January 1, 2017
Dear Coach,

Welcome to my Blog. Here you'll find essays I've written about coaching. Some of the questions I'm exploring are (1) What makes coaching work? (2) What helps coaches do their work well? (3) How do coaches continue to be masters of their profession? and (4) What the heck are those ICF coaching competencies, anyway?

My passion is helping coaches to be their best, so they can bring the best of coaching to their clients.

There's something here for all coaches, at all levels of experience. I’ll bet you'll learn something new, find a new perspective to consider, or just encounter a new way to say what you already know from experience. It’s all good, and (probably) good for you, too! .
You're welcome to browse - I'm sure you'll find something that resonates with your experience. You can also search on Categories and Tags for specific topics.

If you find something that you enjoy, please share with your colleagues and friends, and copy the link so you can find it again. Leave a comment if you’d like. You just might spur a new essay about something I’ve learned from you!

It's my privilege to offer my thoughts on coaching.. Enjoy your reading!

Sue McLeod, PCC
Essays related to the > Code of Ethics and Professional Standards of the International Coach Federation > Ethical challenges

Taking out the Trash (or How I Manage Client Information)

What do you do with your coaching client files and records?

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The trash can is overflowing as I throw away files and papers related to my coaching clients and students. There’s a pang of regret and fear that goes along with this exercise. “What if I need these again and can’t put my hands on them?”  Then a competing voice asks “But you promised your clients confidentiality and privacy and why do you need to keep all of this information anyway?”

In my Ethics in Coaching Class we carefully read the ICF Code of Ethics and ask ourselves if our current practices are aligned with the provisions of the Code. Each of us finds some way we can do better and we commit to learn more and make specific changes.

My assignment was to get serious about managing client information and deleting files when appropriate.

Here’s the paragraph in the ICF Code of Ethics I was using as my guide:

11. Maintain, store and dispose of any records, including electronic files and communications, created during my coaching engagements in a manner that promotes confidentiality, security and privacy and complies with any applicable laws and agreements. (ICF Code of Ethics, July 2015)

On first reading it seems simple and clear, but when you start asking “How would I implement this?”, the ambiguities appear.  What do I really need to do to “promote confidentiality, security, and privacy?” and which “laws and agreements apply?” are just the first two questions I asked. 

My goal was to create routines that addressed client and student records within a reasonable time after coaching engagement or class is done.  This seemed like an easy assignment, but I ran into the some challenges - I found it was a little more complex that I thought and I stumbled into more than one a“rabbit hole”.

Here’s my homework report that I shared with the other students in the class:

First things first - Where are my client documents?

  • Client documents and information are stored in many more places than I anticipated!. It’s in tax returns; my bookkeeping software; and my PayPal account. It’s in calendar entries; contact lists; and emails with their attachments.  It’s in electronic files and folders, and on paper. Client data is stored on my hard drive, on my mobile devices, in the “cloud”, on my desk and in notebooks.
  • With laptop, iPad, IPhone, and cloud apps that sync with each other, data start in one place, then get copied in two, three or more additional places.

I was overwhelmed by the idea that I needed to protect and keep “confidential and private” all of this data that is stored in so many places!

With all of that data floating around, what (really) needs to be protected?

I decided that the IRS and Maine Department of Revenue are the only entities really interested in who I do business with, how much I’m paid, when and for how long I talk with clients, or what their phone numbers/email addresses/Skype addresses are. I just don’t think there’s any danger in this information becoming public for the people I work with. Password protection should be enough.

It is important to protect and dispose of information about the content of my work with clients and students. This includes client coaching goals; interviews and notes from bosses, peers and direct reports; coaching session prep sheets;  homework assignment reports; coaching recordings, transcripts and assessment reports; and my notes about any of this content.

Now that I know what to delete, I need to know how!

This turned out to be the hardest part of this assignment. Deleting electronic files isn’t simple (or easy) because of multiple syncing devises, cloud-based applications, and disorganized filing systems. 

It took me a week of exploring to feel like I fully understood where files are stored and how they can be deleted in the systems I use. For example a file that I receive as an email attachment is stored on the mail server, in the mail folder on my computer, phone and tablet, and in system files that are hidden from my view, and then I copy it to a client folder. Tracking down all of these copies and learning the steps needed to really delete was, to say the least, a chore. 

