“Contracting to avoid gossiping” by Eamon O’Brien, Doug Montgomery, Yvonne Thackray


Here is the story of how three coaches formed a small coaching discussion group which started as a couple of 1:1 over a coffee chats and developed into an important part of our CPPD.


The ‘Robusta’ Challenge:

It can be so lonely being an executive coach. Caring for people day in day out – attending to the other person’s agenda every minute of every conversation. The only other person you come in contact with is the Coach Supervisor; who makes you work and examine every breath you take, questions asked, how the responses were given, any somatic twitches. All great stuff but sometimes all you really want to do is to indulge in having an ordinary conversation about coaching, with a bit of care and attention sprinkled in.

Maybe like other professions it is hard to have an engagingly good chat about coaching other than with likeminded and passionate coaches. Importantly, for one of the three of us, it was about having those exchanges that move beyond the starter conversation:  “  “What do you do?”  and I say “I am an executive coach”,  and I can see them thinking of a 52 seater bus with an on board loo!” Hence the call for action, and what was clearly of paramount importance to us:

“We coaching nerds need to get a chance to talk shop with people who speak the coaching lingo.”

The ‘Blend’ Approach

The three of us met at the APECS symposium in 2014.  The set up was serendipitous rather than planned, and it started with an intention. Eamon, trio numero uno, had determined that he was going to make more use of this professional body’s network. So he used the period post the symposium to set up coffees with others he had met.   Yvonne and Doug (numero dos and tres, or trois and deux) had the coffees with Eamon and we all realised that we would bore each other senseless if it were just the two of us!!!! Just joking...  The wise notion of inviting the third member to the next coffee was hit upon and so the trio was born.

As a group, we did not set out to create what we eventually named a “Peer Exploration Group”. As Eamon noted: “funny, I think an end of the Pier Exploration Group might also be an option… who then paused to ponder… Funny how it is necessary to dream up a label for three people having a chat in a bean brewing bar. Or indeed, how it is necessary to dream up a funny name for a trio buying beverages brewed by baristas.”

I think you can already begin to note how our conversations were going! Humour plays a significant role in our group interactions!

Contracting to avoid gossiping

Somehow as our conversations about weather business family and hobbies started to make each other’s ears bleed – when Yvonne asked the question: “If we are going to continue getting together perhaps we ought to agree why and what we might do at them?”

 “Goodness!” the others exclaimed – “what a tremendous introduction to the need for us to contract.”

As coaches we have many frameworks up our sleeves, and we quickly set about asking each other questions that helped us create the conditions we wanted to (a) belong to and (b) participate in:

  • Why would it be valuable to meet?

  • What am I bringing and what do I value that the others bring?

  • How do we go about our discussions?

  • What do I know about myself that will get I the way?

  • What feedback do I want?

  • What might we discuss?

  • And very insightfully we also asked the question – What it is not?

It took time – approximately 6 months - and a level of readiness for each member of the trio to complete a written version of our respective expectations and requests.   Thinking about what we wanted for ourselves and from the others was not a rushed affair; committing to something and setting it down on paper needed careful attention.

And thus we co-created our agreement – a living contract.  We have been referring back to it in those conversations and it has enabled us to discuss, debate, disagree and argue, and still end with a mutually agreeable output.

Our outcomes from answering all those questions boiled down for us to –

  • Thinking out loud about coaching with a couple of people who have a similar curiosity and different experience,

  • A chance to stay contemporary, and

  • To explore new perspectives together.

Importantly …

“We wholeheartedly agreed that this is not a space for supervision nor a place to comply with coaching accreditation.”

This was and has remained hugely valuable and significant to each of us. It enabled the space to be safe, discursive and one of exploration.  If you like, it forced us to take off our coach’s hat at the door, hang it up and just get on to talking about what we loved to talk about.  In hindsight and with no data and a load of intuition, it allowed the three of us to relax knowing we were not been assessed, nor coached – that it was OK to be on our own agenda for once!!

Collectively we also found several things in common that we were looking for from each other, e.g.

  • How we each bring different experiences and training and style to the group,

  • How we are all benefiting from our common and different strengths and perspective

  • And to achieve it with humour

We also wanted to create a rewarding environment where we can celebrate success together and to reflect on disappointments. It is where we come to have a laugh, good coffee and the occasional pie.

Within our agreed boundaries this included:

  • Elements of fun, excitement, and supportiveness

  • A place where we can hear and listen to each other and can ask the ‘daft’ question

  • Where we can respectively and respectfully challenge one another and where it is OK not to know all the answers and be able to suggest the unexpected or unusual.

