If the client’s condition is ‘conform or leave’, coaches must put aside the loss of livelihood for their own wellbeing, and reflect on their place in the relationship

By Lindsay Wittenberg


I recently had an experience that tested me on a number of levels – professional, emotional and visceral.

I was on a list of executive coach associates for a contract which had been transferred from one consultancy to another. My initial experience with them (of repeated non-response to my queries) was an early sign of the nature of our evolving relationship.

As time advanced, a number of factors contributed to the breaking down of my trust and sense of safety. These included a requirement that clients’ objectives be shared with the consultancy on an online platform, the multiple and ongoing failure of that platform, the lack of understanding by the consultancy of what executive coaching is, its failure to engage with coaches’ voices until a crisis made this unavoidable, the obligation for coaches to purchase IR35 insurance even though it was the consultancy’s responsibility under law to protect itself, and an imposed change of contract enshrining that obligation.

These last two factors made the straw that broke my camel’s back after months of frustration and stress. I withdrew from the contract because I felt my professional integrity and wellbeing were unacceptably compromised – and thus from four years of potential work. Since then, my reflection on, and learning from, what the experience has meant for me, and indeed for the profession and executive coaches collectively, has continued to evolve.

My points of reference have included how we show up beyond simply the delivery of coaching, the use of power (and where associate coaches stand in that landscape), the place of integrity, and the need and opportunity for a collective reflection.

I come back, too, to a theme that arises for me from time to time: the place of the coach.

The territory is rich with learning, not least around how we coaches want to show up.

While contracting organisations inevitably hold significant power, I’m curious about how, as coaches, we view our own power, and the extent to which we surrender it to the need to earn, in a kind of black-and-white deal in which we give up our power in return for work. At its worst, I experience this as a distasteful abuse of coaches’ vulnerability.

Our role, it seems to me, is not just to show up to provide high-quality coaching, but also to find a way to show up when the relationship with the client is unbalanced, inappropriate or lacking integrity.

For me, when the loss of livelihood, or the punishing impact of a loss of wellbeing, are at stake if the client’s conditions are ‘conform or leave’ (which was my experience), honest dialogue between consultancy and associate is crucial. Only that one deal was on offer when I left this contract, and it was clear at that time that no more nuanced and integrated approach was available.

I’m reflecting on how I now might use the experience of feeling intolerably mistreated, unseen, unvalued and unacknowledged to help shine more of a spotlight on how we might collectively reflect on what our purpose and responsibility are as coaches.

And part of that concerns how might we work towards a healthier balance of power, and greater equity of relationship with consultancies who don’t understand, and are not curious about, what coaching is, and who are, above all, transactionally driven.

  • Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and
    cross-cultural coaching

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