How to make a coaching relationship work

Whether you’re using a coach for your own purposes, or to enhance a leader’s capabilities, there are certain key rules to follow, says Clare Norman

It seems a strange paradox that in order to work with leaders in organisations, coaches are vetted thoroughly. Yet while there is typically a process for assessing whether a development issue would best be served by coaching, relatively little attention is paid to whether a coaching client is truly ready to leverage the power of a coaching relationship.

The coach is effectively an external supplier – a leader could be forgiven for approaching this relationship simply as a consumer of a service.  However, coaching is not something that is done 'to you', it is done 'with you' and to glean maximum value the leader will need to bring their full self into the partnership.

The client relationship is a confidential one, yet I have noticed many clients enlist the work of their ‘internal editor’ as they share their thoughts and experiences. Often this is not a lack of trust in the coach, rather a defensive habit that has served them well in their political organisational landscape. Your coach can only work with what you give them to work with. If you are considering engaging in coaching and don’t feel just a little bit terrified about what you will say and discover, you have not yet found the thing to be coached on.

Here are a few key pieces of advice for leaders embarking on coaching for the first time:

  • Ask for the help you really need. If you sugar-coat it or dress it up as something ‘acceptable’ in your boss’s eyes, you risk wasting valuable time in articulating your needs and finding the right coach for you.

  • Bring your toughest goals and challenges, those you haven’t managed to solve alone – the ones which will take more reflection time than you have currently afforded them. Consider what patterns you want to break. You’ll resist the temptation to bring one-off issues; you’ll know the ROI of exploring the mass, not the tip of the iceberg.

  • Gritty issues don’t have ‘right’ answers. There could be multiple solutions, each with their pros and cons. Ambiguity will rule; you will need to live with ‘not knowing’ and with what might have been, if you had chosen a different route.

  • Bring your courage and vulnerability. Dig deep because you will need to admit that something isn’t working, that you are not perfect, that you haven’t figured this out yet, or that something could be better. Let the coach into your world. The more open and honest you can be with them, the more likely you are to tackle what really matters. 

  • Ask for a challenge – embrace it, especially when you’d prefer not to. Remember, regular challenge will come from the same world in which the problem resides. The question might be sharp, incisive, insightful and useful – but it was born from what is already known. True challenge comes when the dialogue, and the questions within it, are original and co-created. So be prepared to challenge your coach too. If you feel they are relying on a ‘cheat sheet’ of clever questions, call it. Perhaps they could up their game as well?

  • Let go of your coach just before you feel ready to do so. Coaching should help you “learn how to learn” in current and future contexts. Consider what support mechanisms you need around you to continue the journey autonomously.  

  • Coaching is not for the faint-hearted. It is for those who really want change. You’ll be doing all the thinking. Your coach will be your muse. Together you can explore the best way forward for you, in your context, with your team. It’s not about what has worked for others in similar (but never the exact same) situation.

Remember, coaching is a partnership – you get out of it what you put in. You will learn and grow the most by challenging yourself to be the hero of the story that you want to live, not the story that other people want you to live.  Your coach is not your parent, nor you the child in this relationship.  

Clare Norman is a professional certified coach (PCC) with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a certified coach supervisor