This may sound to you very much like a coaching contract and you are spot on!  Such qualities of contracting are serving us all well in many different settings beyond coaching and supervision.

The ‘Tamper’ Topics

So what sort of subjects do we discuss in our Peer Exploration Group or PEG, since we want to hang this blog on something!

Over the past year or so our discussions have ranged from the big picture to agendas with a particular focus, and across a breadth of coaching territory.  Importantly through each of our discussions it became evident for one of us, Doug, to realise that what we were actually doing is CPD or CPPD (continuing personal and professional development). We are taking the time to review, reflect, and relate how we are each developing in our own market and the challenges we face as well as celebrating our successes, as we’re all too humble to share it publicly. We have selected each other as the peers from our community, positioning in the coaching market, and personal strengths.


Lifelong learning is, or should be, synonymous with coaches.

  • We are each individually responsible for learning, and we need to keep up-to-date with relevant market news, latest research, broadening knowledge as well as improving one’s skills and competence.

  • We need to be aware of what is happening in each of our respective markets and our clients’ environments.

  • We may recommend to each other frameworks, trainings, and books to read, but we will also critically review what its strength and limitations are by sharing case studies, pilots, and personal experiences to demonstrate its relevance to our respective work.

And for us, this is much more than a ‘tick’ box exercise in CPPD[1], because this is about our professional competence as an executive coach.

We also appreciate that the coaching field is still in its embryonic stage. Research carried out on CPD/CPPD in other membership bodies for e.g. the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and other professional membership bodies,  indicates that the primary motivation is "to avoid losing one’s licence to practice[2]" by recording and logging CPD points or hours rather than demonstrating “the value” of the development activities themselves. 

Paradoxically, CPPD should demonstrate professional competence that serves and protects society.   In a twenty year review of CPE[3] (continuing professional education, the predecessor to CPD), Young (1998) concluded, “Governmental bodies, professional associations and employers have used mandatory continuing professional education as a method to quell public concern about professional incompetence[4].” There is still much we coaching nerds need to do, the gap may be easier to bridge in this context.


Time for some Macchiato shots – flavoursome topics

The following examples we hope gives you a flavour of our discussions:


1.   What the hell is this executive coaching thing?

One of the first topics we explored was “what does coaching, and in particular Executive Coaching mean to me?” 

We discovered that we each had a specific working definition of coaching in which there are significant overlaps as well as personal differences that come from our backgrounds, training and practice.   Broadly we agreed that coaching is about supporting a client’s thinking and exploration and enabling them to change their thinking and behaviour in positive ways that take them towards their goal. And having the coaching mindset of trusting the client’s creativity and resourcefulness and that we are there to support not fix them.

The common ground.

However how we do this varied, including how we carried out diagnostics, framed measures of success from coaching, and how much we should share and offer from our experience as part of the coaching process.  We have all been trained in different institutions and with similar but different underpinning foundations.  

For example we explored what is Non Directive coaching, and where on, the spectrum of Directive – Model Driven – Non Directive we felt most comfortable and uncomfortable coaching in.

  • Is it a personal thing?

  • Is it something we comply with as a result of our training?

  • How has our experience informed us so far?

With no right or wrong answers, just our backgrounds, experiences and how we have been trained, the discussion was rich and brought us all new perspectives that are helping us all to define what we offer and which clients are most likely to benefit from working with each of us. Only our clients and those around them can actually tell us what our impact has been!

Adding Executive to coaching created for us an interesting distinction – is it being used as an adjective or a proper/collective noun?  How does Executive coaching differ from coaching?  Some of the points we began considering …

  • Is it our own background – I was an executive once – therefore am I “executive” enough to be an executive coach?

  • Or is what we do different from other niche coaches because there are additional stakeholders to manage and contract with, managers to get feedback from, HR directors to negotiate with, working with leaders to meet the strategic objectives of the organisation alongside their personal development.

  • The context is specific to the organisation and the title on the door may be more senior but should executive coaching really be excluding the middle and/or junior managers, or any other professional who works in the organisation and wants to help it meet its objective? It would seem that the perceived working definition has been narrowly defined by the job the client does?

For example, “Association of Professional Executive Coaches and Supervisors [APECS] defines 'Executive' as a person who has a level of leadership responsibility (financial/operational/people) and/or responsibility for policy formulation and/or who makes a senior level contribution to the organisation.” We discussed whether the APECS definition of “executive” broad enough or too limiting based on the following:

  • Could it be that in some applications it is not inclusive enough or diverse enough to meet the needs of the market of which there are multitudes of organisations?

