Tuesday, November 19, 2019

But My Clients…

You As Team Coach

Going beyond the surface to create coaching partnerships

“But my clients…”

All too often I hear this refrain from coach practitioners who are engaged by organizations to partner with leaders and teams as an explanation for not coaching. The sentence is finished in a variety of ways:

  • “But my clients say they want advice”
  • “But my clients ask me to share best practices”
  • “But my clients want me to be directive”
  • “But my clients expect me to tell them what to do and give answers”

Fulfilling these requests as presented is an acceptable action. However, it is not professional coaching as set out by any coaching competency model in the world. This is a conundrum that creates tension for practitioners and clients alike.

It is true that organizational leaders, the ones who hire us and those who manage our contractual commitments, ask for certain outcomes to occur and expect results to manifest. Who has responsibility for outcomes and results is a central question to answer.

In any effective partnership, the path to clarity requires a dialogue that challenges assumptions and reveals the meaningful underlying issues that are the obstacles blocking progress. A common shortfall for practitioners occurs when a commitment to an engagement is made without sufficient dialogue.

When the conditions that define success and satisfaction are left out of the coach’s promise made to fulfill the request of the client(s), the contract is incomplete. This results in unnecessary conflict and, at a minimum, an unsatisfactory experience.

“Who has responsibility for outcomes and results is a central question to answer.”

The irony is that by being a coach in all interactions, before during and after an engagement, our commitment to creating awareness that deepens learning for, and forwards action by, the client (the purpose of coaching) is the antidote to the shortfall.


The first assumption that we must challenge is assuming that all parties know what occurs in a coaching partnership. As coaches, we spend more than 100 hours training and at least that many hours practicing to know this. But what leads us to expect that our clients, in any role, have this understanding?

While our standards bodies, ICF and EMCC, have existed for nearly a quarter-century, it is my daily experience that clients misunderstand what occurs in a professional coaching engagement and how it is valuable. The popularity of the term in the media definitely creates confusion. Adding to this confusion is the evolution of the field that includes coaching skills to be coach-like as a manager of people.

Rather than tolerate this murky context of our clients, our alternate choice is to champion simple, transparent and direct demonstration of the coaching experience so that all parties are both aware and purposeful in contracting. Not only does this choice drive better success for all, but it is also essential to consistently ethical conduct.

Allocate time in the creation of the partnership toward declaring the contribution from the client that is necessary to access a relevant and immediately applicable exchange in each session.

The strong impulse to serve generates a second assumption for practitioners that is very important to bring to the surface and resolve. Similar to what occurs in every coaching session, the initially presented topic is rarely, if ever, the most important and valuable exploration for the client.

The coaching program manager wants to serve by securing a quality coach. The business leader wants a positive change in performance by providing a coach to a high potential leader who is key to achieving the future strategy. That high potential leader has a team of people who want a better climate in which everyone succeeds.

All of these demands are seductive to say “yes” to, based upon the presented information. When we fail to probe underneath the information, we will miss the true motivation for behavior change that is sustainable for the next level of performance.

Resist the pull to relieve the pain, tension, and intensity first expressed by the client. Be persistently and unconditionally curious about the deeper pattern of behavior that is creating the situation. Follow this path to build both synergy and clarity among the various constituents we serve within the organization.

Simultaneously, everyone involved experiences the coaching process in action. By being a coach in the contracting process, we clarify the responsibility of the client to focus on the essential rather than the circumstantial. We also set the expectation to do the self-awareness and self-reflection work necessary for learning, growth, and change to result from the coaching partnership as this unfolds over time.

The definition of value and worthy contribution that a coach practitioner delivers in a coaching partnership is diverse and, left invisible, creates breakdowns with clients.

The vast majority of people enter into the professional coaching field with a wealth of personal and professional experience. That foundation is supplemented through the rigor of coach-specific training to develop a highly refined and artful communicating and relating skill set. This combination of life experience, the wisdom that yields and an expanded competency called professional coaching is highly empowering for others.

The source of empowerment is revealed through the coaching conversation. When we focus on what is not yet known to the client through a genuine and caring curiosity fully on behalf of the client, something useful emerges. The insights and learning occur because of the partnership in the conversation not because of content outside of it.

Our clients will always know more than we do about the content of their role, responsibility, goals and strategies, and aspirations. It is our privilege to express wonder and curiosity during our interactions. Clients remember more of who they are as we explore, creating awareness for the capability and resourcefulness each naturally possesses.

“A common shortfall for practitioners occurs when a commitment to an engagement is made without sufficient dialogue.”

In turn, each client realizes they possess innate creativity and learn how to access it so that new approaches and possibilities are available. A coach practitioner who is engaged in mentor coaching with me enjoyed an ‘ah-ha’ moment about this assumption when she said, “I have a clear opportunity to trust more in the coaching process, and in cases where I have, the outcomes have been much more substantial and meaningful for the client, beyond the stated goals of the coaching.”

Go beyond the surface of “but my clients …” and create coaching partnerships that evoke the client’s desired future, inside-out.

This original article was written by Janet M. Harvey, MCC, CMC, ACS and originally appeared in choice, the magazine of professional coaching.

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