We are all accountable for what we say and do because we are part of a system. Our behaviours affect others, and their behaviours affect us. This accountability takes many structures – such as accredited training, reflective practice, and on-going professional development. These structures are not hoops to jump over so you can call yourself a real coach. They are part of an accountability framework by which you prove you know what you’re doing and “the coaching profession” validates your knowledge and skills.
One aspect of accountability focuses on the relationship between coach and client. How is the client accountable to the coach? How is the client accountable to a sponsor (if there is one)? And how is the coach accountable to the client? In this article, I want to focus on how the client is accountable to the coach (and possibly the sponsor). I want to explore how you can make this accountability framework visible to the client.
Mutuality and power
Before we get into it, there are two words that are very important here. The first is ‘mutuality’. An accountability framework cannot be a one-way street. It cannot be that the client is accountable to the coach and the coach sits as the judge determining how good they are doing. That is tyranny, not accountability. Accountability is a two-way street. The second word is ‘power’. If the client is accountable to the coach, the coach has power. But this should not be a bullying, coercive power that belittles the client when they don’t meet expectations. Coaching is not a bull ring. What is needed is an empowering power, where the coach helps the client find their own power – to meet their own expectations and those of others. So, let’s consider four components of this accountability framework, and also how to make this framework visible to your clients.
In an accountability framework, the client must clearly understand the expectations that exist for him or her. What do they expect to get from the coaching relationship? What does the coach expect from them? If there is a sponsor, what does the sponsor expect from the client and their investment in coaching? How do you establish these expectations? You clearly establish the coaching agreement. This is one of the ICF Core Competencies. You clearly establish expectations at the start of the coaching relationship and adapt them as you go on, as needed. This means you negotiate with the client (not bully) so expectations are clear and unambiguous. You are accountable to them for how well you do this.
The client should be clear about the nature of the responsibility they have towards themselves, the coach, and their sponsor (if one exists). They should also understand why this responsibility exists. What kind of responsibility do they have regarding what they intend to achieve, how they achieve it, when they achieve it, and for whom they achieve it? Who is counting on them? What are the most important outcomes to achieve? Why do these outcomes matter? How does the client feel about this responsibility? How much do they own it?
You make this visible to the client by exploring the nature of their responsibility with them. Ask powerful questions and listen actively to what they say. Help them understand their position, where they are headed, and why it matters. Helping them gain clarity around this may also build motivation for it.
Responsibility is often associated with power. If you have a responsibility towards someone, they have some power over you. But responsibility can also involve opportunity – an opportunity for the client to step up to a higher level of functioning and knowledge. Ultimately, that increases their power and helping them understand this may also increase their motivation.
In an accountability framework, clients need to know how to demonstrate they are acting responsibly and meeting expectations. They need to understand how to demonstrate their capacity to manage time effectively and their commitment to growth through language and action. These ideas are reflected in the fourth broad section in the ICF Core Competency framework, ‘Facilitating Learning and Results’. You should help them reflect upon and see how they are making progress in practical ways and help them find an appropriate vocabulary to talk about these changes.
An accountability framework must include what happens if the client does not take responsibility for their progress and fails to meet expectations. What happens if the client doesn’t live up to their part of the coaching agreement? Some coaches prefer to talk about this up front and others find such discussions coercive when they’re not actually needed. But, if they are needed, they should happen. They need the hard word to get them back on track. But, if the goal is to empower the client, it’s not really a hard word. It’s another learning experience that helps them see reality from a different perspective and empowers them to make better choices.
These are some ideas that will help you establish a clear accountability framework with your clients. Remember the concepts mutuality and power and how they relate to accountability. You can read more about establishing clear expectations here. If you need any help putting this into practice, please reach out to me. If you have any ideas to add, please do so in the comment section below.
Written by Dr Steve Barlow