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The coaching trap - and how to avoid it.

Voco Team

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a professional person in need of career development must acquire a coach. But, despite its enduring popularity, is coaching really worth the investment or could it be time for a different approach?

Coaching is often seen as the gold standard of professional development. At an executive level, it’s rare to find a leader who hasn’t had / currently has a coach. There is no doubt that coaching is useful; having a coach can help people to realise their potential, make difficult decisions and guide them through periods of transition. It’s a totally personal experience that offers coachees much needed time to think and space to reflect.

But, in a world that demands more equality, more collaboration and a more tangible return on investment, traditional modes of coaching are coming under strain.

Exclusive and illusive

One of the biggest problems with coaching is its exclusivity. In most organisations coaching is only offered to the most senior people or, at the very least, those on a leadership development or talent programme. Why? Because 1:1 coaching is pricey. In some cases eye wateringly so.

This makes coaching something that most employees can only aspire to and the perceived preserve of those who already receive the biggest paychecks. Smart companies try to keep costs lower by training existing employees to become coaches, but this can present its own challenge; the relationship between coach and coachee isn’t equal. Despite the coaching ethos that each session is led by the coachee it is inevitable that the coach, by virtue of their training, commands more power in the dynamic - whether they mean to or not.

So, internal coaching could only really work in large organisations where the person coaching us won’t turn out to be Sam from accounts who sits two desks away. To this end, it can also be hard for people to flexibly shift contexts at work: could Sam effectively coach the CTO, for example? Theoretically, yes, but in reality organisational power structures would likely present an insurmountable barrier.

Making coaching available to everyone seems unrealistic. Offering coaching only to the most senior leaders to minimise the price tag, creates an exclusivity that can cause frustration. Either way, the benefit of coaching has the potential to be easily outweighed by the organisational tension it brings.

The bigger picture

Another faultline in the world of coaching is the longevity of its impact. The first few coaching sessions might yield some brilliant results but sustaining this over the longer term is neither possible nor desirable. Great coaches know that coaching relationships should always come to an end; both for financial and practical reasons. For the coachee who has relied upon the support of the coach and the reflection time the relationship has given them, the end of a coaching relationship can leave them wanting.

It is common for people who have had coaching to access this type of development at multiple points in their career. The danger here is that people may become reliant on coaching in order to undergo any personal or professional development; their motivation having become contingent on having a relationship with a coach. This is absolutely not the desired effect of coaching - the opposite in fact - but it can be an unfortunate side effect of a productive and trusting relationship. It’s simply not, nor has it ever pretended to be, a sustainable way to support someone’s development over the long term. A fact that is often overlooked when commissioning a coaching programme or collecting a cache of coaches for the organisational elite.  

Even for a coach with returning clients, it can be hard to make ends meet when working only on a 1:1 basis - no matter how high the hourly rate. For this reason and in the pursuit of creating more sustainable and supported development, many coaches now offer group coaching on specific topics or for certain groups of people.

The aim of these group programmes is to make coaching more accessible and to create a network of people who can support each other’s development after the programme has ended. The downside is that the personalised nature of a traditional coaching relationship can be lost. The result can be a clunky hybrid of training course and coaching that leaves both the coach and the coachees unsatisfied.

Needle in a haystack

By far the biggest problem with coaching is that there is an extremely low / no bar to entry. Most organisations have a stringent selection process for the coaches they hire; making sure that they are fully accredited and are under the tutelage of professional coaching bodies like the ICF or EMCC/EIA. But, there are many people working as coaches who have no such professional associations. In this way, coaching is the wild west of professional services; unregulated with a varied route to entry that can be hard to decode.

Finding a good coach is hard, finding a great one even harder. Finding one whose price tag can be fully justified when compared to other forms of development, is the hardest task of all. That’s not to say that there aren’t some brilliant, experienced, even life-changing coaches out there. They are just hard to find and often buried under a pile of others who are allowed free reign to shout about their services with more confidence than they may be able to deliver them.

Despite this, it’s the relationship between the coach and coachee that really matters. No amount of experience or level of training can predict whether or not coaching will be successful. If coaching feels like the right intervention and there is a willing and able coach with whom one can build a trusting relationship, then it will likely be a success. If coaching is foisted, by default, upon those who reach the right level of authority in an organisation, it is less likely to yield any groundbreaking results. Coaching is not the only option for those who want to acquire personalised, supportive and sincere development.

Levelling the playing field

For the most part coaching has earned its reputation as an effective form of development but, like all things, it has its place. As a short, sharp, relevant intervention with an eager coachee and a qualified, experienced and supportive coach, this type of development can be fruitful and hugely rewarding. But a long term, inclusive and cost effective solution it is not.

At Voco, we believe that everyone should benefit from a personalised, 1:1, professional relationship that enhances the career of both parties. That’s why we have created a platform that connects like-minded people who are keen to take part in a mutual exchange of support, information and knowledge sharing with their peers. Once matched, we give our peer pairs the tools to help them develop basic coaching and mentoring skills that will strengthen their relationship and bolster their development.

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