Why “Do No Harm” Should Be a Coach’s Mantra

I’m concerned about the coaching field right now.

I have a Masters in Counseling Psychology. I have 30+ years of business experience including being a CEO of a leadership development firm. I began my coaching career in 2001, before coaches were coming out of the woodwork. I heard from a colleague of a professional meeting where the topic turned to coaching, and the overwhelming consensus of the room was that schools are churning out a lot of bad coaches.

Here are a few examples of coaching off the rails:

I frequently hear stories from potential clients who are wary of coaching because they’ve had bad coaching experiences where a coach didn’t listen, wasn’t helpful or did not help improve their performance or their situation. The coach may have followed a mechanistic formula. The client may have ended up feeling even more frustrated and resigned after investing significant time, energy and money.

There’s a lack of self-awareness among some coaches:

I have recently qualified as a coach and during my training received supervision for my work. Now that I am qualified and have over 100 hours of coaching practice I don’t feel as if I need coaching supervision as I am doing well and would have nothing to talk about.”

This is an astounding comment for a “’qualified” coach.

I’ve heard certified coaches say things like: “Therapy is about the past. Coaching is about the future” and “Coaching focuses on the winner mindset whereas therapy serves the victim mindset.” Such misinformation is not only disrespectful of therapists, but indicates the coach has very black and white thinking. Breaking up “all or nothing” thought patterns is often an issue clients will need help with. A coach who says something like this can’t help clients with a very common challenge. You can’t provide something to clients you don’t have yourself.

Some coaches have a “‘fix-it” orientation. The coach may view the client as a problem or as doing something wrong, and the coach is the solution. This approach is disrespectful and lacks understanding of the client, their situation and their business.

I’ve heard of coaching that was given to a client that would have significantly damaged and potentially ended a million plus dollar relationship with a customer.

I’ve seen employees fired because they did not follow or agree with the direction of an external coach. In those cases, the coach was directing the business as if they were the CEO or inside the company. This is a violation of appropriate roles and boundaries. An external coach should be an impartial advisor who is objective because they are not in the organization. Otherwise, the coach creates an atmosphere of fear vs. developing safety, trust and respect so people will be honest about the issues holding the company back.

Poor or ineffective advice, lack of boundaries, black-and-white thinking, absence of strong listening and relationship skills, as well as lack of self-awareness are just some of the hazards you can encounter in certified and non-certified coaches.

Coaching Takes Practice

Everything I suggest with clients I’ve learned about, tried, practiced, and done for years. Coaches need to practice what they preach and walk their talk. They need to have a track record themselves and with clients of producing results.

You can’t learn to be a good coach just from a coaching school or coach certification or CEU credits. You need years and years of practice. It takes at least 3–5 years to become an effective coach. That’s just the beginning. It’s definitely a fulfilling career– but it’s a lot of ongoing hard work, learning and inquiry. (And you have to love that or you won’t be effective).

Being Coached Is Essential Coach Training

If you haven’t been coached, you don’t know what the experience is like from the other side. Sometimes in coaching you’ll receive feedback you don’t like, or that is challenging to hear. That’s important, because that’s how we grow and develop. If you’re a coach who hasn’t been coached, you risk being a know-it-all and lacking humility. The experience of being coached also fosters a better discernment of what styles are effective in coaching. A coach may need to tailor their style to different clients. A client may respond well to an encouraging style, another to a very direct style.

I counted up the number of coaches I’ve had over my career. 25. All of them taught me something. My worst boss taught me how to be a boss (and how to not be a boss!), and my worst coach taught me what never to do to a client.

Coaches Need Supervision. Period.

The best way to develop your skills as a coach is to sit around a table with a group of colleagues who are experts on and on-going students of human behavior. This may include colleagues with expertise in the medicine, mental health, psychology, transformation, business, or even a spirituality.

If you have no practice of this, your ego including unconscious motivations, triggers, reactions, doubts about your own performance and more, will leak into your coaching and you will do harm.

I still engage in dialogue with very close, trusted colleagues when I’m not sure how to best impact a client situation.

Most current coaches are isolated in their home offices or isolated in their approach to clients. They only have their formulas, their training, and the client in front of them. There’s no outside input; therefore, no way to improve.

You wouldn’t want a doctor performing surgery on you who hadn’t completed his residency. The coaching field is no different.

Do No Harm

If you don’t have supervision of some sort or a qualified, experienced group of colleagues, you risk doing harm.

Your agenda and your personal stuff will get in the way with your client — call it projection, transference, counter transference…It’s real. One must be vigilant and always learning about themselves.

For instance, a coach may think a client should take a certain course of action. If the client makes a different choice, the coach could feel disappointed or judgmental of the client. A client might sense that and end up taking an action that isn’t right for them but for the coach’s approval.

There are very qualified and good coaches out there. But do your research.

Consider the following if you’re looking for a coach:

Are you encouraged to trust yourself? You are always the gate-keeper of coaching. Does it fit your style? Does it make sense? Is what you’re being coached to do working? Otherwise, you may end up like one of those people who follow their GPS over a cliff. Always trust yourself and your own data.

Do you get value every single session? Do you see new action to take that will make a difference? Do you see a new way to approach something that was challenging you before the session started? Do you feel more hopeful that you can change a challenging situation?

Do you always, always, always feel respected?

Does the coach deeply listen to you, understand your situation and what you want to accomplish? Coaches are trained with different approaches and if they aren’t experienced, they may use an approach that isn’t appropriate for you.

Does the coach talk more than they listen?

Is feedback delivered in a way that sustains the relationship and encourages you to look in new places with zero blame or judgement?

Be Clear About the Purpose of Coaching

The purpose of coaching is to improve performance in a specific area(s).

It’s important to consider:

What is the coach’s track record in that area themselves? For example, if you’re hiring a business coach to grow your business through increasing sales and staff development, has the coach been effective in sales? Have they managed and developed staff effectively? Have they owned a business?

And

What is the coach’s track record producing results in that area with clients?

Is the coach promising and standing for a return on your investment? Can the coach share 2–3 case studies of results they’ve helped clients produce that are in the ball-park of the results you’re wanting?

Do they ask questions that help you understand yourself and your situation better — and that help you improve your performance in the area you’re wanting to impact?

Do they talk with you in a way that you feel you are the expert on you and your business? Are they a trusted colleague with an outside perspective that will help you improve your performance in specific areas you want?

The coaching field needs serious adjustments. Clients are spending thousands of dollars, potentially getting little to show for it, and even worse, sometimes being left damaged and hopeless.

It’s time to raise the bar on coaching quality and value.

Do you have a coach story to share?