There seems to be a continual debate amongst academics and coaches on how directive executive coaching should be in order to enable clients to achieve their objectives.
Directive or Non Directive Executive Coaching?
What do the terms actually mean in relation to coaching? It seems a clear definition of terms can be difficult to ‘pin down’. The best way appears to describe the two extremes. A totally non directive Coach literally follows the client’s conversational flow and interests. The Executive Coach uses questions as a vehicle to facilitate the client’s thinking so that the client can find their own solution to their coaching topic. The Coach would avoid offering any kind of ideas or suggestions.
Whereas a totally directive coach would act as a consultant and expert and actively directs the clients thinking through the use of suggestions, ideas and advice.
The Roots of Coaching Theory
Although the theories of Executive Coaching derive from many disciplines, such as Organisation Development, Sports Coaching and education, much of the theoretical background comes from therapy. This view is prevalent in much of the literature on the subject.
The problem with this is that therapy is mainly for those with some form of psychological dysfunction. In most forms of therapy there is a clear preference for a non directive approach. Although there are some forms of therapy that would be considered more directive such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Interestingly those that support cognitive behavioural therapy point to its ability to achieve a better success rate than other forms in a shorter timescale.
However in Executive Coaching most clients are pretty robust, well functioning, goal orientated individuals. So although much coaching practice is based on therapeutic theory it does not follow that a non directive approach will be the right one for the type of clients that use Executive Coaching.
What Do Clients Want?
In most research that has been carried out clients are not looking for a coach that tells them what to do. In fact there is research (e.g. Goddard, 2010) which suggests one of the biggest problems for coaching clients is when coaches make suggestions. This often demonstrates the coach’s lack of true understanding of the client’s situation.
However clients do want an Executive Coach with the skills to enable them to achieve their coaching objectives. In most cases this needs to be done within 6 coaching sessions. Whereas in therapy clients may often have weekly sessions over a year or longer.
The Right Approach for Executive Coaching
In my view because of the nature of Executive Coaching Clients, their expectations and the length of the coaching contract, the approach in coaching does need to be different to that used in therapy. However the start point must always be that the client is the expert in relation to his or her topic and situation.
This means that a good Executive Coach will in the initial sessions focus on using questions to enable their client to see their topic from many different perspectives. During this phase the Coach can build a better understanding of the Client and develop a strong Coaching relationship. However as the relationship develops (and the time to achieve the coaching objectives reduces), a Coach may need to create a more collaborative relationship. At this stage the Coach should have a good perspective on the client’s situation and coaching topic. This may allow the Coach to suggest ideas or models to assist the Client’s progress. These suggestions should always be made with agreement from the Client.
Clients paying a substantial amount for their Coaching may well expect their Coach to contribute ideas and suggestions where the Coach has relevant experience or expertise. A failure by the Coach to provide help where requested can lead to Clients becoming very frustrated and believing they are not getting value for money. This can be severe and sometimes have a terminal impact on the Coaching relationship.
So What’s the Answer?
I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. It does appear that a predominantly non directive and reflective approach works better in the early sessions of Executive Coaching. However the relationship develops over time and it becomes a more collaborative and active partnership in the middle and end of the coaching contract. It is at this point the coach could be helpful to the client by providing more direct support. In terms of ratio this might be 70% non directive and 30% directive. However this ratio might be even higher where the Client has asked to develop a particular management skill such as performance management or presentation skills.
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