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The 8th Commandment: Keep the leader and the organization as co-clients at all times

The 8th Commandment: Keep the leader and the organization as co-clients at all times

by February 23, 2015

Countdown to Conference Board Coaching Summit

Week Eight– Commandment Eight

This is week eight of the ten-week countdown to the Conference Board’s 2015 Coaching Summit.  The Summit will begin with a pre-conference event on March 9 with the keynotes and breakout sessions on March 10 & 11.  On March 10, Dr. John Hoover from Partners in Human Resources International, co-author of The Coaching Connection: Developing Individual Potential in the Context of the Organization (Amacom), will join, Dr. Harris Ginsberg of Pfizer and Dr. David DeFilippo of BNY University in discussing The Next Big (Coaching) Conversation – The Leader and Organization as Co-Clients.  This panel is designed to introduce and discuss the significance of keeping the voice and interests of the organization alive and involved in executive coaching engagements.

For each of the ten weeks leading up to the Conference Board’s 2015 Coaching Summit, Human Talent Network is featuring one of the Ten Commandments of Contextual Coaching.  Last week, Human Talent Network featured the seventh commandment of Contextual Coaching: Establish and Maintain a Coaching Culture.

Contextual Coaching commandment number eight:

Keep the leader and the organization as co-clients at all times

As discussed in Contextual Coaching commandment number four, the organization needs to have a voice in what it is paying for in terms of leadership development.  Coaching is usually the singular most expensive investment organizations make in developing leaders.  The voice of the organization is kept alive and audible in executive coaching engagements through the work of the coaching coalition described in the fourth commandment of Contextual Coaching.  That is, at a minimum, the participation of the coach, the leader being coached, the leader’s manager, and the organizational sponsor is established as a formal expectation throughout the engagement.

The coalition members come together initially in a dialogue facilitated by the coach to contract for the engagement, set expectations, and determine who will be on the list of feedback providers during the structured interviews conducted by the executive coach.  The coalition also discusses and ultimately decides upon what questions the coach will ask each of the feedback providers in the structured interviews.  Then the coach debriefs the leader on the 360 structured interview feedback and works with the leader to co-create an Action Plan for the coaching engagement that will be presented to the coaching coalition for approval.  The coaching coalition meets again for a mid-term update to the Action Plan and a Final Report.

Why so much emphasis on co-client status for the leader being coached and the organization?  The idea came out of training in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT).   MFT, as anyone close to psychological counseling or clinical social work knows, is rooted in systems theory; specifically family-systems theory.   When partner number one comes into the counseling room for couple’s therapy, he or she is not the therapist’s client.  When partner number two comes into the counseling room for couple’s therapy, he or she is not the Marriage and Family Therapist’s client either.

The marriage or covenant between the two individuals is the client.  When two or more people join in a relationship, an organization is formed.  An entity is created that is more than the sum of the individual parts.  Anyone who is coaching a senior or emerging leader, or anyone for that matter in an organizationally-sponsored coaching engagement, is coaching the relationship between the leader being coached and the organization.  The organization is not only a co-client, as the individuals in a relationship or marriage counseling scenario are, but the organization is arguably the primary client.

This understandably flies in the face of those who have defined coaching engagements as individual and intimate relationships between the leaders being coached and their coaches with the organization held at a safe distance, only allowed access to the process and what is transpiring if and when the leader being coached and his or her coach elect to allow the cone of confidentiality to be lifted and the curtain of confidentiality to be pulled back.

In Contextual Coaching, these things are honored.  The coaching client or leader being coached always owns the engagement and his or her 360 data.  However, in the expectation-setting stage of co-creating the engagement with the coaching coalition, it is made very clear that the organization is indeed a co-client unless the leader being coached refuses to allow it, in which case the executive coaching engagement is compromised.  Unless the coaching is part of an employee assistance program, exclusion of the organization and its overarching corporate interests is suspect to say the least.

It is difficult to conjure a scenario wherein an organizational leader can be coached for success outside of the cultural, structural, and/or political context of the organization that pays the leader’s salary and funds the coaching.  Many coaches feel as if they can coach organizational leaders successfully without aligning what the leaders and their organizations need most.  But, if the voices of the organizational sponsor and the coaching client’s manager are removed from the conversation, who speaks for the needs of the organization in the “marriage” between the leader and the organization he or she works for?

