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Client Expectations from a Coach - What women want !

Posted on September 27, 2010 at 2:05 AM

Client Expectations from the Coach – What women want?- An exploratory study in India tounderstand if gender expectations were different.

Author:Lina Nangalia – [email protected]


There ismuch literature on executive coaching covering nearly every facet of the coaching relationship and process. However, work on understanding gender issuesin coaching is still limited. This article summarizes the results of an exploratory, qualitative study that the author did to understand theperspective and challenges of women managers who have worked with an executive coach. The objectives of the study were to understand the criteria on which women managers selected a coach and their experiences in working with an executive coach.



Using a qualitativeresearch methodology, ten management executives from six major business sectors(FMCG, Financial Services, Infrastructure, Shipping, Information Technology andManufacturing) were invited to share their views and perspectives on executivecoaching.  All ten executives, six ofwhom were women, had engaged an executive coach for a period ranging from threemonths to one year. While the goal of this study was to understand and givevoice to concerns that women managers faced, a few male clients wereinterviewed to evaluate if there were any differences between the genders. Twowomen executives had the experience of being coached by both male and femalecoaches.  Three of the executives were headsof business and seven executives were functional heads.  Four of the executives were sponsored bytheir organization for coaching, and the other six executives were selfsponsored. Each executive was interviewed separately over the telephone in amanner that was informal, conversational and guided by semi-structured fourpre-constructed questions.  Eachinterview was tape recorded with permission from the executive and was latertranscribed.  The findings from the studyare presented below.


Findingsand Discussion


The findings fromthis study can be divided into four themes: initiating the coachingrelationship, selecting a coach, working with the client and benefits ofcoaching. One of the key findings was that in all four themes there were noissues that could be specifically linked to gender; nor did gender influenceany particular expectations from the coach or the coaching process. Inspite ofthis, this study has merit because it helps executive coaches and organizationsponsors not only understand how clients select coaches but also how theyexperience the coaching process.


Initiating the Coaching Relationship

Executivesconsidered coaching for different reasons. One considered coaching because she wanted direction.  She was unsure about how to move ahead although she knew where to go.  She wanted someone she could talk to; whowould listen to her dispassionately, give her honest feedback, and push her toachieve her goals.   Another executivefelt she was drifting in her career and wanted to get it back on track. Someoneelse considered coaching because there was an urge to grow from her currentlevel to the next level in their career. Another executive needed a soundingboard - somebody who could objectively assess the situation around her, andgive her objective feedback about whether she was going in the right directionor not.  It was important for her to havesomebody who was from the industry yet unbiased, to help her focus on her goalsand help her get there.  One respondentsaw coaching as a way of improving himself over an extended period. Accordingto him, since it was a one-on-one process, it was far superior to training asit allowed him to apply the learning to everyday work-life in real time. Oneexecutive considered coaching because he was in a new role, in a new companyand wanted someone from outside who could help him with his thinking. He feltthat a coach held a mirror in which he could see himself clearly, and acted asa sounding board. In summary, both women and men engaged a coach for similarreasons; female managers did not have any reasons that were gender specific.

Reasons to engage acoach

·       Developcompetencies

·       Preparefor leadership assignments

·       Roletransitions


Factors in Selecting a Coach

Workexperience was an important factor that all clients considered in the selectionof a coach.  They all felt that thesuggestions and ideas that the coach brought to the coaching experience wasinvaluable and it helped them to see things from different perspectives.   Age was not a criterion. However, sinceexperience was linked to age they all felt that the coach must be as old as, ifnot older than they were. They wanted a person whom they could be comfortablewith, and who would be easy to talk to. Each client felt it was important tohave a coach they could open up to, and speak freely with.  Gender was not a criterion for any of theexecutives - all felt that gender did not matter.  Two of them had experienced coaching withmale and female coaches, and felt that gender made no difference to thecoaching process, the impact, or the outcome. However, while one executive feltthat gender was not an important consideration, he felt that women made bettercoaches because they had a higher emotional quotient.   Domain knowledge was not necessary for theselection of a coach; what was more important was knowledge of human behaviour,and coaches with a background in psychology or organization development had anadded advantage.  Another chose the coachbased on a reference; but since the coach had the same industry experience, shefelt it was the right choice.

Respondentsfelt that it was important for the coach to have experienced life as a manager;one stated that a coach needed to be a thinking person – someone who couldexpand her thinking and also have a great amount of empathy. All the executivesinterviewed hired the coach based on references.  Some of them had prior interaction with thecoach, but not in a coaching capacity, and that made it easier for them to makea decision.  However, all of themunequivocally said that they would use their personal network or a peerreference to find a coach. One executive stated quite strongly that theinternet would not be the place to look for coaches; she selected her coachbased on a strong reference, the coach’s track record, and coaching credential.Respondents stated that while they would prefer to get coaches throughreferences they would also check for coach certification and credentials. Theybelieved that a certified coach would have the skills of empathy, listening andartful questioning.  In addition tocoaching credentials, they would consider the experience the coach had incoaching. Thus, the professional credibility of the coach, their coachingcompetence, and empathy were key factors in the selection of a coach.

