“My client is the person in front of me”. Is this true?

“My client is the person in front of me” said David Megginson at a recent seminar. David is the Founder, past Chairman, current Ambassador at European Mentoring and Coaching Council and Emeritus Professor at Sheffield Business School, in the UK. But is his view correct?

At this seminar the topic of David’s session was ‘Does contracting make you smaller?’. During the session David skillfully facilitated a non-directive discussion in the round with approximately 50 participants. David’s view was that contracting and goal setting is over emphasised and there is value in emergent change.

When talking about the coaching contracting process and the complexity caused by involving numerous people in the process, David said, “my client is the person in front of me” a beautifully simple statement cutting through the complexity of contracting. By making this statement David indicated that the coachee is the focus of his attention. There is only one person to contract with; the coachee, and this may be an emergent conversation around goals.

I admired the way David managed the session, using a very low key approach to facilitate debate around the room. I do agree that goals can be emergent, but for some coachees there is a place for clear performance goals. I remember working with a coachee who said during our first discussion that he had completed his personal 5-year plan and wanted to set his goals for the next 5 years. However, I know of other people, including myself, for whom goals evolve and emerge, and through talking and by the passage of time, goals become clearer. It is the role of the coach to be flexible and work with the coachee in a way that best helps them achieve their desired outcome. But this may require some challenge, for example if a person has a preference for emergent goal setting, there is a place to push for specificity and a clear timeframe. This avoids drift and provides space for accountability.

I did not agree with David’s approach to contracting when he said that his client is the person sitting in front of him. In my view there are multiple clients; there is the person sitting in front of the coach, but there must be recognition of the whole system. In the system in which we operate in a business world, there are line managers, direct reports, customers, competitors, shareholders, communities; the list of stakeholders can go on and on. David’s comment does cut through the complexity of contracting, but there is a real danger of over-simplification.

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If we contract only with the person sitting in front of us we risk being self-obsessive, irrelevant and colluding with the narrow view of one person. These are the risks of traditional person-centred non-directive coaching mentioned in ‘Challenging Coaching’. If we do not consider the wider stakeholder community, these risks are very real. We can look back at historic high profile corporate scandals, the financial crisis of 2008, and even at harassing bullying bosses and conclude that the wider system of stakeholders were ignored and this created the conditions that allowed these unacceptable events.

Clearly we cannot contract with 20 real or virtual stakeholders, but on the other hand, contracting with one person creates myopia. There may be a hierarchy of stakeholders with the coachee being the primary client. But what happens if the coachee’s actions are not aligned to the values of the sponsoring organisation, or create foreseeable issues for others in society? Surely, as coaches we have a duty to see the wider system as well as our clients.

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