  • Does this mean that the suited and booted image of the typical executive is appropriate or can it include professional athletes for e.g. golfers as suitable clients for the executive coach? They are both, after all, executing a strategy in highly competitive fields and seeking to be able to perform under intense pressure.

  • What of the leaders in a small NGO or a charity?

  • How far down an organisation do you go before you stop finding the executives?

  • Who coaches those below that point?

  • Who coaches the high potential talent early in their career before they reach the “executive suite”?

We then followed up by asking: “so if that is executive coaching, then what does it mean to be a professional coach?”

We all bring a strong need to be professional in our conduct and standards of ethics and practice, and boundary management.  It is important to all three of us to know what we know and where the edges of our knowledge and therefore learning is. Peer recognition through accreditation and our ongoing personal and professional development and supervision are important aspects of being professional.  We all bring this attitude from previous education and career experiences.  We also realise that we consider ourselves as professional coaches and that we are without a recognized and regulated “Profession” to belong to.

2.   Help!!

On a more practical note, we have had a very different conversation supporting one of our trio as they were struggling with the question: “How do I ask for a referral or recommendation from a client at the end of an assignment?  What makes it so difficult for me to ask?” The three way discussion that followed shared our respective experiences, explored assumptions and beliefs and enabled a way forward and a small experiment or two to try out.   It also enabled us all to explore our own practices and then extended the discussion into how we get feedback from clients and how we use it.

3.   Who am I now?

We are all members of APECS and have gone through a very thorough accreditation process which invites applicants to explore who they are as an executive coach.   One of the most enlightening things we have done is to share our respective APECS accreditation documents with each other.  As many APECS members will verify, we found the accreditation process very valuable and insightful.  These personal explorations and detailed descriptions of where we have come from and who we are as a coach, at the point in time that it was written, are unique and very personal.   As we read each other’s document, we each asked the same question: 

  • If this is you at that point in time, where are you now?

  • What’s new? How have you grown and developed to meet the needs of your market?

  • What have you left behind (for now)?

  • What has changed?

  • How has your coaching philosophy developed?

“What’s next”, asks the PEG Barista

We don’t have the answers yet, and this will be constantly under review as we continue on in our PEG exploration. Importantly though we bring in topics that are important to us in that moment that helps us to individually explore our market within the broader topic of the coaching market.     

It’s been almost a year, and we’ve met face to face for a couple of hours every 6-8 weeks, and for the last few meetings over Zoom (similar to skype). We’ve really just begun covering an array of topics, and we’ve found a way that is important for us individually, as a group and for the community.

The content of this blog was presented as a paper at the 2015 APECS symposium and stimulated interest from other APECS members and has spawned two additional PEGs and inspired a group of internal coaches to form a slightly larger group, all of which are just getting started.  

Following the responses we’re receiving we thought that there may be something valuable to other coaching communities – hence sharing it here as a blog!

And whilst we’re still learning, new questions have emerged for us and we’ve shared them as question points for you to consider – hope you have a coffee in hand ready to engage:

  • What are you learning from this blog that may add value to your own CPPD?

  • How has a lack of contracting in formal/informal relationships/groups led to a misunderstanding later on for you in different situations?

  • If two is company and threes a crowd – what is the critical mass of a peer exploration group?

[1] Underhill & Young (2014) How CPPD can make a difference, 2014 APECS Symposiu
[2] Scales et al. (2011 ) Continuing Professional Development in the Lifelong learning secto
[3] Lindsay (2014) Adaptability: The Secret to Lifelong Learnin
[4] Young (ed.)(1998) Continuing Professional Education in Transition

Eamon O'Brien   CR&C Organisation  "Be Quite Unusually Brilliant"  e:  eamon@crandc.co.uk  t: (+44) 07816 849805/ 01582 833559 Or via  LinkedIn

Eamon O'Brien
CR&C Organisation "Be Quite Unusually Brilliant"

e: eamon@crandc.co.uk
t: (+44) 07816 849805/ 01582 833559
Or via LinkedIn

Doug Montgomery   Elmbank Coaching Ltd.   e:  doug@elmbank-coaching.co.uk  m: +44 (0)7712 255297 Or via  LinkedIn

Doug Montgomery
Elmbank Coaching Ltd.

e: doug@elmbank-coaching.co.uk
m: +44 (0)7712 255297
Or via LinkedIn

Yvonne Thackray  the good coach   e:  yvonne@the-goodcoach.com  m: +44(0)7577 218878 Or via  Linkedin

Yvonne Thackray
the good coach

e: yvonne@the-goodcoach.com
m: +44(0)7577 218878
Or via Linkedin