a sat nav

Contracting – the sat nav for coaching

Contracting is like the sat nav for coaching. Coaching must provide confidential space where the coachee can address issues of significance to them; my role as coach includes offering support, challenge and encouragement. Coaching is like setting out on a journey together and it is important that the coachee sets the direction; contracting, like a sat nav, can help to set that direction and enable regular reviews to ensure that we are on track or taking a diversion if we agree it is appropriate.

Good contracting generates discussion that tests interpersonal chemistry, while subjecting the potentially wild and woolly process of coaching to businesslike disciplines.’ (Sherman and Freas, 2004)

Setting  the sat nav starts at the beginning of the journey and then you can check progress as you go along. In coaching, the contracting needs to happen at the start of the relationship, at the opening of each session and during sessions. To be effective and responsive to the many factors impacting upon the coaching relationship, contracting must acknowledge and engage other key stakeholders. It is quite likely that as you sit in the room with the coach they have (metaphorically) brought a host of relationships from their past and present … contracting must involve some of these.

Like a sat nav, contracting will keep us moving in the right direction and towards a desired goal and yet enables us to be responsive to changes along the way. When driving up the M1 a detour may be needed to avoid a major hold up (an external factor) or I may decide to stop off for a Mars bar (an internal factor): my sat nav copes with these changes and may help if I need an alternative route. Equally, contracting needs to occur regularly to ensure that the overall direction is still relevant in considering changing external factors and any emerging internal factors; for example, the coachee may uncover a pattern in their behaviour that they had not acknowledged before, once recognised they may choose to work on changing their general approach to certain situations.

Sills (2006) defines five levels of contracting, proposing that each must be reviewed regularly and updated as appropriate. The five levels are:

  • With the broad environment
  • With the organisation and key stakeholders – the administrative contract
  • With the client regarding their desired developmental outcomes – the professional contract
  • With the client for a session: here I find the question ‘how can I be of most value to you to-day?’ very powerful
  • With the client moment by moment.

Here I will focus on initial contracting, offering just a few comments about on-going contracting. In two organisations I have started with joint contracting sessions and will reflect upon how such sessions can contribute to the overall effectiveness of an organisational coaching programme.

The coachee and the coach are the central players in coaching; however there are other key stakeholders who can significantly influence the relationship and have a vested interest in the impact of the coaching.

Initial contracting needs to clarify the purpose and desired outcomes: the coachee must drive and define these for themselves; the line manager and the person contracting with the external coach (often the Director of HR or a key executive) can each contribute to this important process.

It is important to recognise that coaches funded by large organisations are operating in a highly political environment, with many political stakeholders.As a general rule, the higher the level of the coachee, the stronger will be the external political forces impacting the relationship between coach and coachee.’ (Skinner, 2012). As Skinner clearly illustrates, one needs to be mindful of this and respect it, both in the approach to contracting and in the coaching relationship. We must be constantly sensitive to our own motives and drivers in the way that we conduct relationships with key stakeholders; on occasions, this may be a valuable topic to reflect upon in supervision.

Understanding expectations 

    1. Director of HR: it is most frequently the Director of HR contracting with me for coaching services for a number of managers / directors. They will explain to me why the organisation is seeking to provide coaching and the current organisational context.
    2.  Line manager/executive: the executive can play a vital role in that they may provide the coachee with vital support; initially by offering feedback that may inform outcomes and discussing priorities within agreed performance objectives.Understanding the expectations of others may support the coachee in defining their outcomes. Contracting, among other things, must ensure that the coachee appreciates that they are in the driving seat; the coaching relationship provides the coachee with space to work on what is important to them. Initial contracting is the start of the coaching relationship; so however it is approached it must lay the foundations for a sound relationship that is fundamental to the overall effectiveness of coaching. Although 1-1 contracting is essential, I have in some situations started with a joint session that brings together a number of coachees and the Director of HR.

A joint session can offer a range of benefits and is feasible where an organisation is adopting coaching for a number of managers / directors to support some organisational change and a shift in internal dynamics. There has to be an accepted openness and a level of comfort about those being coached coming together.

A joint contracting session can help with:

– Getting to know me as a coach, my style and approach. Ours will be an important relationship and meeting me with others can make coming along for our first 1-1 meeting less daunting. It gives the opportunity to discuss general issues, such as boundaries, feedback and the need for clarity on topics to be addressed.

– Enhancing their appreciation of ‘what is coaching?’ This can be important where individuals have had a mentor and feel unclear about how a mentor and coach differ.

In a joint session there can be testing out of understanding and listening to the experiences of others:

  1. Exploring (with the Director of HR) the organisation’s purpose for working with an external coach and how coachees were identified/ approached. It provides the coachees space to discuss the organisational context that will form the backcloth to their coaching. As part of reflection, I will be encouraging them in our sessions to explore what they have learned about the organisation from situations/ issues we address.
  2. Setting the coachees thinking about their desired outcomes as a preparation for the 1-1 contracting meeting.
  3. Discussing options for engaging with line managers. Individuals need to make their own decisions based upon consideration of what support they feel may be of value to them personally. My experience suggests that in the appropriate circumstances a joint session can set a positive tone for the coaching and help the coachees appreciate its fit with overall organisational direction.In one organisation we agreed and documented organisational outcomes; these were then used within review and evaluation of the coaching. Both coachees and the organisation found this a helpful exercise as it demonstrated the value of the coaching in contributing to the overall change agenda and enabled individuals to assess how they had responded to challenges in the workplace. Coachees felt that organisational outcomes offered them a useful context, without restricting them in agreeing personal outcomes and raising their own issues within the confidentiality of the coaching relationship.


Where there has been a joint session, the 1-1 contracting meeting builds upon that initial contact; it provides for personal discussion of the relationship and what the coachee wants to achieve. From this meeting, I encourage coachees to record their initial outcomes as they provide a focus for our sessions and also can be used to review progress.

It is important that as the relationship develops and the context may shift, outcomes are reviewed and re-negotiated. For example, the coachee may have issues that they were hesitant to raise until their trust and confidence has developed in our coaching relationship. Equally it is important to offer space for re-contracting at the start of each session. There will always be the occasion when something unexpected has occurred that the coachee needs to deal with.

During a discussion other issues may arise; re-contracting during a session allows us to move in a different direction if the coachee judges this to be appropriate and useful. In addition, it enables me to clarify what the coachee wants from me; naturally this may vary depending upon the issue and it is helpful to us to be explicit. Contracting at the start of the relationship, the start of each session and at points during a session all help to ensure clarity of outcomes and engagement with what is important to the person at the time, while respecting the political setting within the organisation.

The responsibility of this whole process of establishing a coaching agreement and outcomes is now embedded within the Association of Coaching competency framework (May 2011). Clear outcomes also provide the bedrock for effective evaluation. Like a sat nav, contracting will set an overall direction and allow for changes as the context shifts and unforeseen challenges arise. Thus effective contracting can facilitate the delivery of tangible benefits and ensure that issues important to the individual are addressed when it feels right for them. Contracting sets the direction, keeps us on track and demonstrates impact and outcomes.

Contracting is also like an iceberg, watch out for those hidden depths. I will explore those another time!

an iceberg

I am very happy to provide references and a bibliography for this blog.



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