Coach SelectionCriteria

·       Reference

·       Experience

·       PersonalCredibility

·       CoachingCredential


Working with the Client

In theIndian context the coach was considered as something of a guru, and therelationship was based on the guru-shishya relationship.  Most clients expected that the coach would beone who told you what was right or wrong and also gave advice and directionwhen needed. Though clients were told clearly that the coach would not advise them,they felt that the coach’s experience and suggestions added value to them. Evenin terms of the issues that clients worked on with their coaches and in the waythe relationship and the process was managed, there were no differences thatcould be linked specifically to gender. Some felt that having a non-judgementalcoach really helped. Others shared that the coach demonstrated confidence inthem, and this confidence helped them think through what was achievable.  One respondent stated that the coach helpedher be responsible and accountable, while another executive shared how theearly wins went a long way in building her confidence.  She shared how she overcame her fear andsimply did what was agreed with her coach; and then, when the results came in,she began to believe that coaching worked. This increased her trust in thecoach and the coaching relationship.

Manyrespondents felt that the suggestions and ideas that came from the coach wereinvaluable because it was not something that they would think of. For oneexecutive, the coach’s ability to put him at ease and appreciate his businessenvironment, largely contributed to making him confident about the coach.Another executive shared how the tone of her coach’s voice made a hugedifference specially in telephone coaching. She felt that a friendly, soothing voice helped her be more receptive tothe coaching process.  Also, since coachingas a practice had not yet caught on, she felt that offering a couple of trialsessions would allow executives to experience and see the benefits of coaching forthemselves.

Oneexecutive shared that if the client approached the coach directly there wouldbe greater commitment to the process and the client would be positive andreceptive to the coaching.  However, inorganizational contexts, where the client was mandated coaching it was importantthat the coach spend time to build rapport and take time to establishtrust.  The coach needed to exercise alot more patience so that the initial resistance from the client changed toenthusiasm for the process. All clients interviewed preferred working with anexternal coach, because their experience with internal coaches e.g. a seniordirector, was that internal coaches often got prescriptive, and told clientswhat they needed to do. This was something that clients were not comfortablewith.

Working with theClient

·       Take timeto establish rapport and trust

·       Benon-judgemental

·       Demonstrateconfidence in the client

·       Sharepersonal experiences and show different pathways

·       Createearly wins

·       Set upaccountability structures


Benefits of Coaching

For aclient to get the maximum benefits from coaching, the client needed to trustthe coach, and the coaching process. One respondent stated that the coachingrelationship succeeded only if it was an adult-adult relationship, and not aparent-child relationship. A key benefit according to another executive wasthat coaching helped her think things through and increased her confidencelevel.  It made her feel that her goalwas achievable.  An additional benefit ofthe process was the documentation; because once the action plan was put down onpaper, it made her more accountable and pushed her to making it happen. She wasmore committed as she had someone watching over her in the nicest possible way.Another executive shared that the coach helped her see the differentperspectives and give direction to the action plan, and helped her stay ontrack.  She knew she had to do it, butshe appreciated the support of her coach, and knowing she was answerable to thecoach helped her stick to her commitments. Another executive underwent a changein his belief system.  Earlier hebelieved that he couldn’t change, it was his team that needed to adapt to workwith him. Coaching helped him realise that he could change and that was a fundamentalshift in his thinking.  According to him,the way the questions were put across was a huge benefit as it created adifferent kind of thinking – it forced him to explore unchartered paths, andlook at one issue from different perspectives. Another executive stated thathis behaviour towards subordinates, peers and boss changed for the better.  Coaching allowed him to expand his thinking becausehe had moved from being a department head to the head of a business, and he wasable to set a vision for the business with the help of his coach.

Benefits of coaching

·       Skillsenhancement

·       Clarity inthinking

·       Being heldaccountable for goal attainment

·       Developsbroader perspectives on issues




The goal of thisstudy was to understand client experiences with coaching with a special focuson trying to explore gender differences. While the findings from this studyprovided rich data on client expectations and experiences of the coachingprocess, there were no differences in expectations, coaching agendas, orexperiences that could be attributed specifically to gender. In essence,clients selected their coaches based on references, the coach’s experience, andcoaching credentials. While clients preferred coaches who were equivalent inexperience, if not more senior, gender was not an issue in selection. In termsof the coaching agenda, clients worked on developing competencies for thepresent assignment, preparing for future leadership assignments, and workingthrough role transitions. Women clients did not have any coaching issues thatwere gender specific. All clients felt that they had benefited from thecoaching experience; in addition to skills enhancement they mentioned that thebenefits included greater clarity in thinking through issues, being heldaccountable for goal attainment, and developing a broader perspective onissues.







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