Exploring quality and regulation in coaching by Simon Dennis

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Do we want unregulated coaching?

It's an interesting parallel because in some industries, deregulation or lack of regulation at all enables people to make choices about what's good, what's bad. You would hope that the good remain and the bad gets sifted out. I think coaching's one of those things where the quality of coaching can have a knock on impact - that can have a lasting effect. Many of us have got good examples of where coaching has helped us or those people around us and that's fantastic, but if you're an individual who's in a position of leadership, and your past experience in coaching was a poor one, it’s unlikely you’re going to be an advocate of coaching as a means of capability development.

I think we've got to be careful if we move into an unregulated state for coaching internally because you can cause long term damage, to the coaches and to the organisation as a whole. Internally I am known as a coach, and also known in my role within the company. If I am perceived to be a poor coach it may affect how I am perceived in my role and vice versa.

Equally, if coaching as a function becomes in some way tainted because of someone's bad experience, I will then automatically feel the brunt of that because people may say, "You're one of those coaches as well, I've heard they're not very good." But quality in coaching is a very personal thing. Actually, what's good for one person isn't necessarily good for another. What's good for one coach isn't good for another coach.

I do share a growing concern about no regulation because ultimately people shouldn’t be able to just set themselves up as a coach and say, “I'm a coach." I do wonder what practice you're doing, what training you’ve had and under what banner are you coaching, and it can quickly turn into debates around hours of coaching, and hours of supervision. However, I also think that this can be prohibitive because it’s not just about quantity, it’s about the quality of coaching and how do you truly measure that?

I think we can only truly measure quality through the individual, through the outcomes themselves. If the individual feels there is benefit, then it maybe had a good effect. I think at a top level, if you're not regulated and someone says, "Well, the coaching wasn't a good experience." That doesn't necessarily mean the coach wasn't very good.

A coach’s reputation represents their success

I know a number of people who have left various organizations over the years and set up their own coaching practices, some with very little formal training or few hours of experience. Good luck to them if they can make it relevant, and they can make it successful. It's very easy to sit back in the comfort of the organization and say, "Well, they're not as well trained as our coaches. We have continuing professional development, there's no evidence that they are in supervision." The reality is that their reputation will stand on how successful they are.

Taking a parallel scenario, we're looking at getting a tutor for my daughter. One of the things that we're looking at is what do we want from a tutor? Actually, is there an organization or professional body of tutors that says, "These people are professional tutors." Is there a set of guidelines for tutoring, similar to the coaching competencies and code of ethics from bodies like the ICF for coaching? Arguably, do they also need a teaching certificate, a professional qualification? Actually, if they got their teaching certificate 30 years ago, does that make them a brilliant teacher, a better tutor, compared to somebody that's maybe been successfully tutoring students through exams and has a list of A* results in the recent years, but doesn't have a teaching qualification? This is what we also need to consider in coaching.

When you're out in the market and you're marketing yourself, it's a very different field to be in because ultimately, you're marketing yourself on your reputation and your successes which in coaching can be for the most part things that can't be revealed.  All coaches could say, "I'm a good coach. The reason I'm a good coach is because I have a lot of clients who say good things about me and I can list the successes of my clients.”

Competence is contextual: exploring fit between regulation and quality

It’s the 'why' that's the important bit. When we are talking about regulation, over time, it becomes more about the rules - and refining the rules - than actually understanding why the rules were put there in the first place. What is it that we really want from a coach? If you want honesty and integrity, that's fine. But we don't then need to turn that into our set of competencies which are then going to be measured, then it becomes about measuring the competency you’ve defined, you're not actually measuring the honesty and the integrity. Competence is contextual. For example, I can say I'm a competent swimmer but if you put me in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean I'm going to drown. Getting the right definitions of what we want and can measure is hard!

I think we're in danger of doing what happens so many times with initiatives, especially when quality will look different for every organization. Simply trying to capture what you see and then marketing what has been captured, may not actually be what you necessarily see anymore. And then, repeating the structure and maintaining the structure, if you're not careful, you move further and further away from why the structure was created in the first place.

An example: Finding our fit for practice

We applied this when we looked at our supervision model. We asked each other, “What do you want from supervision?” It actually made supervision easier. We understood that what people actually wanted from supervision is not a rigid structure that says we're going to do 10 minutes on this or five minutes on this, but rather what they actually wanted is space. An environment in which a coach can share their challenges and their successes in an open and non-judgmental way. This was how simple it has to be.

For our coaches, we talked about how we coach, and furthermore we say we're practicing, experienced coaches and we coach through a non-judgmental confidential and structured process which concentrates on the individual, their options, their blockers and helps them focus on the possible. Simple as that. That’s it.

Furthermore, we did choose to differentiate between coaching and coaching conversations. We left this differentiation in because we wanted to ensure that from an internal perspective, we could distinguish it from open management conversations. This is back to our layered levels of coaching. We wanted ensure that we will distinguish coaching as a structured practice, from a coaching conversation.

When we start to wrap what we are doing in regulation terms, for example, have you done five hours of coaching every week, if not then you're no longer seen as a coach. Or if you're not having one hour of supervision for every ten hours of coaching, that's another black mark against you.

None of that's relevant. It’s back to the core of, are you holding true to what coaching means to you and what the client needs from a coach. Sometimes, I can be a coach in a five-minute conversation and for other people that's not what they want. What they want is a confidential long-term relationship. Actually that's okay but we're discouraged from doing that because it's like, "Well, if you haven't got a specific goal and an outcome that you're looking for in the next four to six sessions then you're seen as bit woolly."

Actually, some people like woolly. Some people say, "No. What I really want is somebody I can go to once in a while and have an open instant honest dialogue with, without any judgment being applied." It just needs the coach to be there and to know that what I'm going to say to them is going to be held in confidence. They’re not going to judge me but they are going to help me reflect on that and help me learn from it. Sometimes, we get very hung up about the process. It becomes the be-all and end-all.

My final thoughts, for now

I think coaching is an interesting industry that is going to have to find some form of regulation externally and internally in order to maintain some order. I think if we were to take away all the barriers and just say actually let anyone coach anyone, my view is it is part of the deregulation process and eventually where the dust will settle. An equilibrium will be reached at a level. Those people that are good at it will be successful, they will get more requests for coaching, those that aren't very good at it but want to do it will get fewer requests and those that decided it's not for them will just stop doing it.