Questioning the role and value of executive coaching is likely to raise quite a few hackles. But questioning our own practice is a key component of competent coaching. So it was with both anticipation and some discomfort that I began last year to explore the question: “Could leaders and managers be using having a coach as an excuse to abdicate their responsibilities for their self-development?”

There’s no obvious source of empirical research around this issue, so I started to raise the issue with coaches on my travels, individually, in groups and in larger forums. The result? Both an admission by many coaches that this is one of the great taboo topics in coaching and a concern to develop more effective ways of ensuring that they recognize and avoid such collusion. In particular, many of the coaches I talked with expressed the view that collusion was deeply prevalent in the relationships between many (often high paid) coaches working with leaders. Absolving the leader’s guilt about not paying sufficient attention to their development, they proposed, is fertile ground for a dangerous co-dependency – one in which the coach consciously or unconsciously agrees to limit the level and scope of their challenge and the client provides a long-term relationship , with all the attendant financial benefits. Indeed, some senior coaches perceived that long-term coaching assignments (more than a year) were almost by definition collusive.

Yet at the same time, very few of the coaches I explored this question with had directly confronted the issue with clients, even though they may have felt at times that the client was using them to assuage their guilt at “developmental avoidance”. This was all the more surprising, given that most were also aware that executives are frequently not very self-development oriented. (The study by Clutterbuck Associates, Ashridge, Career Innovations and the Talent Foundation in 2010 revealed that leaders generally attached little priority to their own learning and development.)

So what kind of approaches might coaches adopt to address this complex issue? Some of the ideas generated include:
• Include some discussion of this issue in the initial contracting conversation
• Focus assignments less on single, specific goals and more on fulfillment of a more comprehensive Personal Development Plan (PDP), of which those goals are a part
• Review progress against the PDP as a regular agenda item
• Help the client understand and work with their personal learning styles/ approaches to learning. If possible, help them expand the range and flexibility of their approaches to learning.
• Encourage them to keep a learning diary and to share this, as appropriate, with you and with other key stakeholders in their development
• Help them develop a more systemic view of their learning – to recognise how dependent sustainable individual change is on learning and adaptation by others around them. How can they take greater responsibility for the collective learning of the leadership team? Are they willing to do so?
• Look out for signs of hidden procrastination – lots of verbiage about how they perceive they are changing, with little real evidence that is in anything but superficial. Have the courage to call this!
• Early in each coaching conversation, ask questions such as: “What has changed noticeably for you since we last met? How much of that change have you initiated?”
• Explore the issue of pace of learning. How fast does this business need to change to compete? How fast does that mean that the leaders have to change? How fast does that mean you have to change?
• If you suspect that the relationship is being used for development avoidance, explore what might enable and motivate them to spend more of their time in learning mode. What deeply held values can they associate with such behaviour?

The fundamental principle that emerges, however, is that, if a coach does not at least address these issues in their own mind, they are tacitly laying the foundations for collusion. A sobering thought, perhaps, but an important one in grounding our coaching practice!

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