More honesty about coaching, please!

When the first lockdown was really biting in 2020, I was part of a coaches’ Zoom get-together. The overarching question was how the pandemic was affecting our income. Some coaches spoke despairingly about the way their training and facilitation work had vanished overnight. Many described the disappearance of most of their clients. Yet there were three men on that call who claimed that they were ‘busier than ever’, all their clients had transferred cheerfully to online sessions. One said that he had raised his fees as a way of managing the otherwise overwhelming flow of eager clients. Even on that gallery of tiny faces, I could see the dismay. Two people called me after the session to ask if I thought the claims were true. I had to say that I did not.

I see an unhealthy strand of discourse in the coaching world and this experience is just one aspect of it. Coaching is a precarious way to earn a living and it’s clear from US statistics that it is not an easy way to fame and fortune. Many coaches struggle to make a five figure income, let alone the six figures so lightly talked up when that training company is luring you into what it promises will be a profitable new profession.

Some coaches seem to feel a need to pretend that they are making more money than is in fact the case. They boast about the amazing seniority of their clients and the colossal size of their fees. They believe themselves to be in competition with other coaches because, with this mindset, it is a world of limitation, not a world of plenty.

Then there is the way that we can talk up the success of our work. To read some of the coaching literature you could get the impression that coaching can solve all the ills of organization life. A poor performer? Look at how they were steered back on track by the magic of a mere six sessions! A high-flier? See how effortlessly they were prepared for promotion by a coach who did some ‘strengths’ work or offered their special version of 360 feedback, a snip at £30,000 (really).

How can this be? How could it possibly be true that coaching, unlike any other kind of professional intervention always works perfectly? It’s not true of medicine, the law, accountancy, so why would it be true of coaching? Isn’t it more likely that the rules of the normal distribution curve apply? That most of the time most of us do mediocre or good-enough work with occasional dizzying successes and that all of us will have experienced outright failures?

This is what I hear in my supervision sessions with coaches who range from beginners to some extremely experienced people. Along with many wonderful triumphs, I hear stories of clients who do not finish their paid-for-in advance programmes and who never reply to emails asking them to reconnect. I hear about clients where the organization expresses disappointment at ‘slow’ progress, despite paying premium rates for the coaching. I hear of lacklustre coaching where client and coach struggle on, even though neither seems to be enjoying or getting much out of it.

Recently I have noticed emerging hype about ‘team coaching’. What is team coaching, actually? Is it fancy new name for running a few Awaydays? Is anyone making a living doing it as opposed to training others in it or writing books about it? What results does it get? Who is buying it and what do these commissioners expect? How difficult is it do (very difficult – don’t even try unless you have lengthy experience as a facilitator as well as extensive experience as a coach)?

Sometimes a client fires us. This happened to me last year despite the fact that the relationship had started with a recommendation from someone who had herself been a long standing client, so knew my approach well. The client needed something that I could not offer and I received my dismissal with equal amounts of disappointment and relief, eager to discuss it in supervision.

How many times have you heard a coach talk candidly about this, even though it happens much more often than you might think? Some noble exceptions are two books I read with enjoyment. The first is Tricky Coaching, edited by Manfred Kets de Vries among others. It explicitly tackles cases where coaches talk about failures of contracting, method and assumptions. The other is a more recent book, Coaching Stories: Flowing and Falling of being a Coach by Karen Dean and Sam Humphrey. Here the authors boldly contrast their successes with their failures and look openly at what causes the difference.

Let’s have more of this. If we don’t, we risk coaching becoming a fad that is abandoned, a victim of its own grandiosity. It will join the legions of other allegedly miracle cures such as Business Process Re-engineering, Management by Objectives, Six Sigma and The Learning Organization, all of which survive but in much more modest form. They did not solve every dilemma. They were frequently taken up by people who had inadequate training then applied in situations where there was a different problem needing a different solution.

Coaching is not easy to do, nor is it possible to deliver it at a consistently high standard, however brilliant the coach. There are too many variables, any one of which can affect the outcome. Coaching is potentially powerful but is not always successful. Some coaches do poor work. Some clients are not ready to be clients. Some organizations don’t know how to make best use of the excellent coaches in their networks and expect too much too soon.

More honesty please!

My new book: Coaching – What really Works will be published by Sage this month