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The ‘Delia’ approach to coaching


Alan Ward calls for more practical coaching assessments and says coach education providers shouldn't be scared to fail those who don’t make the grade.

Since cooking, or more accurately TV cooking, has become a national pastime in the UK, different styles have evolved to become championed by devotees and followers. On the one hand there is Delia Smith’s methodical 'How to Cook' approach, with whole chapters dedicated to mastering different ingredients even before combining them to produce a more wholesome dish. And on the other hand, there is Jamie Oliver’s chaotic 'Naked Chef' where any combination is considered worth a go as long it is done quickly and with gusto. I have to say both styles create exceedingly good food but how confusing for aspiring chefs and gastronomes.
A similar confusion has developed in the world of coaching. What Delia provides for cooks, theoretical training provides for coaches. To investigate and understand the implications of questioning, listening, language and all the other coaching 'ingredients' enables the study of more complex strategies and models. More and more often coaches are being asked to specify the 'psychological underpinning' of their approach in an attempt by purchasers to reassure themselves that the coach really does know what they are doing. Although I do question whether they understand the answers any more than a gourmet who wants to know who the chef studied under.
The 'Naked Chef' type coaches can’t be doing with all this academic stuff. It is about being in the moment, following the client’s agenda, trusting the flow. That certain something, the magic in the space between, can’t be analysed and dissected lest it kills the very thing being created – just as a deconstructed crêpe will not be recognised as eggs, flour and milk. Their skill is built and based on natural intuition and sensitivities that have evolved over time to produce an artist at work, don’t let the scientists in. There are of course coaches, and chefs, who achieve phenomenal results without ever having had formal tuition and the world is lucky to have them. But they generally have had to burn a lot of fingers before getting to this level of competence.

Academic vs. Practical

So the dilemma facing coaches is whether to sign up for an academic-based qualification, with university-accredited awards and easily benchmarked educational standards or to pursue a hands-on practical programme full of peer coaching and feedback. Of course, neither route totally excludes elements of the other, just as Delia and Jamie have some methods in common. There is a clear case for both approaches. Without a moderate understanding of how people think, feel and behave, coaches risk doing their clients more harm than good, however well-meaning their intentions. Conversely, criticism often levelled at academic qualifications presumes that graduates may be highly proficient in research or report writing but have no proven ability to actually sit down and coach someone
In answer to this, the coaching marketplace is seeing developments along several fronts. The rise of coach assessment centres is a direct result of the need for purchasers to quality-assure the calibre of coaches to be matched to their clients. Most of these insist on an achieved level of academic learning, an interview with a psychologist or in-house 'expert' and an observed real-life coaching session. The whole process is expensive, subjective and often inconclusive. Then there is the surging demand for individual accreditation, bestowed by various professional bodies in response to both pull from buyers and push from coaches themselves. The lure of an all-knowing badge of honour is there to provide confidence in times of uncertainty, for both client and coach. The danger is that either the award becomes commonplace and loses its credibility (domestic science GCSE anyone?) or so lofty that it is regarded as snobbery (how many Michelin stars?).

Fit for Purpose

The obvious place to look at is coach education. The problem for anyone currently researching a coach education programme is the sheer number of courses to choose from.  The market has become saturated.  So, how do you know the standard of each programme? How can you compare them? Ideally, there should be a healthy balance between the theoretical aspects, that underpin coaching interventions, and the practical competencies that you’ll gain in terms of being a better coach. It’s important to pay close attention to how both of these aspects are assessed and evaluated. Accreditation by EMCC or other body provides further benchmarking.

In the same way that you’ll fail a driving test if you don’t pass both the theory and practical sides, coach education providers need to be brave enough to fail those who do not reach a certain standard in their coaching practicals. Any programme that can prove to buyers that its participants are truly ‘fit for purpose’ will become the standard bearer for coach education. At Performance Consultants, we are picking up this gauntlet.  We already assess participants on their practical ability throughout the programme and require written commentary and reflection on coaching case studies. But we are now introducing a pass-fail element which means that to gain one of the post-graduate qualifications, participants will have to prove both their academic rigour and their practical ability.
In the TV programme, Ready Steady Cook, participants are challenged to concoct a scrumptious dish from a haphazard bag of ingredients by drawing on their knowledge of food technology and their flair for creativity. Are you qualified to Ready, Steady, Coach?
Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs university-backed coach education programmes accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council
He also chairs’s Coaching discussion group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business

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