Contracting Phase: Find a Way to Be a Partner

{O’Neill, 2007. Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart}

The Roots of the Coaching Phases

{The ‘research’ activity in action research is part of a continuous cycle of research, experimentation, and improvement in which participants continue to review, evaluate, and improve their domain of endeavor. In an organization, the ‘action’ is an ongoing daily ‘Concrete Experience’ of implementing some project, plan, or procedure accompanied by observation, data collection, evaluation, and adjustment. These steps could be considered proceduralized and trivialized forms of Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation of the experiential learning cycle. An action research project could enter the cycle from anywhere at any time as a parallel process; to simplify, taking a look at the data, reviewing and evaluating what is planned and what is manifesting, we can contract for a change and move into a nontrivial, intentional learning cycle.}

The 5 phases of action research are (1) entry and contracting, (2) data collection and feedback, (3) action planning, (4) implementation and follow-through, and (5) evaluation, including either termination of the contract or recycling through the steps.

The 4 phases of executive coaching are contracting, planning, live-action coaching, and debriefing; these constitute a form of action research.

A systems perspective involves systems assessment and intervention; the systems approach is about noticing and changing patterns; intervention in any phase, not just the implementation step alone, can create change. Engaging in action research creates a heightened self-awareness that readies the organization for change.

Critical issues to highlight in these four phases include focusing on specific business results and the leader’s need to create organizational alignment.


In this phase, the coach and client build a relationship, and the coach establishes credibility.

The client wonders, “Can the coach help me?” while the coach asks, “Is this executive open to feedback?”

Together they establish the goals and parameters for the coaching relationship and set expectations that drive the remaining phases.

This stage offers the client a sense of what working together will be like.

The contracting conversation allows us to launch a productive partnership and build elements into it that will keep the other phases on track and seed the elements for future success.

{Build a meaningful relationship,

establish coach credibility,

establish the goals and parameters of the coaching relationship,

set expectations that drive the remaining phases,

build elements of success into the partnership, and 

seed the elements for future success.}

Step 1 Join with the client

Important Social skills of the coach of friendliness, approachability, a sense of humor, and a sincere interest in the other person build strength into the relationship to draw on in the tougher times to come.

The client wants to know whether you will really help; some questions may not be explicitly voiced, “How quickly can you get on board with me? Do you get what I’m talking about? Are you practical, effective? Do you have some depth to your experience?”

Qualify your client as well. Executive coaching requires clients to willingly explore their strengths and drawbacks to overcome energy-draining homeostasis and the system’s inertia and to see their effect on the success and disappointments of an organizational effort.

{Pass the test of the client and 

qualify your client.}

Step 2 Familiarize Yourself with Your Client’s Challenge

The partnership begins when your client talks about the issue she is currently challenged. Often just listening, following your curiosity about the issue, and constantly restating for clarity help the client define the central issue and her opportunities and challenges within that issue.

Use specific listening skills of concreteness, empathy, confrontation, and respect.

Concreteness means inviting the client to get more specific about the issue.

Invite the client to describe actual behaviors and circumstances so you both can see what she means. Many clients articulate global dissatisfaction but have been unclear with their staff about their expectations. By pushing for greater specificity from clients, you do an enormous favor for organizations.

To elicit a specific concrete response, ask

What specifically frustrates you about the situation?

Can you give me an example?

What do you mean?

When did this happen?

What specifically do you expect from them?

{Do not get intimidated by the client becoming impatient on details.

Global terms and global descriptions are of no use.}

Empathy is your effort to show that you understand your client’s concerns.

Express the client’s message in your own words. When you nail down the client’s core concerns, you address her real issue, not the issue you think she means.

Confrontation means pointing out discrepancies between what the client is saying and what she actually does.

Bring forth the discrepancy in a neutral tone. Simply hold up a mirror so the client can make her own judgments about her incongruence. Be descriptive rather than critical or judgmental about the client’s behavior. Spending time on a client’s discrepancies in behavior helps her to deal with the contradictions she has been living with and get ready to change them rather than chronically tolerate them.

Respect is a deep belief that the client has the capacity and the resources to handle and resolve the situation.

Show that the client ultimately has the resilience to address her issues. Shine light on past successes in dealing with similar challenges, her knowledge and skills gone unrecognized or underappreciated, and her strengths and capacities she can bring forth to bear on the issue.

Using these four listening skills, you have engaged your client in understanding what is at stake and the context surrounding her dilemma.

Step 3 Test the Client’s Ability to Own His Part of the Issue

Coaching effectiveness is predicated on the client’s willingness and ability to change.

Probing for all relevant factors contributing to the situation requires a focus on external factors as well as the client’s habitual response to the issue. Positive organizational change can come about only by changing individual responses to the environment and acknowledging what each individual is contributing to the situation. Identifying his part requires the client to scrutinize and critically reflect on his role in the system.

What recurring patterns or habitual responses are present in your situation?

Which patterns work well?

Which patterns detract from what you’re trying to accomplish?

How have you responded to this issue before?

What part of this pattern results from your own knee-jerk reactions?

Can you imagine a different pattern resulting from a different response on your part?

How much stamina do you have to eliminate part of the pattern that is no longer effective?

How will this help you get to your goal?

