Who does an executive coach work for?

KarenBusiness success, Client Success, Coaching, Leadership

Note: For clarity I need to distinguish between the person being coached and the entity paying the invoice. I will refer to the person being coached as the “client” and the entity paying the invoice as the “customer” or “company.”

This is a question that’s been in the “hot topic” category ever since I became a coach.

More specifically, who gets to set the agenda for a company funded coaching engagement?

For me the answer to this question is rooted in a bigger one – what’s the difference between executive coaching and any other kind of coaching?

The answer is that executive coaching, when company funded, is an investment done in order to support an individual’s success IN THE FUNDING ORGANIZATION.

Which means that the coach works FOR THE COMPANY.

And the coach is there in support of (in service of, to partner with) the client.

Our fiscal accountability is to the company. Our service is “delivered” to the client.

This means that the company – the customer – more specifically a representative of the company designated as the executive sponsor for the coaching engagement – needs to be involved in the initial framing of the work. The executive sponsor – often the client’s direct manager, sometimes a colleague from HR – gives direction as to the reason why the coaching investment is being made, and what the company expects to reap from its investment. (Note: measuring the ROI of coaching is another “hot topic” – to be addressed in a future post).

Ideally that framing is done in an up front 3-way meeting with the coach, the client and said executive sponsor, ensuring all parties are clear about the coaching agenda. From that point forward it’s the coach’s responsibility to ensure the sessions track towards the goals, and it’s the client’s responsibility to bring an agenda that maps back to those goals.

There are exceptions, of course.

Retirement coaching for executives stepping out of senior roles and wanting to not only hand over their responsibilities smoothly but also wanting to prepare for the next phase of their life. Forward thinking companies consider funding retirement coaching as an acknowledgement not only of the individual’s value while they were there but a commitment to their future success and happiness, and don’t likely have a formal sponsor weighing in on the success criteria for the work.

OR bright, talented people who for some unknown reason start to flounder. Sometimes these individuals are offered a coach to give them a safe space to share what’s going on. The watch-out here, of course, is that the coach has to be wary of treading in to therapy’s territory. But sometimes the safe space and a good thought partner are sufficient to sort things out.

OR key performers confronted with a career decision they’re unsure how to make.

OR coaching initiated by AND PAID FOR by the client themselves.

In any and all cases, though, the answer to the question is solved quite easily by a process known as “contracting.”

It’s exactly as it sounds. We agree up front what the terms of the engagement are – and by “we” I mean the coach, the client AND the executive sponsor or key company contact.

No, purchasing or procurement don’t get to weigh in on the coaching objectives. (Yes, it’s been suggested).

Why does someone other than the person being coached get to participate in setting objectives for the work? Because we are spending the company’s money, and any responsible executive isn’t going to do that without some understanding of where their investment is going and what’s likely to result from it.

Does that mean that the executive sponsor is privy to the details of the discussions in a coaching session? Absolutely not. Our rules around confidentiality are crystal clear and non-negotiable – all sessions are 100% confidential (with the usual caveats around legality and harm). The client has to be able to trust the coach in order to speak openly in their coaching sessions – but the company needs a sense of what we are doing, which is why we do that alignment meeting up front. We might do a mid-engagement check-in with the executive sponsor, if that is requested or seems helpful. But under no circumstances will we answer a call from the sponsor asking what we’ve talked about in our sessions.

There have been a few tricky, occasionally sticky, situations related to navigating the key players in an executive coaching engagement:

We’ve been asked to work with an individual who’s paying out of their own pocket yet wants input from their boss and/or feedback from peers. That’s letting the company off the hook. If the coaching is going to be supporting the development of the individual such that they can contribute more and move upward, why wouldn’t the company pay? Most of the time – it’s because they weren’t asked. We’re happy to help you craft that question.

We’ve had potential engagements initiated by a prospective client who intends to “expense” our fees but keep the fact that we are working together a secret. That’s a very blurry situation in many ways and not one we’ll participate in. Coaching is a legitimate Training and Development expense when it’s explicitly supporting an individual’s development agenda. Keeping it secret and burying the expense makes it clear that it’s not expressly company supported yet the individual is “trying to make it work.” We’re out.

There have been others but suffice to say that we respect a company wanting to invest in their people and we want to honour that investment.

The way executive coaching works best is in circumstances where the company’s reasons for investing are known and understood as part of the coaching agenda, and where the coach has a process for gaining that understanding while navigating client confidentiality and trust.

Oh, and if you are trying to hire an executive coach and they market themselves as “executive coach and life coach” – I recommend that you keep looking. The two are very different, and the life coaches are the ones least likely to have a process around contracting in the complex multi-player environment (it’s not required in life coaching). And they are most likely to get quite belligerent when asked to involve a boss or other sponsor in the contracting for the work. In fact, the reason for writing this post is as a response to a comment on a thread on LinkedIn where more than one “executive coach” got all up in arms about the audacity of the organization thinking they get to have a say in what goes on inside a coaching engagement.

Sigh. Still the Wild West out there, people. Buyer beware. And if you’re a buyer of coaching services and want an opinion or a point of view on something you’re seeing out there, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We have always operated on the basis of wanting great coaches to get great work, and on shining a light on the dysfunctions of this still-developing profession. We want more people to get connected with more coaches who have process and integrity around this critical contracting aspect of it, even if it’s not always us who end up getting the work. A rising tide lifts all boats.