Homework – a perennial coaching issue

All executive coaches have encountered clients who commit to doing follow up work but don’t complete it. As a colleague of mine said, “A coach should not accept this, without interrogating the situation. It’s essential to find out why.”

There are several possibilities and the simplest is that life got in the way. Working with adults means working with people who have competing priorities, and sometimes even the keenest client has priorities which can take precedence. It’s important to be accepting of this situation. Work with your client to ensure they are still committed to their follow-up work and help them establish a new timeline.

Another possibility is common to coaching, teaching and managing staff: misunderstanding. You need to check that you and your client actually shared an understanding of what was expected. If not, this issue sits squarely with you as the coach. Part of your job is to ensure that understanding is shared.

But what about when you and your client share a good understanding of the task, they have time to do it, but your client does not complete the work?  I decided to take a look at the approaches other executive coaches took when they encountered this situation. Underlying most of their approaches was ensuring that you, as coach, understand why your client has not followed through rather than making assumptions.

I recently found an excellent article by Tony Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus sets out five steps to take when this happens:

  1. Check for Buy-in
  2. Identify and Troubleshoot Obstacles
  3. Reset for Next Week
  4. Nail Things Down Tighter
  5. Reconnect with Their Motivation.
I didn’t sign up for homework …

Working with Bob* was an unusual experience. Bob approached coaching with great wariness, although he was always involved in each session. Although coaching was not mandatory for Bob, I thought he might have felt pushed into participating. It seemed unlikely that he was committed to the process. Repeatedly, Bob made a commitment to undertake follow-up actions, which he suggested for himself, and repeatedly he failed to follow through.

It seemed that Bob’s enthusiasm, which he brought to every session, waned the moment he walked out the door. Even when he tried to follow through, he always encountered impenetrable barriers. Bob was charming, courteous and warm but I came to realise that he was simply not ready for coaching. (See Matt Brubaker and Chris Mitchell for more on clients who aren’t ready for coaching, and our article on what makes a client coachable.)

When Annette* came to a session without having completed an action she had agreed to, I decided to use respectful listening techniques to discover what sat behind this. The first question I asked myself, referencing Stoltzfus’ article, was whether this was an action the client came up with, or one I had suggested. On reflection, I realised it had come from me. When Annette had asked for ideas about how to move forward on a particular issue, I had suggested a piece of homework for her to try.

It was clear at our next meeting that she had considered and rejected the action, so it was important to find out why. This led to a transformational conversation about her view of her organisation and her role in it.

Annette’s reaction led her to a realisation that this homework was based on a direction she no longer wanted to pursue. In rejecting the homework, she had come to recognise something she had not understood before.

The issue went way beyond the particular piece of work. It led her to reconsider her future directions both within and beyond the organisation. She set new follow-up actions which aligned with her new goals and which she completed with panache. As Stoltzfus writes, “Sometimes you’ll uncover an important obstacle, and find that dealing with that obstacle was much more transformational than the original action step itself.”

I believe the best approach is to be pre-emptive, wherever possible. One strategy I use when setting homework with my clients is to remind them that they can reframe or reject outright any suggestion I might have, before it becomes a follow-up action. So even when they ask for a suggestion, this does not mean they are obliged to accept it.

When a client expresses doubt about an action, I ask the questions that my own coach once asked me: “What’s standing in your way? What’s stopping you from trying this?” My clients’ answers range from, “Nothing. I’m going to try this out,” to “That would never work in my organisation.”

When I get the second answer, I ask them to talk to me about what’s going on. The answer can be far more revealing than any outcome from a single piece of homework and add great insights for you and for your client.

Contributor: Dr Catherine Burrows is a Sydney-based executive coach, available in Wollongong, Newcastle, Western NSW and other areas by arrangement. Catherine is a co-founder of Executive Coach Exchange and the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting.

*Clients mentioned in this article are amalgams of actual clients and no actual names have been used.

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