In this research study Executive Coaching Clients were asked what they believed they contributed to the coaching relationship in order to make it successful.
The significance of the client’s contribution to the relationship is found in the literature on research in therapy, but there is much less research on this in coaching. In this study the clients all had a choice of coach and it was apparent that the chemistry and qualities they saw in their coach at the selection stage were often reflected in their overall perspective of the longer term relationship.
This study was based on research with six clients in executive coaching. The identification of the participants and their companies is confidential. It was agreed that the research can be published as long as anonymity is maintained. The figure in brackets after the quotes is the number assigned to each research participant.
The Personal Qualities Brought by Clients to Coaching
All the participants identified qualities of themselves which, in their experience, assisted in the development of the coaching relationship. The majority of participants were prepared to make a significant personal commitment to the relationship in order to make it work. All participants felt that one of their key attributes was a preparedness to be open and honest, for example, “So that’s one thing, [the participant brings to the relationship] the, I think my willingness to put it out there, I would imagine that probably helps” (P1, 6). Some participants found that their ability to be open with the coach was in itself an indication of the strength of the relationship:
“…I found myself being as honest as I could, you know real honesty, and if you think it’s not going to work [the relationship], when you start to know you’re not giving it all, you know it’s not going to feel quite right…” (P5, 5)
This quote suggested that in using the words ‘you know real honesty’ Participant 5 was able to be more honest in the coaching relationship than perhaps in others, and that this was important in enabling him to develop.
In addition to their openness and honesty many participants believed that their non-defensive attitude, a willingness to see new perspectives, and an acceptance that the coaching may at times be uncomfortable were important to the relationship, for example, “I don’t go in with a kind of closed mentality of I can’t do that, I won’t do that, that’s not going to work…” (P4, 13) and “If I’m going to do this [coaching] I’m going to do this wholeheartedly and it may feel uncomfortable but I know that’s what I want to do” (P3, 12). Self-awareness also emerged as a quality of the participants and it was perceived to enable them to be aware of their own strengths, weaknesses and situation, for example, “I think I’m fairly self-reflective in terms of what my issues are and what my concerns are…” (P2, 20).
Being Prepared to Take Personal Risks
All participants were able to describe the individual characteristics they brought to the relationship; however there was also a larger overall theme which emerged which was related to bringing the whole self to the relationship and doing this in a way which meant taking a personal risk and revealing vulnerabilities. In talking about what he brought to the relationship, Participant 6 said:
“I guess that willingness to lay myself bare in front of him, to actually get to the heart of the matter, to be able to do something about it…because the complete picture has been laid out rather than only a part of it which might be to a less than effective action” (P6, 15)
The use of the words ‘lay myself bare’ seemed to portray a vulnerability that was necessary for the coaching to be effective. Participant 5 talked about how he gave himself to the relationship, “I think I’ve got a fantastic coach, but equally I do think I’ve given myself to the relationship” (P5, 11). In the same vein Participant 3 explained, “So I think, you know, I also bring myself to the table both for him and for the coaching relationship” (P3, 12). These quotes demonstrated a high level of personal investment by the participants in their coaching relationship. They also suggested a recognition and willingness of the need to be totally transparent in order for their coaching to be effective.
Commitment to Achieve the Coaching Goals
In the majority of cases this high level of personal investment was matched by an equally high level of commitment from participants to achieve their coaching goals. Participant 3 reflected this in his immediate response to a question about what he brought to the relationship, “Commitment. I mean you know I don’t do things by halves…what I mean is when I start something I make sure I finish it…” (P3, 12).
The participants identified a number of personal qualities which they contributed to the coaching relationship such as openness, honesty and a willingness to look at alternative perspectives. When describing their experience it was striking how they seemed to bring their whole self to the relationship, in a transparent and vulnerable way. There appears to be little published coaching research on this aspect, however Alvey and Barclay (2007) describe a preparedness by participants to be vulnerable in a study on trust in executive coaching. The research in therapy (Bachelor, 1995), identifies that a willingness to self-disclose and express emotions has an influence on the quality of the therapeutic relationship. However in contrast to Bedi et al.’s (2005) finding in therapy, that clients often assign responsibility to the therapist for building the alliance, the participants in this coaching study were clear about the contributions they made to the relationship.
There is extremely limited empirical research in coaching on the qualities clients bring to the coaching relationship. However the findings in this study do support the importance of being willing to learn and change (Alvey and Barclay, 2007), a preparedness to look at different perspectives (Stephens, 2005) and an understanding that coaching may be uncomfortable at times (Machin, 2009).
Alvey, S. and Barclay, K. (2007) ‘The Characteristics of Dyadic Trust in Executive Coaching’, Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 18-27.
Bedi, R., Davis, M. and Williams, M. (2005) ‘Critical Incidents in the Formation of the Therapeutic Alliance From the Client’s Perspective’, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 311-323.
Bachelor, A. (1995) ‘Clients’ Perspective of the Therapeutic Alliance: A Qualitative Analysis’, Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 323-337.
Machin, S. (2009) The Nature of Internal Coaching Relationships During the Working Phase from the Perspective of Coach and Client. MA Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University.
Stephens, J. (2005) ‘Executive Coaching from the Executive’s Perspective’, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 274-285.
Keywords; Executive Coaching, Executive Coach, Executive Coaching Clients, Executive Coaching Relationship
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