Internal coaches need external supervisors

It’s considered best practice among professional coaches that they work with a supervisor, someone who creates space for them to reflect on their work. But how common is this among internal coaches?

There’s a long tradition of supervision being provided to support people who support other people. It grew up as a discipline to help professionals such as psychotherapists, teachers and social workers. In the competitive market for professional coaches, savvy clients understand that they should only work with a coach who is supervised. Clients of internal coaches need this assurance just as much. As do people whose managers seek to lead with a coaching style.

Formative, restorative and normative

Why is supervision important? It was Brigid Proctor who identified supervision’s three-fold role as being formative, restorative and normative. The formative role helps a coach continue with their learning and growth as a practitioner. The restorative role provides support when the work gets challenging. The normative role helps a coach align with best practice and navigate ethical dilemmas.

Supervision helps a coach to think holistically: about their coachees, about their contribution as a practitioner, and about how the environment in which they and their clients work influence what is happening. But it’s not just about auditing client interactions. Good supervision should help a coach maintain their energy, or regain it when depleted. It makes them feel someone has their back even as they are challenged to think afresh. It’s a connection of heart and intuition as much as of the mind.

Some organisations have a supervision strategy. They might have internal supervisors or they might hire external consultants. Supervision might be offered one-to-one or for groups.

Getting to the heart of the matter

But it’s difficult for organisations to provide effective supervision internally for internal coaches. For starters, the very word supervision has connotations within organisational settings of of management diktat, which undermine the idea that it’s a positive developmental experience. More fundamentally, organisations are susceptible to wilful blindness. The organisation’s culture is often part of the problem that coaches and clients are discussing. It may take someone from outside the culture to ask the question that can’t be articulated internally that gets to the heart of the matter.

In just the past week, I’ve been reading about an alleged culture of bullying at the Home Office, universities that cover up sexual assaults, and a hospital whose management were accused of bullying doctors who raised concerns about patient safety. In the Harvey Weinstein case, it turned out that staff colluded with his predatory behaviour towards women because it was so normalised no-one knew how to challenge it.

In a setting where coach, coachee and supervisor are all part of the same system, it can be very hard for any of them to name the toxic behaviours that allow dysfunction to fester in organisation. Norms seem to evolve much faster in society at large than inside the walls of an organisation and organisations falter or succumb to scandal because they are slow to appreciate this. Bringing an element of external supervision creates more possibility for external values to penetrate groupthink and create a healthy, reflective culture.

Independent thinking

The chief executive of Volkswagen has appointed an environmental activist to challenge his thinking – bringing a dissenter into the corporate fold. This is an admirable idea but has three problems: the divergent thinking is only available to the top brass; the dissenter can bring challenge only on the topic of environmental impact; and soon enough is likely to become mired in the same dynamics that create convergent thinking in everyone else in the corporate culture. Better to hire supervisors, who are a trained to bring independent thinking about the whole system and who, by supporting coaches who work throughout the company, can help make divergent reflection accessible to a much broader cross-section of the company’s staff.

Martin Vogel is a leadership coach and coaching supervisor. He draws on inquiry skills honed in journalism, coaching and strategy development and a career-long interest in the role of organisations in society. 

Read more blogs from Martin – Is supervision a gendered pursuit?