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The limits of coaching


danger, wrong way turn backWith so many intervention and professional development services to choose from, it can be difficult for clients to know exactly what they need. Matt Henkes looks at where coaching stops and the other disciplines begin, and asks how we walk the tightrope.

Coaching is often seen by some as the magic bullet to every problem in the workplace and by others as the must-have status symbol of the modern professional. Both of these approaches are unlikely to result in client satisfaction. It's only by understanding exactly what coaching is that people can understand what it can and, more importantly, can't achieve.

The limits of coaching should be implicitly understood by all practising coaches. Where the boundaries with training and counselling fall, for instance, is a common subject of debate. However, Myles Downey, founder and managing director of The School of Coaching, feels that a lot of the training provided for coaches doesn't address this issue.

Photo of Myles Downey"Most coaching is very poor so it is quite likely that they will not be trained in this domain; true and terrifying."

Myles Downey, The School of Coaching

"A training module that helps you understand professional ethics and also helps you to understand when you are out of your depth is a must," he says. "Most coaching is very poor so it is quite likely that they will not be trained in this domain; true and terrifying."

There are numerous guidelines to steer coaches down the right paths of what they should and shouldn't delve into, but Downey says few can be absolute. "The context may make one thing appropriate in one organisation but, in a different organisation, it might not be," explains.

And coaching is not about working with individuals who have a high degree of emotional stress or baggage; that is for counselling. "I will not have a coaching conversation where there is an issue that has strong psychological overtones. I am not trained to do that so I will refer them," Downey adds.

Help by not helping

Despite Downey's alarming assertion about the state of training, it is a sentiment echoed by numerous coaches. "Each coach has different skills, training and qualifications," says Roy Scott, director of Profile Consulting Limited. "If the individual coach believes they cannot help, they can help the client to think through some other ways to fix the problem."

The role of coaching in relation to its fellow disciplines is also an important distinction to make, according to leading executive coach Gladeana McMahon. Like any form of intervention, whether you're talking training, counselling or consulting, everything has a purpose and it's important you use it for the purpose to which it's best suited.

"Coaching is to help the individual embed what we would call behavioural change," she says. "It's about helping that person to achieve a particular way of working or understand or develop a skill that they may either be weak or have not yet developed. We have to integrate that into their working practices."

Photo of Roy Scott"Each coach has different skills, training and qualifications. If the individual coach believes they cannot help, they can help the client to think through some other ways to fix the problem."

Roy Scott, Profile Consulting

A training course in networking, for example, may give people the skills they can use for schmoozing potential clients at a conference. However, if they're uncomfortable with the act of networking or they lack the confidence to put those skills into practice, they're not going to have a lot of success. That's where coaching comes in, enabling people to embed those skills.

Shining star burning bright

Equally, coaching for excellence (or 'staying sane and ahead of the game' as McMahon calls it) can be a useful tool in heading off potential problems in the future. "Why do Olympic athletes need coaches if they're already at the top of their game?" she asks. "However good they are, they'll always want to improve and they can be sure that with the right coaching they're doing it in a way that is healthy."

Applying that to the professional world, there's no point in being a bright shining star within an organisation if you burn yourself out in a few short years. "If you don't look after yourself in an holistic way, in five or 10 years time your shining star will not be there," says McMahon. "Equally, if you're not ahead of the game – thinking about business and the challenges of business in relation to yourself and the offerings for your organisation – then you may well find that you've lost an advantage."

More information

  • ICF Code of Ethics: provides a framework for professional responsibility

  • National occupational standards: in coaching and mentoring at work on the Ento website.
  • ICF Competencies: These competencies were developed to map out the skills and approaches that coaches use, defined by the ICF.
  • Coaching does not hold the answer to every professional's problems or issues. The client already has the answers; they simply need the coach to help unlock them. When we look at its limitations, mentoring, coaching, counselling and training are all part of the same continuum.

    Karen Tweedie, International Coaching Federation (ICF) president, believes coaching is not a profession that focuses on 'fixing' problems or inadequacies, but centres more on the future and building on existing strengths. Coaching should recognise the client as the key expert in their life, working with that as its foundation.

    "The coach's responsibility is to discover, clarify and align with what the client wants to achieve," she says. "Encourage the client in self discovery, elicit client-generated solutions and strategies, and hold them responsible and accountable."


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