By Michael Cullen
Coaching Drift and Coaching Supervision

Coaching Drift and Coaching Supervision

September 2019

Think back to when you finished your initial coach training program. Do you remember feeling excited, anxious, or both? I certainly did! I recall feeling more exposed than when I was first a coach or a client in the coaching practicums. To allay this sense of vulnerability, I contracted with my mentor coach for an additional three monthly sessions. My thinking at the time was that those three sessions would help bridge the gap between the coach training and the aspect of me being an independent coach. It was a good strategy but never quite delivered what I needed most: support for me as a (new) coach. Don’t get me wrong; my mentor coach challenged and supported my evolution as a competent coach. However, the fact of the matter was that the mentor coaching that I received concentrated largely on my conscious and explicit use of core coaching competencies. In a sense, it was just an extension of the coach training I had recently completed. Something else was missing and I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

It was only when I returned to do an additional training, in this case, coaching mastery, when it became apparent that I had wandered away from “pure coaching” and into, what I have since dubbed, “coaching drift”. “Pure coaching” I consider to be the way of coaching that qualifies for accreditation from a coaching body, such as the International Coach Federation (ICF), assessing the coach’s ability to conduct an effective coaching session. Some professional and ICF-accredited coaches have referred to this as coaching orthodoxy and, in spite of their ICF membership and supposed adherence to the eleven core competencies and code of ethics, have defended their lax regard of said competencies by justifying their own approach, emphasising their being in full co-partnership with the client; even if this meant giving the clients advice, guidance, suggestions, and yes, encouragement sometimes referred to as cheerleading. This style of coaching is what I mean when I refer to “coaching drift”.

I have little doubt that there is not one coach who has not succumbed to the desires and requests from their clients; clients who are not particularly content with only open-ended questions, reflections (mirroring), powerful questions, active listening, presence, etc. that are the hallmarks of “pure coaching”. In the initial stages of my coaching career, I lost some clients after only a few sessions. Why? Because they wanted solutions from me! They were not prepared to be processed by a “pure coaching” methodology. This challenged me as a new coach. It also led me into the realm of “coaching drift”. I began to adjust my coaching approach in a way that led to consistent client satisfaction. Even when attempting to stretch the client into a new awareness or new behaviour, the concern, for me as a coach, became more about the client enjoying the experience and less about the adherence to coaching training, methodology, and membership obligations (e.g. the eleven core competencies and code of ethics). This troubled me greatly. Was I putting business before profession? Were boundaries being crossed and, was I truly in contravention of ICF standards? Was I enabling the client vs. empowering him/her?

These situations and questions drove me into research on coaching which, happily, led me to the field of coaching supervision. The year was 2017 and coaching supervision, as a profession, was practically unknown in North America. Professional coaching supervision was, however, firmly established and growing rapidly in Europe, and particularly in the UK. My participation in the then 7th Annual Coaching Supervision Conference in Oxford, led to my immersion with many of the pioneers in this relatively new field in coaching. It was furthered by my subsequent enrollment in the Advanced Studies in Coaching Supervision program at Oxford Brookes University. My worldview on and about coaching would be forever altered.

While there are many variations about what coaching supervision is and what it does, at the heart of the practice, I believe that it is about providing a reflective, supportive space for a coach to contemplate and discuss matters of coaching which coach training and mentoring don’t necessarily address. For instance, picture a coach (hired by a company’s HR dept.) caught up in the diametrical pull of the (HR) sponsor’s expectations and the requisite guarding of client’s privacy/goals, which oft-times creates a sense of conflict-of-interest for the coach. What and how much is revealed to the HR manager about the coaching? What boundaries are being crossed when the HR person confides something important to the coach about the client? Is there an obligation for the coach to tell the client? Is there even awareness by the coach around this challenging subject?

Sometimes, coaches drift into managing a coaching situation which proves to be complicated and/or complex. A trained supervisor will create the time and space to co-explore this situation with the coach. Perhaps more importantly, the coach will be supported by the coaching supervisor. Many coaching supervisors are aware of Brigid Proctor’s model of group supervision as being Normative, Formative, and Restorative. What coaching competencies (norms) are being challenged? How can the coach learn and grow (i.e. form) themselves? How will the supervisor balance offering non-judgemental yet critical feedback in a manner that, far from shaking the coach’s confidence, actually supports and restores it?

Coaching supervision requires a different skillset which compliments the coach’s training, the coach mentoring, and the coach’s certification. In addition to all the elements and aspects addressed in training, mentoring, and (ICF) association membership, coaching supervision addresses the coach’s well-being in addition to their “well-doing” of coaching. Providing the time, space, and means for coaches, like myself a few of years ago, to acknowledge, accept, explore and effectively address “coaching drift” is proving to be beneficial for the coaching supervisor, the coach, the coach’s client, and the ever-evolving coaching profession. Both coach and supervisor learn and grow from discussing challenging coaching experiences and both become better prepared to further their professional acumen and development as stewards of the coaching profession. Indeed, the ICF recognizes coaching supervision as part of Continuous Professional Development for both coaches and coaching supervisors alike.

At the beginning of this article, I asked if you recalled your state of being as you transitioned from being trained as a coach to establishing yourself as a coach. I’ll conclude this piece by asking you another question: As you have evolved your coaching practice, how may you have veered into “coaching drift”? If you have, even if only sporadically, please consider talking it over during a wondrous session of coaching supervision with a qualified coaching supervisor. Believe you me, it is the ongoing support I wished I had after finishing my initial coach training.

Michael Cullen is a PCC-accredited coach specializing in executive, team, and mentor coaching. He is also a Qualified Coaching Supervisor with the Association of Coaching Supervisors. Michael’s meta-model of coaching supervision is based on the philosophy of Buddhism.

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Michael Cullen

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