Client feedback for the executive coach:
Findings from a doctoral thesis and implications for supervision
by CSA graduate, Hélène Seiler
Since September 2015 I have researched the topic of client feedback for the executive coach as part of a doctoral programme at Oxford Brookes University. At the conclusion of the process, this article proposes a reflection about the implications of my research findings for the practice of supervision.
The research problem
The starting point of the research was the contemplation of a paradox. While executive coaches have enthusiastically adopted feedback tools to support the professional development of their clients, they are poorly equipped to allow them to reciprocate. Yet, clients spend more time observing their executive coach in practice than their supervisors, peers, educators or accreditors combined. Not leveraging clients as a source of developmental feedback seemed to me a lost opportunity. This is not to say that executive coaches do not ask their clients for feedback. But they tend to equate it with satisfaction with the process, or coaching outcomes such as, for example, goal achievement. These are good practices for the purpose of strengthening the working alliance with the client. However, such approaches to feedback are summative and do not give any information about which coaching behaviours supported or hindered the coaching process. Formative approaches to feedback are necessary to support the professional development of the coach.
Research on formative feedback shows that its effectiveness depends on the knowledge of the feedback giver. This means that clients need to possess knowledge about which coaching behaviours are likely to be effective before being in a position to give developmental feedback to their coach. The problem is that the current body of knowledge about effective coaching behaviours is fragmented and may not be adequate to support a client feedback process. Indeed, multiple coaching scales exist and are difficult to integrate. Crucially, the vast majority of these scales have been developed by surveying practitioners only, despite evidence that clients observe the coaching process differently from them. In addition, these scales suffer from a lack of empirical validation. In particular, the number of studies linking coaching behaviours and coaching outcomes is extremely limited.
The specificity of client feedback
To develop a client feedback instrument, I chose a pragmatic paradigm, which argues that “truth” is task-bound. The client feedback instrument was anchored in a client-centric theory of coaching and in the principles of cognitive situational feedback, which recognises that the coaching session is a particular situation during which the executive coach will make sense of the feedback received based on a personal script. Through such theoretical lens client feedback could be envisioned as a crucial source of developmental knowledge for the coach when incorporated in developmental initiatives such as supervision.
To create a client feedback instrument, the data collection followed a mixed-methods approach. In the first phase, between March and May 2017, I facilitated five focus groups of executives who had already experienced coaching. Their role was to review and reduce a list of about 90 behavioural descriptors that I had compiled from available scales developed, for the most part, by coaches and experts. This process led to three intriguing findings which confirm the unique value of the client’s perspective. Firstly, clients eliminated almost 40% of behaviours from the compilation on the basis that they were not coach-specific and could be more effectively displayed by work colleagues or counsellors. In particular, they excluded most goal setting and monitoring behaviours, unless they supported a reflection about the alignment between personal and organisational goals. Secondly, clients modified the expression of the behaviours from a directive to an inviting stance, thus asserting their role in co-designing the coaching process rather than passively accepting the tools or techniques proposed by the coach. Thirdly, clients added behaviours related to the provision of advice, thereby expressing their interest in obtaining a professional opinion from their coach rather than being solely the recipient of their questions.
Subsequently, between May and December 2017, I surveyed about 110 executives who were undergoing a four-month executive coaching process. At the end of the programme, they were asked to recall the extent to which their coach had displayed 35 behaviours selected by the focus group participants, and were then questioned about the coaching outcome they had experienced. The survey results indicated that the behaviour scale was valid and reliable. Indeed, a Principal Component Analysis led to a clear, two-component instrument containing 21 behaviours. The first component described a transformational learning process co-managed by the client and the coach. The second component described empathic behaviours displayed by the coach. Multiple regression analyses indicated a positive and significant relationship of the instrument with the working alliance, on the one hand, and the generation of new insights, on the other hand.
Using client feedback in supervision
Now that the research is completed, I am curious about how the client feedback instrument could be used to enhance the executive coach’s supervision process. This is not an easy proposition because several definitions of coaching supervision co-exist and little empirical research is available about what happens during coaching supervision. Could the supervision space be envisioned as a “hub” where all sources of feedback, including client feedback, can be processed together in service of the deliberate practice of the coach? In other words, during supervision, could I leverage client feedback data to regain control over the most difficult aspects of my practice, thus identifying specific behaviours I can improve on?
Arguably, several models of coaching supervision consider client feedback as an integral part of the coach’s reflective process. For example, the Gestalt model recognises the client as an “absent presence” and invites the coach to reflect on the interactions between field of the coach-client relationship and that of the client system. The cognitive behavioural approach of supervision encourages coaches and supervisors to listen to clients’ tapes or transcripts. The transactional analysis approach seeks to uncover to what extent the coach and the client are psychologically close. Finally, the social models such as the Seven-eyed or the Seven Conversations consider the client’s system, the coach-client relationship and the wider context in which both the client and the coach work together.
Are there barriers to bringing client feedback data in supervision? In my thesis I speculated about a fear of client feedback fed by the power relations that inevitably exist between the coach, client and sponsor of the coaching process, and whether it might trigger self-deception for the coach. Research indicates that fear of negative client feedback may lead the executive coach to selectively block new information coming from the client, initiating a vicious circle whereby the coach does not bring up relevant material during supervision. Could supervision be used as a safe space to discuss coaches’ attitudes to client feedback?
Another question is to consider at what stage of the coach’s professional development client feedback is most likely to be beneficial. On the one hand, research shows that beginners are more likely to embrace and benefit from feedback than experienced practitioners. On the other hand, the client feedback instrument that I have developed surfaces behaviours that are more likely to be present at later stages of the coach’s professional development journey. For example, the co-creation of the coaching process with the client is likely to require an eclectic approach to coaching which typically emerges after years of practice. Likewise, newly trained coaches may first need to put the emphasis on powerful questioning and let go, temporarily, of their tendency to provide advice.
Clearly, further research would be necessary to reflect on ways to include client feedback data in the supervision dialogue. What do my findings evoke for you? Would you use client feedback data in supervision, and if so, how? I am curious to read your comments. Please,feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gray, D. (2016) Towards a Systemic Model of Coaching Supervision. In Bachkirova, T., Spence, G. & Drake, D. 2016. The SAGE handbook of Coaching. London, United Kingdom, SAGE Publications
Seiler, H. (2018) Client Behavioural Feedback for the Executive Coach, Development of an Instrument. Doctoral Thesis, Oxford Brookes University (unpublished)
Tkach, T. & DiGirolamo, J. (2017) The State and Future of Coaching Supervision, International Coaching Psychology Review, 12 (1), 49-63