The Importance of Supervision in Coaching

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I’ve worked as a professional executive coach for over 20 years across a range of sectors. I’ve realised that regardless of sector, senior leaders have the same kind of meta issues – dealing with change and uncertainty, managing personal and organisational anxiety, doing more with less (money, resources, time) and maximising their own effectiveness and performance when it can often feel that they are wading through mud. This is symptomatic of the world we live in as it becomes increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and where there are no easy answers but greater Ambiguity (VUCA).

Over the last few years, these pressures have increased and more often now I find that individuals I coach (and individuals in teams I coach) are less able or willing to maintain a boundary between their work life and their personal life. Systemically these domains were never separate anyway and the distinction has always been artificial.

But this doesn’t mean that business coaching should now include life coaching and counselling issues as well. These boundaries must remain to maintain the clear intent and purpose of business performance coaching. It does mean however that the business coach must be ever more vigilant to maintain these clear personal and professional boundaries around their work with clients, often in the face of the client’s anxiety, anger or confusion.

From a systemic viewpoint, these emotions of the client will transfer to some degree to the coach. It’s almost impossible to work closely in a client system without becoming absorbed in it to some extent. The question then for the coach is how best to understand what is going on in the system for them and their client and how to best utilise this understanding for the benefit of the client. If a coach has a good appreciation of what is happening in the coach-client relationship, and what impact the wider systems are having on the client (professional, sectorial, personal etc) then they can maintain an objective and well-boundary coaching relationship. This enhances coaching effectiveness and client value. On the other hand, if the coach gets submerged unconsciously in the client’s system, then they will be much less able to maintain appropriate boundaries, nor will they be able to offer objective insight into the situation because they are inside it. This will reduce coaching effectiveness, and the value to the client will significantly reduce.

So how should a coach maintain their professional and ethical practice to ensure that they are delivering best value to the client? How might the coach develop their insight into the systemic impact that the client/s are having on the coaching relationship? Are boundaries blurring and if so how and why? How might the coach use this understanding in service of the client? What learning can the coach gain that will serve their own professional development?

These very important questions can be addressed through the process of supervision, and this is why supervision is a critical part of any professional coach’s continuous professional development. The process of supervision allows the coach to:

  • discuss and release emotional baggage (restorative)
  • ensure boundaries are being maintained and the highest ethical standards are being adhered to within the contract agreed with the player and client (normative)
  • gain insight from their work and learn new ways of adding value to the client (formative)

Regular coaching supervision – as a very rough rule of thumb 4-6 times per year - will enable the coach to explore these areas and in so doing improve their coaching effectiveness and ensure best value for their clients. This is not a ‘nice-to-have’ option for the coach but an essential part of their ongoing learning and development. A coach who does not have supervision is in effect going backwards professionally. For this reason, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) has a set of guidelines for ethical best practice with five key areas of focus:

  • Competence – the coach is competent and engaged in professional development
  • Context – the coaching is relevant and appropriate to the background context
  • Boundary Management – the coach will not work outside their professional capability and will refer the player to another professional if necessary
  • Integrity – maintain confidentiality within the terms of the contract and unless there are grounds for breaking confidentiality as previously agreed, such as conduct which is dishonest, unlawful, unprofessional or discriminatory
  • Professionalism – act professionally in the best interests of the player/client and not exploit the player/client in any way

Supervision can take different forms (1:1, peer, group or a mixture of two or more of these) and the coach should choose which approach works best for them. This will depend on several factors, such as:

  • Number and frequency of coaching clients
  • Complexity of client contracts/systems
  • Client requirement for evidenced supervision
  • Coach’s personal requirement for support

Coaching supervisors can be found at the websites for the Association of Coaching Supervisors (AOCS), the Association for Coaching, and the Association for Professional Executive Coaching and Supervision (APECS) as well as independent organisations who provide supervisory training.