After a couple of weeks of exploring and learning and thinking, here’s what I plan to do.

#1: I will be rigorous about deleting client, student and assessment files related to the content of our work within 30 days of the work being completed. I have an item on my ToDo list every 2 weeks to handle this task. I will delete files from ALL places that I know they can be hiding out on ALL devices and sites.

#2: I will revise my agreements to Include language that says I will hold our work in confidence but “doing business with” information will not be protected beyond passwords on devices and websites.

Sounds simple, but it won’t always be easy! 

With the technical details figured out, I started deleting - and ran into another obstacle.

My aversion to throwing things away reared it’s ugly head as soon as I started moving files into the Trash. Luckily, I quickly noticed that this response was the same as my response to getting rid of a pair of shoes that no longer fit. While my fear says these things are irreplaceable and I will suffer harm without them, my logical brain knows that they can be replaced, that most of the time they don’t need to be replaced, and that no deaths or injuries will occur if I no longer have them. 

I can just let them go.

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Why Talk about Ethics in Coaching?

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Has someone asked you to break your confidentiality agreement with a client asking for information about what’s going on in a coaching relationship?

These situations are probably more common than we think. I’ve heard variations on this story when friends, peers, supervisors, HR staff, and other coaches ask for and expect the coach to share information about the client or the topics being discussed. It might be a casual “How’s that coaching going?” or a more formal invitation to provide insight like “Do you think the client is ready for that promotion?”. These requests are challenging because they create conflicts between the interests of the stakeholders in the coaching engagement. They can violate promises, expectations or agreements. And they put the coach in an uncomfortable position of not knowing what’s the right move to make.

Ethics in coaching is a topic that touches close to home for me. Making choices when there is a conflict between self-interest and “the right thing” has been a life-long challenge. From the petty shoplifting of a candy bar as a small child to falling in love with a client, my personal history is littered with examples where I had to make these tough choices. Many times I chose “right”, some times I did not.

As I’ve delved into Ethics in Coaching, I’ve come to appreciate it’s complexities and nuances. We make many decisions each day that are easily in line with our personal morals and professional ethics.  It’s the challenging situations that trip us up. My experience has taught me that coaches need to learn about, prepare for, and practice their responses to challenging ethical situations. It is also crucial to have a support system to help evaluate these challenging situations and make well-reasoned decisions about how to act.

Behaving ethically seems easy - in theory.

In theory, you dispassionately weigh the pros and cons, play out the possible scenarios and consequences, research what others have said and did, have rational conversations with the parties involved, and come to a well-reasoned and defensible decision on how to proceed.  But, let’s be honest, we’re never this logical, even for the easy decisions we make!

By their nature, situations that challenge us to act “ethically” are confusing, conflict-ridden, ambiguous, and risky. They can ask us to break promises or contractual agreements, or involve illegal and immoral behavior that can be embarrassing and shameful. The conflicts can attack the things we hold dear, like our reputation, important relationships, and self-image. They can put our livelihood at risk. They may hinge on something we did or said (or didn’t do or say) in the past that we wish we could erase but can’t. They can happen when we’re experiencing other pressures – like difficulties with our finances -- that make it harder to be impartial, objective, and rational.

In short, we’re dealing with situations that can hijack our rational thinking causing us to retreat into hiding, avoidance, rationalization and magical thinking. Without our rational minds to guide us, the “right thing to do” might seem unnecessary, at one extreme, or downright dangerous, at the other. 

There are many temptations in the coaching profession. We spend our time alone with clients in serious and personal conversations, in a trusting and intimate relationship. We work under an agreement of confidentiality, with little oversight or need to report to others. We are paid based on time spent with clients, and often get new business based on referrals and the “good word” of people we work with. We are often self-employed, with no “internal” support structure.  Personally, I was not prepared for the stresses of being self-employed with a young family in a new profession without a strong support group. I’m curious how prepared you feel for the life you lead as a coach.

I have no easy answer to questions that start with “how should I handle (insert your favorite ethical challenge)?”, because the answer depends on so many things. If you need immediate help, talk with someone you trust about the specifics. But now that I’ve got your attention, take this opportunity to be reflective and thoughtful about how to prepare for the future situations that will surely happen. Although you can’t predict what they will be, you can bolster your foundations to make tough choices. 

