Managing the three way contract in executive coaching and mentoring
Arguably the most common cause of problems coaches bring to supervision is mismatch of expectations at the contracting stage of the relationship. Inexperienced coaches, in particular, tend to see the client and their issues in a linear way – the client something they need to address and the coach’s job is to help them find the internal resources to address it. This is the core of both performance coaching and solutions focus. But many client issues are much more complicated and systemic. They require approaches that recognise and work with the multiple systems, of which the client is a part. Peers, direct reports and other key stakeholders may all have a substantial influence on the likelihood of achieving sustainable change – particularly at the behavioural or transformational levels.
The more stakeholders, who can contract in to support the client, the better. However, the most significant relationship is typically the client’s boss or sponsor. At the very least, they need to contract to:
- Provide active support and encouragement (not to abdicate responsibility to the coach to “fix” the client)
- Accept that greater understanding of the issues is likely to lead to a revision of the goals – and potentially further demands on them
- Agree how they will recognise positive change as it occurs (bosses tend to give less significance and attention to behaviours that don’t fit with their pre-suppositions about direct reports than behaviours that do)
The three-way conversation between coach, client and client’s boss (sometimes a four-way event, with Human Resources also attending) is more than a formality. It’s a vital part of the coaching or mentoring process. Our recommended approach starts with clarifying the purpose and importance of contracting, as the basis for clarifying the contract itself – which we suggest has three key components: Psychological, outcomes-focused and systemic.
What’s the point if the contracting process?
It’s important that the coach isn’t fobbed off with an meeting with the sponsor or an intermediary (a frequent occurrence when the assignment is part of a block contract with an organisation providing multiple coaches). It’s highly likely (if not inevitable) that the various parties will have different expectations about their own and each other’s responsibilities. There are three main objectives of contracting:
- To set a sense of direction and purpose for the assignment
- To ensure that expectations are aligned (outcomes, process, responsibilities, behaviours)
- To provide a practical basis for relationship review and assessment of progress
Additionally, there are various issues relating to logistics, confidentiality and so on, which may need to be emphasised separately.
It’s helpful for the coach to provide an agenda that sets out the purpose and structure of the contracting conversation – and to propose the agreements and commitments that will be needed to make the assignment work.
An integral part of the agenda is establishing the three parts of the contract.
The psychological contract is essentially about inputs, relationships and the environment, in which the coaching takes place. It starts with the motivation of each of the stakeholders:
- What makes them think that coaching is a suitable intervention for this issue at this time?
- What is their previous experience of coaching?
- What is the client’s commitment to making the coaching assignment work?
- What is the line manager’s and/ or sponsor’s commitment to providing the required level of support? (What expectations do they have of their input?)
- Where does the responsibility lie for identifying issues, gathering feedback, giving feedback and so on?
The outcomes contract addresses a package of issues relating to intended and unforeseen outcomes from coaching. These include:
- How each of the parties perceives coaching to add value. (For example, through short-term improvement in performance; supporting the client through an unfamiliar transition; focused on problems or focused on opportunities.)
- What kind of goals are they? (For example, towards or away from goals; or short-term v long-term goals.)
- Performance outcomes versus learning outcomes
- The potential to review and revise goals
- Who owns the outcomes/ goals? (The client? The sponsor? Both equally?)
The systems contract encourages all parties to take a wider perspective, recognizing that success depends upon engaging with the key influencing systems as much as upon the efforts of coach and client. Among questions it addresses are:
- What forces will work in support of the outcomes contract?
- What might get in the way?
- What is our strategy for ensuring the coachee/ mentee gets the support they need?
- Who else’s support is needed and how?
It can also be helpful to review with the client and their boss/ sponsor some examples of where coaching has been less effective than it might have been, because all three parties were not aligned in their expectations.
In short, far from being an administrative task, the three-way contracting conversation is an essential part of the coaching process. In essence, it is coaching the client’s system and hence is important in preparing them for thinking about their issues in more complex, systemic ways.
© David Clutterbuck, 2015
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