In this article I look at how Executive Coaching Clients see the nature of the coaching relationship.
This study is 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 Nature of the Executive Coaching Relationship
Participants were asked to give a metaphor that represented their experience of the executive coaching relationship. It was noticeable that most participants took a long pause for thought, and in their responses they talked through images they rejected before reaching one with which they were happy. In many cases these rejected metaphors served to illuminate the final meaning participants gave to the coaching relationship:
“I’m rejecting crutch, I’m rejecting support, I’m rejecting the person that makes you do stuff…it’s like going and talking to a really great friend who is going to be totally honest with you, totally honest with you…um, yeah that’s what it is , it feels equal.” (P3, 11)
This quote suggested a partnership of equals and captures the warmth of friendship, with an important emphasis on honesty. As well as viewing the relationship as a partnership it was also seen as active, with roles for both the coach and client. In rejecting an image of two people doing yoga together as a partnership that was too passive, Participant 1 looked for a metaphor that captured a partnership doing something enjoyable, but which required him to push himself, and which had momentum:
“…sailing, enjoying it, but achieving something together…you’ve got to do both sides of the boat to kind of work it, that probably describes it better, because there’s a little bit more, because we’re moving forward together.” (P1, 19)
The Role of the Executive Coach
The Executive Coach was also perceived as having a role in providing support, encouragement and pushing participants to meet their potential, for example, “I’m jogging along training and he’s on the, he’s kind of the sports coach on the bicycle coming along with me shouting encouragement” (P6, 14).
What was apparent in the descriptions of most participants of the nature of their relationship was the active role that they saw for themselves.
How the Executive Coaching Relationship Builds Over Time
It emerged from the accounts of some the participants that they felt that the executive coaching relationship developed quickly and that after an initial steep trajectory it appeared to continue to build at a gentler rate. Participant 6 described the way his coaching relationship built, “I think it was very quickly established…we got to a good point fairly quickly, it probably continues to increase a bit, at a slower rate.” (P6, 24).
Participant 1 felt the same way when he described his relationship, “It’s incredibly positive. It really has been a rapid build. So from that initial rapport to where we are now, I feel very comfortable with him…” (P1, 4). The development of relationship was partly attributed by Participant 1 to the momentum created from more frequent early coaching sessions, “…I think having the meetings fairly frequently helped…I think we did every two weeks for the first three and then went to every month” (P1, 13).
The experience of the majority of participants of executive coaching as collaborative work is similar to that reported in published coaching studies (Jones and Spooner, 2006; Stephens, 2005). It also provides support, from a clients’ perspective, for the definition of the coaching alliance as reflecting ‘the quality of coachee’s and coach’s engagement in collaborative and purposive work’ (O’Broin and Palmer, 2010, p. 4).
However, the experience of the participants in this study are in contrast with the reported experience of therapy clients, who do not always seem to see therapy as an active partnership and instead assign much of the responsibility to the therapist. This appears to support the view that executive coaching clients are likely to have higher levels of commitment and goal orientation than those in therapy (Baron and Morin, 2009).
In the experience of the participants the executive coaching relationship developed quickly and then continued to develop at a gentler rate. This may emphasise the importance for coaches of paying attention to the relationship in the early sessions. This seems particularly relevant, if in executive coaching, as in the therapy, the client’s assessment of early alliance (sessions 3-5) is a significant predictor of outcome (McKenna and Davis, 2009).
Baron, L. and Morin, L. (2009) ‘The Coach-Coachee Relationship in Executive Coaching: A Field Study’, Human Resource Development Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 85-106.
Jones, G. and Spooner, K. (2006) ‘Coaching High Achievers’, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 40-50.
McKenna, D. and Davis, S. (2009) ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: The Active Ingredients of Executive Coaching’, Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 244-260.
O’Broin, A. and Palmer, S. (2010) ‘The Coaching Alliance as a Universal Concept Spanning Conceptual Approaches’, Coaching Psychology International, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 3-5.
Stephens, J. (2005) ‘Executive Coaching from the Executive’s Perspective’, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 274-285.
Key words; Executive Coaching, Executive Coaching Client, Executive Coaching Relationship, Executive Coach, How the Coaching Relationship Changes
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