Find the ICF Code of Ethics and Professional Standards and read it through. Review the agreements you make with your clients and the contracts you sign with sponsors. Reflect on the challenges you’ve faced in the past, and the stories you’ve heard from your colleagues. Think about how you can be prepared and how you will respond to the common ethical challenges.

This is also an opportunity for self-reflection. What makes you vulnerable to being knocked off your ethical center? What are the triggers that take you out of your rational mind and how do they get activated? How can you prevent these and what support system do you need around you to keep you true to your ethics?

You have to DO Ethics, not just HAVE Ethics. Doing Ethics means making choices when there is no “right” and you might hurt yourself in the process. It’s harder than you think.

 

Two “out-of-the-box” references for exploring the complexity and nuances of Ethics.

In understanding how to handle ethical challenges, I think it’s important to understand human nature and motivations that drive our behavior. This means delving into the shadows where breaking rules, hiding information, taking risks, and doing damage seems to make sense.

If you’re curious to learn more, I have two recommendations:

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, especially Chapters 6 “The Influence of Arousal” and 13 “The Context of Our Character, Part 1: Why We Are Dishonest and What We Can Do About It”.   Revised and expanded edition published in 2009 by HarperCollins, New York.

This book has some eye-opening experiments and results that remind us that our rational brain is not always in charge, especially when there are opportunities to be dishonest or take advantage of others.

Spreier, Scott, Mary Fontaine, and Ruth Malloy. 2006. “Leadership run amok: The destructive potential of overachievers”. Harvard Business Review 84, no. 6:72.
Available from https://hbr.org/2006/06/leadership-run-amok-the-destructive-potential-of-overachievers

This great article that explores how a motive for achievement, when overplayed in an environment without constraints, can be destructive to businesses and the people working in them. 

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Do you have an Ethics Lifeline?

Who do you reach out to when the waters get a little rough in your one-on-one with coaching clients?
 

I received a call from a former student and colleague the other day. She was facing a challenge with a coaching client and needed help thinking through how to handle it. The challenge had to do with Ethics - which is not unusual when I receive these types of calls.  I think she had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done, but it wasn’t straightforward and she felt that there were risks in all directions. It was ambiguous (maybe something was amiss, or maybe not), it involved her client and others in the organization, and the worst-case scenario was serious enough that ignoring it wasn’t an option. It was helpful for her to talk it through, and she came away with a plan and the conviction that taking action was the right thing to do.

In my Coaching Master Class, we talk about Ethics first, and spend more time on it than the other competencies. In my initial class design, I put Ethics at the beginning because I thought it was a topic that we would discuss without much pre-work, as a way to “warm up” before hitting our stride with real coaching topics.


After 10 cohorts, I now see that putting Ethics first was a great decision - it is a real coaching topic. 


In listening to the ethical situations the students bring to the class, I see that Ethics is an undercurrent in our relationships with our clients and their sponsoring organizations.  They can arise right at the beginning or at any time during the engagement. They impact the services we offer and how we build our businesses, especially if we offer more than coaching.  Whenever they come up, they can knock us off center and disrupt the coaching engagement.


Talking about Ethics proactively – that is, before we need to make some of those difficult choices - is important. Many of the Coaching Master Class students have been grateful for that opportunity and have made specific changes to their coaching agreements and initial conversations with clients and sponsors. They are ready to handle some common ethical challenges before they become a problem.


Through the conversations, students also realize the value of getting different perspectives and hearing the experiences of their peers. We talk about having a “lifeline” - someone to call to help when you're facing a challenge. Your lifeline won’t have the answer, but will listen, ask questions, notice emotions that might be getting in your way, challenge your assumptions, and refer you back to the Code of Ethics and your coaching agreements for guidance. Your lifeline is a coach, really, to help you do what needs to be done to stay aligned with your ethical code.


The coach who called me had been through those conversations in the Coaching Master Class and had done some research on ethics in coaching relationships. She had the advantage of that proactive thinking, and had the phone number of her lifeline ready.


From teaching the Coaching Master Class, I’ve learned that it’s important that we stop and talk about Ethics periodically, to check in on the ethical challenges that are cropping up in your real-world experiences. The conversations remind us of what’s expected when we face these challenges, and prepare us for when they do occur.


