he and his team needed more than just commercial skills to reach their personal and professional goals.

    He became interested in coaching and studied NLP at university in Santa Cruz, where he qualified as a certified NLP trainer. He also qualified as an International Coaching Federation-accredited coach. Steinhouse now works as a coach and trainer for companies ranging from large corporations to small entrepreneurial businesses, where he combines real-world commercial acumen with a humorous style and NLP methods.

    He is also head of training at NLP School, teaching both practitioner and master practitioner training (www.nlpschool.com). His previous books include Brilliant Decision Making and Think like an Entrepreneur.

Robbie Steinhouse