Given the nature of coaching, and its close links and historical alignment to therapy, I can understand why the need for supervision became a hot topic. In the early days it was very simple just to build on the model, and expand accordingly into coach supervision. I guess 10, 15, 20 years ago, there was a general feeling that coaching would become self-regulating – with good coaches surviving and those who fail to get results dwindling over time.
As time has progressed coach supervision has sought to distinguish itself from other forms of supervision – taking into account improvement, learning, regulation, advice, guidance etc. So I think there is always space for supervision because, as a coach you want to improve, and then where do you go that’s dealing with real-time practical challenges? There is an element of making sure that people are being true to themselves and maintain “quality” but ultimately, for me, it's about improving my coaching and there's lots of ways to do that. We focus our supervision on quite a structured template, which ensures it's equally about unblocking problems and challenges you have in your conversations, as it is about sharing learnings and successes.
Sharing learning (whilst not officially counted as CPD) can include sharing insights from reading books or seminars or other action learning sets (ALS). For instance, a year or so ago, I did a piece of work around mindfulness, including a mindfulness for coaches workshop, and then shared it with the group where we were able to debate and discuss its relevance. What learning could we take from it? And I think that's the power of supervision. It holds a space for open and honest debate. It's the shared learning.
Supervision: fit for purpose
As a coach supervisor, I believe our role is to make sure our coaches are in a good place, we're making sure our coaches aren't bringing themselves into disrepute or harming themselves or others through poor practice. Wrapped up in supervision, there is also an element of management and structure involved that’s also fed back into our internal coaching programme.
However, when you're actually not coaching that often, and if you're not careful, the conversation and purpose can lead towards just attending supervision as part of the overall coaching “process”. This can be reinforced as part of a process for being an internal coach requiring you to attend coach supervision in order to maintain your status as a Coach. If that then is why you're going, then you don’t necessarily see the benefit and the purpose of the coach supervision can be lost in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s important to ensure that it’s more than a process step.
In our coach supervision group I took a step back when we appeared to have reached this stage and discussed a terms of reference with the group. I said, “Look, let's think about the structures of supervision. At the moment, this is a process element which says we should be doing it. This is a good thing. But actually, we need to ask ourselves why is it a good thing? What do we get from it? What do we bring to it?” This resonated with the group and we were able to move forward.
We explored the parallels in coaching conversations – when they become a means to an end. For example, setting out criteria for line management behaviour which enforces coaching conversations – rather than measures the outcomes those conversations are meant to support.
If you're taking action simply because that's the process and someone is looking over your shoulder checking you are following the process saying, "To be a good manager, you should have regular one to one meetings with your direct reports. Show me the evidence these meetings are taking place.” Essentially you've squared the circle. It's not quite right, because actually, it's the outcomes of the one to one conversations that is valuable. If they (as your supervisor) continue watching for the outcomes of a good conversation, this’ll become, "I know my team and I know what makes them successful. I know when they're not performing. I know when they're struggling with something because I've got that closeness with relationship." The benefit of having these one-to-one conversations is to build those relationships not just to complete one step in a line management process.
There are lots of areas, however, where we do end up just following the process and forgetting what the process was designed to achieve. Taking it into the corporate world there is an awful lot of companies I think that do the same thing. Where they're so busy following a process, they forget why the process was there in the first place. This has its challenges when faced with change as we can lose our ability to construct new approaches to overcome the challenges and achieve the same goals – focusing on the why and not the how. This is absolutely the same thing for coach supervision. I think we can get ourselves locked into that because of our mindsets and the over-arching requirement to be ‘in supervision’.
Setting the right intention for supervision
In our organisation, the intention was, initially, to give the coaches somewhere to bring their coaching dilemmas and their questions from their coaching into a secure environment, to help them overcome blockers and help them grow. What has happened over time – perhaps because we weren't doing as much coaching as everyone imagined or hoped – people began to view supervision in a different way, only attending because they had to and eventually losing the purpose altogether such that attendance was the measure not the outcomes.
I think what we have to try and do to as coach supervisors is to get people to think about what things they can bring to supervision, and does it have to only be a formally contracted coaching conversation that yields this input.
For example, if a coach has a really strong coaching relationship, which is well contracted and is developing nicely, you might say there's nothing to bring to supervision. Whereas I look at it and say, "Well, actually, how did you get to that point, what can we all learn and could it be even better? There's this power in the collective." It’s not so much about what am I going to bring to the group, but actually what would be useful to share and where can I use the power of the people in the room?
Or, it might be another situation where the manager (as coach) is building their team and they want people in there to look at it and help them. One of the coaches in our supervision group recently shared she took some of the concepts of coaching back to her teammates, and immediately they were enthusiastic, “This could be really useful. How can we use this?” After that first flush of enthusiasm it just as quickly gets forgotten as the daily grind sets in so the others in the group can be encouraging or actively involved in maintaining the momentum.
Or, it might simply be just a general conversation, "You know what? I've got a tricky meeting coming up next week. Let me just talk about that for 10 minutes." You can debate whether it should be called coaching i.e. are you asking for someone to coach you, or is it something they need supervision on i.e. the group are going to supervise you. But actually, what’s most important is the collective learning. I think we should try not to compartmentalize this too much, and instead say, "I've got a group of people here that I can use in the moment, to help me prepare better for a situation that's coming up," That's not a bad thing. The power of the supervisor is to say, "Okay, maybe there is a bit of coaching going on and then actually maybe, we can do a bit of supervision around what we've just observed."
The purpose of coach supervision is still quite an interesting debate even amongst coaches. For me, it's not just about following a process and ticking a box. For example, a coach with a thousand hours coaching and at least 10 supervision sessions a year might be ‘standard’ as far as certain industry bodies are concerned. But is this just a tick in the box to say yes, you're in supervision. I'm much more keen to understand why you attend supervision? What do you get from it? Because if the answer is, "I go because I have to, because I'm a coach." Then for me that's missing the point I think, and that's my concern, that coach supervision if it is not careful, will go down the route of being a must have’.
So, why do you attend coach supervision? And if coach supervision wasn’t available what would you do in its place?
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