Who is your Ethics Lifeline?

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The Big Question: Am I coaching or doing something else?

We all bring more than just coaching skills to our coaching conversations
 
Sally and Joan (not their real names) joined the PCC master class for a deeper dive into their coaching skills and competencies. After the usual logistics and introductions we jumped right into a conversation about the ICF Code of Ethics. It didn’t take too long for their big question to surface.  “I’m worried that someone will find out that my‘real’ coaching isn’t really coaching. I do coaching and I add in other things, based on my expertise and knowledge about the areas the client want to work on.  Am I really coaching or is this something else?”
We created the terms “pure coaching” and “hybrid coaching” to hold the distinction.  I was struck by the level of worry these coaches had that what they called “hybrid coaching” wasn’t acceptable.  I was concerned that their worry affected their coaching. Could they be as confident and bold in serving their clients if this was in the backs of their minds?
 
 
I was sure that alleviating that worry would help these coaches be the best they could be. Since I’m committed to coaching excellence, I also wanted to understand this question better. Were they really coaching, or did something need to change for their coaching to be aligned with the coaching competencies?
 
With our distinction between “pure” and “hybrid” coaching in hand, we focused in to understand this big questions, and to find ways to address their concerns.
 
What were they doing in their coaching sessions that was concerning to them?
    
They were using their expertise to frame their questions, provide new perspectives, and explicitly share information that was new to the client.
 
How were they doing this?
    
Sometimes they asked permission - “Can I share something that might be useful?” and sometimes they assumed permission because the client had hired them for that expertise. They offered what they knew, without insisting that the client believe it or use it.
 
 
Why were they doing this?
Because it fit, in the moment, with what the client was working on. Because they believed that it would serve the client at that time.
 
 
What would you say? Is this coaching, or something else?
 
As we worked through the competencies, we came to the following conclusions:
 
When offering your expertise to the client, it’s important to maintain your focus on serving the client and the client’s agenda. This expectation is woven into all of the PCC level coaching competencies. 
 
This means that what you share should be pertinent to the topic at hand. It also means that it’s presented in a way that serves the client’s continued growth, development, and ability to become self-sustaining.  My students talked about offering another perspective, not the “answer”. Even when teaching the client something new, they hold it as “just another perspective”. Allowing the client to choose what to do with the information reinforced their trust in the client - the she is able to integrate new information and make choices that serve her best.
 
There’s  also an Ethical question that arises. Is it “ethical” - that is, aligned with the ICF Code of Ethics and Professional Practices - to coach using our expertise and knowledge in this way?
 
As we read the Code of Ethics, we saw no prohibition on bringing what we know to the coaching. In fact, we noted that we train in different domains of coaching (leadership coaching, relationship coaching, etc.) and engage our client in these specialized coaching services. Of course, our clients would expect us to have perspectives on leadership if they’ve hired us to be leadership coaches!
 
What we saw is that ICF asks us to stay true to the following tenets:
  • Honor our agreements with our clients
  • Do not misrepresent our services or qualifications
 
What is your agreement with the client? What services are they expecting you to provide? 
The agreement should clearly state that you are providing specialized coaching and clarify what that means. Clients should expect that you will bring in your expertise and know how you will use that expertise in the coaching engagement.
 
Are you qualified to provide that expertise or perspective?
Think about your qualifications for sharing your knowledge with your client, including formal training, education, research, and real-life experience. If your client wanted only that expertise, would you be a qualified candidate to provide them? If you can say “yes” to that (and others would agree), offering that experience to your clients would be appropriate.  
 
In the End…
 
After looking at this big question through the lens of the coaching competencies, the students completed the class with less worry. They could see how they were coaching and using their expertise to serve their clients. That was a success in itself!  
 
They also committed to reviewing their agreements with their clients to make sure they were representing themselves and their coaching appropriately.  And, they made a longer-term commitment to pay attention to their motivations for sharing their expertise during coaching sessions, so that they were staying aligned with serving their clients in the moment.
 
As the instructor, I was impressed by the honesty and vulnerability that these coaches brought to their work in the class. Without that, we wouldn’t have learned as much as we did, and the impact on their coaching wouldn’t have been as great.
 
What’s your Big Question about your own coaching?
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