Coaching clients need to find their authentic voices in the workplace and coaches are great thinking partners in that process.  But, for a coaching conversation to be genuine and authentic, the organization’s voice must be heard as well.  Imagine a Marriage and Family Therapist counseling a couple and only allowing one of them to speak.  How authentic would that be?  Could that process truly be called credible?

All too often, the coach and the leader being coached disappear behind the curtain of confidentiality and can’t be heard underneath the cone.  When they re-emerge six-to-twelve months later (or more), oftentimes no one truly knows what was to be accomplished much less what, if anything, was accomplished.  Life coaching and Employee Assistance counseling are horses of a different color.  If an executive leadership coach shows up riding a life coaching or EAP horse—and tries to convince you that all horses are the same—beware.  One of the co-clients might be in danger of being excluded.

Regular reporting in the form of an Action Plan, Mid-term update of the Action Plan, and a Final Report are designed to keep every member of the coaching coalition abreast of the progress of the engagement and the voice of the organization present and participating.  More than merely informing coalition members, each presentation of an updated report gives coalition members—that is to say the voice of the organization—the opportunity to be heard and weigh in on important issues.  This produces excellent feedback and ongoing guidance to the coach and the leader being coached.

Confidentiality is a privileged.  Coaching is a luxury.  Both serve important purposes and can produce powerful results.  A coaching engagement with one client absent and/or one client’s voice muted, is likely to be as effective as one hand clapping.  Contextual Coaching is about context.  The emphasis with systems theory shifts focus from parts to the organization of parts, recognizing interactions of the parts are not static and constant, but dynamic processes.

If there is more than one component, there is a system.  The greater the number of components, the more complex the system.  Wikipedia says, “A general systems perspective examines the way components of a system interact with one another to form a whole.  Rather than just focusing on each of the separate parts, a systems perspective focuses on the connectedness and the interrelation and interdependence of all the parts.”

To ensure the coach, the leader being coached, the leader’s manager, and the organizational sponsor don’t become myopic and insular in their thinking and engagement, all parts of the system, all four corners of the coaching coalition (see commandment four) must deliberately strive to maintain co-client status for the leader being coached and the sponsoring organization at all times.

Sometimes the co-client status can be affirmed by members of the coaching coalition by simply scribbling a question on the palms of their hands, occasionally opening their hands, looking at one another, and asking, “How is this helping the organization?”  Never forget that Contextual Coaching is the art of aligning what leaders do best with what their organizations need most.

Next week, Countdown to Conference Board, Contextual Coaching commandment nine:

Establish Co-Beneficiaries

The Next Big (Coaching) Conversation – The Leader and Organization as Co-Clients

Organizations have much to gain by moving toward contextual alignment in coaching and acknowledging that the true client is the relationship between the leader being coached and the organization.  The reasons are clear:

  • Executive coaching must produce a benefit for the sponsoring organization that is consistently equal to the benefit for the leader being coached.
  • The leader being coached and organization must be considered co-clients to ensure the voices of both are heard and honored in coaching engagements.
  • As multiple engagements take place across the global enterprise, the leadership patterns and trends that emerge must be captured, analyzed, and reported without compromising confidentiality to gain full organizational value.

Countdown to the Conference Board Coaching Summit – March 9, 10, 11, 2015 to be held at the Westin New York at Times Square.  For conference information and registration instructions, contact or [email protected].


About The Author
John Hoover
John Hoover, PhD, is a Senior Vice President at Partners International in New York City where he reports directly to Founder and CEO, Amy Friedman. John is a New York Times best-selling author, a former writer/producer of marketing projects at The Disney Company, and a Divisional General Manager for electronic publishing at McGraw-Hill. He has commercially published more than a dozen books on leadership and organizational behavior (some decidedly satirical) from Amacom, Barnes & Noble Press, Career Press, HarperCollins, John Wiley and Sons, McGraw-Hill, and Saint Martin’s Press, which have been collectively published in two dozen languages. John is a veteran executive coach, certified by the International Coach Federation and is a coaching supervisor, certified by the Coaching Supervision Academy. Along the way to his PhD in Human and Organizational Systems, he became a Marriage & Family Therapy intern, licensed by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Hoover is a thought leader and serves as a thinking partner to Human Resources and Organization Development executives to develop global organizational leadership and talent development strategies that align what individuals do best with what their organizations need most. Dr. Hoover co-created the Contextual Coaching™ framework at Partners International and teaches a new graduate certificate program he developed called “Managing the Coaching Function in Organizations” through Fielding Graduate University.

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