A comment about the usefulness of supervision in the Americas inspired Angela Wright to undertake a research project on the value of coaching supervision in the US
We don’t need supervision, take your ideas back to Europe – such was the response to an invitation to join a new, complementary, coaching supervision group in New York City in 2016.
To be fair, this was an isolated response and is not representative of the current position. Reflecting on the incident afterwards I realised that the response was perhaps not only indicative of a level of misunderstanding, confusion and resistance in the marketplace, but a reflection of my own inappropriate, thoughtless and clumsy approach.
The comment required me to step back, take a bigger perspective and to acknowledge that I needed to meet people where they were at. No amount of persuasion, exaltation and, let’s be honest, ‘banging on’ from me about the immense value of supervision, was going to work. I needed to do something (anything!) differently.
Inspired by Alison Hodge’s research (Hodge, 2016), I decided to undertake a research project on coaching supervision in the US – whereby coaches would be provided with the opportunity to engage in supervision so they could make up their own mind about its true value, if any.
The aim of the research was to contribute to the evidence base for coaching supervision by exploring: the potential value and benefits derived from supervision; the impact of a systemic developmental approach to supervision; and whether understandings of supervision changed as a result of the experience.
In this article, I share some of the results of the research, including briefly identifying the seven key themes that emerged around the value and benefits of supervision. The main focus of this article, however, will be on the preliminary evidence in support of a systemic developmental approach, and in identifying some of the shifts in understandings of supervision following the experience.
Some 45 coaches participated in the project, each undertaking two x one-hour supervision sessions with the same supervisor. The coaches were a mix of internal and external coaches with various levels of experience. They had a diverse range of backgrounds in coach training, but advertising by the Association for Talent Development and the International Coach Federation (ICF) in New York City increased the representation of New York based coaches and ICF members.
Seven key themes emerged from the data collected. These themes are not necessarily unsurprising and in many cases are reflective of earlier research.
- Valued talking through their coaching issues and being listened to
- Supervision had a positive impact on the coach, coachee and client organisation
- Gained new insights and learnings (research, frameworks, resources, tools and techniques)
- New, bigger systemic perspectives emerged
- Increased self-awareness, understanding of themselves as coaches and the relationship dynamic, helped them reframe their perspective on challenges and issues
- An understanding of inner self and experience built their confidence as a coach
- Supervision motivated and inspired participants to learn and grow/professional development
A noticeable pattern consistent across all seven themes was the impact of looking at a situation from multiple perspectives.
A systemic developmental approach
The systemic developmental approach used, holds the primary purpose of supervision as helping coaches ‘to see’ more than they can currently see in themselves, others and the systems in which they operate (Wright, McLean Walsh & Tennyson, 2019, p109):
“The coaching supervision helped me deal with the issues I faced by helping me to see other points of views; see the bigger picture. I would not have been able to ‘see’ beyond my issue had I not spoken about my concerns during the coaching supervision session.”
Participants reported that supervision helped increase their level of self-confidence and the sense of being less constrained by the original model or approach in which they were accredited, perhaps representing movement on the continuum of coach maturity (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2011): “… I now have more confidence in myself as a coach and I feel liberated in that I don’t have to fit myself into some box others have said is ‘real coaching’ .”
Moreover, the participants reported greater self-awareness, reflexivity and breadth of systemic perspective, which may also be reflective of an evolution of complexity in thinking and meaning making (Bachkirova & Baker 2018; Kegan 1994): “New insights did emerge as I was able to connect a few patterns of thought/behaviour from multiple settings to current situations.”
One participant described a profound impact: “It’s not so much that I’ll ‘do’ something differently, but rather I’ll ‘be’ someone different. From there everything else flows.”
Shifts in understanding of supervision
The study also highlighted misunderstandings about the nature of supervision and confusion between supervision and other modalities such as coaching, mentor coaching, training supervision and coach the coach. A number of potential participants chose not to join the study because they felt that they were too experienced to need supervision, which has been described by McGivern (2009) as the “Vanity Trap”.
Misunderstandings were also evident in the reasons a number of the participants did not continue with the study. Responses, including “I don’t have anything to bring” and “Everything is going well following our last call”, highlight the challenges of supervising “everything is fine” coaches (Bachkirova, 2019).
Changes in understanding of supervision as a result of participating in the study were also reported: “My understanding has changed due to participation in this project because I saw it as a more evaluatory experience, similar to the ICF Coaching Competencies and whether or not I was meeting them. Instead, my experience was that I got to look at certain nagging doubts I have about my coaching, unrelated to the competencies, and the ability to get support and clarity on those doubts.”
Things have moved on…
Since undertaking this research project between 2017 and 2018 and certainly since that fateful day in 2016, there have been some significant shifts in the evolution and growth of supervision in the Americas. These include a growing cohort of qualified supervisors as a result of an increase in coach supervision training programmes and an increased demand for supervision by client organisations. Supervision has also become a popular session topic at coaching conferences, and 2021 will see the Third Americas Coaching Supervision Conference, along with the publication of a supervision text that focuses exclusively on the Americas.
While the opening of this article was intentionally provocative, I’m thankful to the woman whose comments ‘took me back’ that day. She not only provided the impetus for the present research, but was the catalyst for deeper self-reflection on how, even with the best intentions, we may show up in the world and the potential unintended consequences that might have. In short, she helped me ‘to see’ more.
- Angela Wright is a partner in specialist coaching and leadership firm, CEC Global. She practises globally as coach, team coach and coach supervisor. Her PhD at Oxford Brookes is on coach education and how coaches remain relevant and fit for purpose. In 2018, she received the EMCC coaching supervision award.
- T Bachkirova & S Baker, Revisiting the issue of boundaries between coaching and counselling, in S Palmer & A Whybrow (Eds), Handbook of Coaching Psychology: a guide for practitioners. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018
- T Bachkirova, Supervising ‘everything is fine’ coaches. Presentation at the 8th Conference on Coaching Supervision, 11 May 2019, Oxford: Oxford Brookes University
- D Clutterbuck & D Megginson, Coach maturity: an emerging concept. In D Brennan, & L Wildflower, The Handbook of Knowledge-Based Coaching: From Theory to Practice (pp.299-313). San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2011
- A Hodge, The value of coaching supervision as a development process: Contribution to continued professional and personal wellbeing for executive coaches, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 14(2), 87-106, 2016
- R Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994
- L McGivern, Continuous Professional Development and avoiding the vanity trap: an exploration of coaches’ lived experiences of supervision, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring (Spec Issue 3), 22-37, 2009
- A Wright, M McLean Walsh & S Tennyson, Systemic coaching supervision: Responding to the complex challenges of our time, in Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal, 4(1), 107-122, 2019