Commissioning coaching? Some contracting essentials

As a commissioner, you need to make sound choices about coaching
In this posting – published last week in Discuss HR, I want to offer some real basics around HR’s role in commissioning coaching.  So basic, in fact, that I feel slightly nervous about teaching my metaphorical grandmother to suck eggs.  At the same time, as a coach, I’m aware that even the fundamentals can go wrong and want to offer a few pointers.  I also welcome your views and experiences.
What on earth can go wrong?

You know the scenario.  Manager X walks down the corridor to HR and asks for coaching for Employee Y.  Perhaps you hold the budget and you need to manage it judiciously.  Perhaps Manager X holds the budget.  Either way, you are at the beginning of a conversation about coaching.
Now, speaking as a coach, I find it easy and joyful to expound the value of coaching.  In my experience, it often delivers far more than is expected of it – results that go way beyond anything the organisation hoped for when the decision was first taken to invest in coaching for Employee X or Y.  What’s more, over the years, I have found that coaching continues to deliver way after a coaching contract is completed.  Recently, for example, a former coaching client told me that he has been increasingly in demand as a mentor since we completed our work together.  It’s not hard to see how, when someone in a leadership role develops his or her skills, the benefits spread through the organisation and, indeed, continue over time.
Nonetheless, things can go wrong.  For example:
·         Is the right person getting coaching?  It can be a thin line between (i) recognising that an individual’s development needs require more (or different) help than a skilled manager can reasonably be expected to give or (ii) seeing that the manager him- or herself lacks skills in providing appropriate developmental support.  This issue can be compounded if, in HR or L&D, you don’t know how to broach the subject of where coaching will best deliver a benefit to the organisation.  Is it in coaching an employee or his or her manager?
·         Are you clear about what coaching can and can’t deliver?  Many coaches will lay out clearly what coaching can and can’t promise.  Good coaching contracts explain who is responsible for what in the coaching relationship.  This is particularly important because commissioning managers often come to coaching with unrealistic expectations.  Coaching, for example, may support an individual in fulfilling his or her potential in a job.  However, if an individual is fundamentally ill-suited to do a particular job, coaching will not change the fundamental motivation, values or skills-set of the individual.
·         Have you laid out clearly what outcomes you want of or for the coaching client?  In my time as a coach I continue to discover how difficult people find it to be open and honest about their real reasons for commissioning coaching.  I have had one manager describe a potential coaching client as “high potential” in an initial briefing, only to hear them lay out the individual’s multiple failings in an initial three-way meeting with the coaching client.  I have equally seen the reverse:  a manager who shared all sorts of correspondence about the person for whom coaching was being provided and promised – but ultimately failed – to share the “bottom line” in a three-way meeting.
·         Is coaching the right intervention – and if so, how much?  Whenever you commission coaching, you need to consider whether coaching really is the right intervention.  Commission coaching as a proxy for managing under-performing employees, for example, and you give coaching a bad name in your organisation as well as using an expensive tool which may not do the job.  Equally, depending on the needs of the client, coaching may be a poor alternative to therapy, training, mentoring or some other intervention.  Having said this, when coaching is the right tool for the job, you need to be realistic about just how much support an employee may need.  I have sometimes seen organisations hope for miracles in just three months’ of coaching with no contingency for an extension if it’s needed.  Miracles can and do happen in coaching – but not always.
·         What can you reasonably expect to hear about progress in coaching – and who from?  Despite a very clear contractual agreement with clients about confidentiality in coaching, I often field requests for feedback which, were I to give it, would be in breach of my agreement.  Of course it’s entirely reasonable for organisations to want to understand to what extent coaching is providing benefit to the person seeking coaching or addressing concerns raised by the organisation.  At the same time, many employees will feel concerned if they have any sense that a promise of confidentiality in the coaching relationship is not being honoured by their coach or employer.
Some contracting essentials for HR when commissioning coaching

So, what are the areas you need to look at if you want to avoid these and other common pitfalls?  Here are some thoughts from me:
·         Get clear about the full range of help available:  The more you have clarity about the range of support available to an employee and when each one is appropriate, the better able you are to have a discussion with an individual and his or her manager about what support might best meet his or her needs.  Get clear on the full range of alternatives including coaching, therapy, mentoring, training and good, old-fashioned performance management.  Be ready to have a discussion with the person who approaches you to understand his or her desired outcomes and where he wants to get to.  This can provide the basis for discussing coaching as one of a number of alternatives and also for discussing who actually needs the coaching.
·         Select a pool of coaches with whom to work ahead of a specific coaching need:  I have found that clients who are best able to match a coach for a specific coaching assignment have a pool of coaches and know their strengths and areas of interest.  (This could be an article all by itself – so please let me know if you’d like me to write on this subject by leaving a comment below).  Equally, the International Coach Federation recommends to anyone commissioning coaching that they interview at least three coaches and most coaches are glad to meet with a potential coaching client to ensure a good match.  (I would add that, given three good coaches, clients often choose the one they’ve met most recently, so if you want to keep your coaches happy, you’ll mix up the order in which you introduce coaches to potential coaching clients).
·         Make sure you have clear contractual agreements in place – and educate people about your agreements:  A good coaching agreement is realistic about what coaching can and can’t deliver and about who is responsible for what in the coaching relationship.  In my agreements with organisations, for example, I spell out clearly that whilst it’s the organisation that funds the coaching, my client is the person seeking coaching.  I also spell out clearly what information I will and won’t share with an employer.  Equally, given my experiences over the years, I take care to let managers know that I will look to them to share any expectations they have of an employee as part of our initial three-way meeting and will not be filling in any gaps even if I am aware of things that have been left unsaid.  Increasingly I’ve learnt to spell out very clearly that it is for an individual to decide how he or she responds to expectations from his or her manager and to say that if the manager fails to share any expectations they have of the employee, this will have an impact on the potential outcomes from coaching.
·         Be clear – from the beginning – about how you will monitor progress and outcomes from coaching:  Your contractual agreements need to give clarity from the beginning about who will do what to monitor progress and outcomes from coaching.  I include progress meetings in longer contracts and always complete a coaching assignment with a three-way meeting in which I facilitate a discussion between the person seeking coaching and his or her manager about progress.  I also seek to build into an assignment an appropriate approach to feedback given the needs a client has expressed.  For example, I occasionally coach individuals who are designated “high potential” within their organisation and who also have specific development areas.  Where client organisations are willing to fund it (usually for very senior clients), I begin an assignment by gathering feedback through interview to get under the skin of a development need.  It helps to mirror this process at the end of an assignment to see how perceptions have changed.
·         Expect the unexpected:  Reading through this article, I realise there’s one important area to add.  Organisations who are used to using coaching and who use it effectively understand just how much their desired outcome can come in unexpected ways.  This, for example, is the individual who was struggling to perform in a particular role and who discovers, through coaching, just how much he or she yearns to do something quite different.  For watchers of The Voice, this is the dentist who yearns to sing or some equivalent in your organisation.  The truth is that whilst coaching may help someone to excel in a role it may, equally, provide a reality check such that an individual moves between roles or leaves an organisation.  In this case, whilst coaching is commissioned to support someone in getting up to speed in a new job, improved performance comes from recruiting someone better suited to the role.

I suspect this has been my longest article so for DiscussHR and still, I know I have barely scratched the surface of a huge topic.  I’m interested to know what you have taken from this article that’s useful to you.  Equally, I’m interested to know about your experience – what have you done that works for you?

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