Systemic coaching - who really is the client?


Systemic coaching - who really is the client?

“There is no such thing as a great coach, only coaching that continuously co-creates greater added value with and for all the stakeholders of the coaching’

This quote from Peter Hawkins and Eve Turner’s Systemic Coaching- Delivering Value Beyond the Individual really made me sit up and take notice. Are they really saying that there’s no such thing as a great coach? Digging a bit deeper – and context is everything after all – Hawkins and Turner are actually arguing that there is a clear need for coaching as a discipline to evolve beyond the impact on an individual to a situation where added value is assessed and reflected. If, as a coach, you don’t seek to understand why an organisation is looking to invest in coaching, what the desired outcomes are and where they are looking to add value then you can be certain that the return on investment won’t be optimised.

At MRA we know the value individuals gain from 1:1 coaching through our Executive Leadership, Education and Women in Leadership Coaching Programmes. We understand the impact on teams and individuals of our Team Coaching and Wellbeing and Resilience programmes, and we recognise the importance to an organisation of investing in developing high quality coaching skills for leaders through our EMCC accredited, Level 5 Coaching with Confidence qualification. We know all this because we pride ourselves on working in partnership with organisations, which also happens to be one of our core values. In addition to ensuring that every coaching programme we deliver is designed specifically with the needs of the organisation, team and individual members in mind, this partnership approach also enables us to develop a deep understanding of the interconnected nature of the system within which the coaching is taking place. We understand that changing something in one part of a system impacts the rest of the system – this is the essence of systemic coaching and is at the heart of how we work with our clients.

So what is systemic coaching?  It’s an emerging way of thinking about coaching and has started to question some of the existing assumptions in the industry, really challenging the ‘solitary’ nature of a 1:1 coaching relationship.  At its heart is interconnectedness – we all exist within systems and how we think, feel and behave impacts not just ourselves but the system or systems within which we operate. Mary Beth O’Neil (2000) started the challenge with her book – ‘Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart’ – where she introduced concepts stemming from her expertise in organisational psychology and development to prompt coaches to think beyond the individual to the organisational outcomes. She defines executive coaching as ‘helping leaders get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results for the organisation…to turn the leader towards their team’ – so prompting coaches to truly operate with a focus on both the individual as a leader and also within the organisation.

Given the emerging nature of the discipline and the many articles and books with varying perspectives on systemic coaching it’s helpful therefore, that Hawkins and Turner have reviewed the wealth of information available and collated the thinking to create an overall definition:

“Individual systemic coaching is a collaborative and dialogical inquiry between two people (coach and coachee), exploring how the coachee can learn and develop in relation to the worlds they are embedded within, in a way that creates positive benefit for them and all the nested systems of which they are a part.

Business systemic coaching is systemic coaching that focuses on creating value for the individual client and the teams they are part of, the organisational client they work for, as well as the organisations’ stakeholders and the wider communities and the ecology that the organisation is part of”

At MRA our focus is on applying a business systemic approach to coaching with the core aim being to ensure the outcomes from any coaching programme have maximum impact for the individual and organisation – the added value is both seen and felt across an organisation and there are no questions about the return on investment because it’s obvious. The work of Anne Schoular in 2011 really underpins the essence of how we approach working with our clients; she was clear when writing about business coaching that ‘if the coach is contracted by the organisation then the organisation is the end client’. She then goes on to suggest than when working with organisations ‘there is the need to understand the context and contract well in the shifting political sands of organisational life’.

Hawkins and Turner are also big advocates of coach on-boarding, alignment and briefing with the aim of not only providing information but also starting to build a clear connection between the coaches, the sponsors, the coachees and the senior leaders in the business. Here at MRA, when we start working with any new client, in order to ensure we truly operate with a business systemic approach at its heart we always ensure we get an understanding of the basics through our coach onboarding sessions covering:

  • What changes or challenges is the organisation currently facing?
  • What are the organisation’s strengths and achievements?
  • How would you describe the culture of your organisation? Is a ‘coaching leadership’ style a predominant one?
  • What is the aim of coaching in the organisation and how has this been identified?
  • What would the organisation expect to see as a result and how might this be measured?
  • How do coaching initiatives fit with other strategies and initiatives in the organisation?
  • How will the coaching offer be governed and how will commitment be gained from key business leaders? Do you have a senior leader who could champion the initiative?
  • Who is offered coaching?
  • What role does HR play in supporting the coaching offer?
  • What are the processes, guidelines and systems that support the coaching offer?

Our ‘Full Picture’ scoping document also seeks out information beyond the team or individual we are working with to understand the broader context of how and where coaching will fit – we review the company vision and strategy, people plan, organisational values, other development and training offered, previous coaching support, any relationship dynamics we should be aware of across the group we are coaching, etc.

In addition, we will often look to conduct key stakeholder interviews to gain insight across the organisation to complement existing understanding and to inform the important ROI conversations – if you don’t know what people want the outcomes to be then how will you know if you’ve been successful?

Furthermore, when we’re coaching a group of leaders within an organisation, we also seek to embed their learning through our Action Learning Sets where we bring together individual coachees to support their own and each other’s insights and understanding. This also serves to provide an opportunity to reflect on how their coaching can impact at a broader level than just themselves and their immediate teams. What’s the leadership ripple effect that can be created?

The final part of the systemic coaching jigsaw is ensuring that all relevant insight from coaching is gathered as a learning loop. Hawkins and Turner refer to this as ‘Harvesting the Learning’ and relate this not just to the ‘formal’ coaching that takes places but to the potentially hundreds of coaching conversations that take place across an organisation in any one month. At MRA we have client account teams who meet regularly to share themes and relevant insights that could benefit the organisations, all the time ensuring that the coaches act in line with their code of ethics and protect the confidentiality of their individual coachees. This insight can be invaluable in shaping future leadership development programmes and in ensuring that there is clear added value from the coaching investment.

So, is there really no such thing as a great coach  At MRA we firmly believe that we have the very best coaches working for us (admittedly they are all pretty special - Postgraduate qualified, Mental Health First Aiders, DE&I trained, MBTI practitioners and EQ360/EQi qualified plus a commitment to ongoing CPD and regular Supervision) – but without a deep understanding of the system within which our great coaches are working we wouldn’t be seeing the impact and added value we repeatedly witness when we get the systems bit right.  

“Systemic coaching underpins everything we do, it’s fundamental to our success and what sets us apart. We immerse ourselves in our clients’ worlds so that we really get them and what makes them tick – true partnership meaning we make a real and evidenced difference.”

(Matt Radley, Founder and MD, MRA)

For more information on how coaching can create added value for your organisation please contact us


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