How can I be helpful to you in moving to that new behavior?

Step 4 Give Immediate Feedback to the Client

Your interaction with the client opens a window into her characteristic patterns. Use immediacy to feed back your impressions of the client. Deliver frank, specific, and collaborative feedback without being overly protective. Watch what follows in the immediacy of this moment; this helps you ascertain what happens in the client’s work world.

How you experience the client is probably how his staff experiences him also; staying silent about your observations instead of giving feedback only undermines your credibility and effectiveness and establishes an unsustainable pattern.

The client may step into the moment, seeking more information and learning about himself, or he could retreat from the frankness, which helps you decide whether you want to pursue this contract.

Find an opportunity early in the contracting phase to use the immediacy of feedback with the prospective client to show the client how you coach. The prospective client then decides if he wants this kind of coaching.

For a successful coaching contract, the client must be willing to see himself honestly (self-awareness & self-knowledge), own his part in the patterns at play (agency & responsiveness), and be receptive to immediate feedback (receptiveness), making changes in his behavior.

Step 5 Take a Systems View of Your Client’s Issue

Develop positional neutrality toward all team members. Everyone is a co-creator in the system; to be effective, you cannot side with one member over another.

At times, you will feel the pulls of anxiety the same way the members of the system do. This gives you a direct experience of what it is like to be a member of that system. Recognize this response and find your way back out. Watch for the emotional pull in you to take sides.

Use the same method in identifying your part in this encounter: What recurring patterns are present in this situation? What is your contribution? Remember that everyone contributes to co-create the situation.

The identified (presenting) problem is usually not the real issue. Difficulties stem from how the client addresses the problem.

Help the system use dormant abilities in all the players; these are the abilities suppressed by their present prevailing responses.

Step 6 Establish a Contract

Establishing an explicit contract moves the conversation to specific goal setting. Mention expectations essential to the coaching partnership upfront rather than trying to bargain or plead for them later. Include mutual responsibility as an explicit part of the contract. The contract answers the question, “How will we work together?”

Topics of a Contracting Conversation

Scheduling of meetings: How long, how often

Agenda management: Who plans the agenda for a meeting; who manages the agenda during the meeting

Confidentiality: Who else knows, who tells them, functionally working the triangles in the contract

Contracts: Whether a written legal document, a letter of agreement, or a verbal agreement, identify the focus of the work

Reports: Written or verbal, generated and distributed by whom

Fees: Including payment and cancellation terms

Expenses: What is covered by the client, what is covered by the coach

Logistics: Where to meet (on-site or off-site), who secures the place, who provides needed materials

Contact person: The client or someone else (for example, executive assistant, HR, sustaining sponsor)

Accessibility: Expectations around frequency and timelines of contacts in between business meetings

Debriefs and follow-ups: Frequency and scheduling

Recontracting: When things “go south”, when the work shifts, when it is time to end the work together

Step 7 Encourage the Client to Set Measurable Goals

Clarify goals and expected outcomes for the project.

Help the client determine which of the client’s stated goals will yield the greatest results.

Focus on specific outcomes and business results. How will the changes improve productivity in the organization? How are the work relationship goals related to specific business outcomes?

Use the Three Key Factors Methodology

Help the client identify the Three Key Factors around a specific business challenge she faces:

(1) the business results that leaders must achieve,

(2) the leader interpersonal behaviors they must exhibit in their key work relationships, and

(3) the team interactions necessary to attain the business results.

For effective organizational outcomes, the executive manages these Three Key Factors simultaneously. The real challenge for leaders and coaches is ensuring that the Three Key Factors are linked and interrelated to each other and incorporated into the leader’s daily choices.

The coaching process is launched by identifying and customizing the Three Key Factors to the executive’s situation.

These also provide the criteria to evaluate the executive coaching work at closing.

Guiding principles to achieve outstanding results on tough business issues:

Guiding Principle for Business results: “Ensure the results are linked to key behaviors you need from yourself and others.”

Encourage your client to identify customized, specific, and measurable goals for all Three Key Factors categories. Aim for integration such that each key factor list also supports the achievement of the other two key factors.

Guiding Principle for Leader interpersonal behaviors: “Increase your stamina to meet the relationship challenges you face so you work more effectively with others.”

This landscape of emotional reactions and challenges can block achieving business results.

Guiding Principle for Team interactions: “As the leader, identify and transform ineffective patterns co-created by you and your team.”

This may require a thoughtful discovery process of hidden or unconscious patterns. The aim is to create effective interactional patterns.

Generic lists are of no real use in initiating change. More specific and customized lists highlight the work relationship challenges most relevant to the business results and address the co-created patterns that must be transformed.

The coach and leader work on customizing and rendering each of the Three Key Factors measurable while demonstrating their interrelationship. Vague and general factors disempower the leader and the team; linking and making measurable the factors empowers them for the change effort to produce results.

As an executive coach, an important task is to probe and repeatedly emphasize the interdependencies among the Three Key Factors; to keep asking your client to redefine, refine, and hone the items on each list. What are the essential items under each factor? Which gives her the most leverage and the greatest chance of success?

You cannot convince them; they must convince themselves of the links through repeated refinements.

Define the Measures: How Will You Know When You Get There?

Business Results

Use four basic categories to measure business results: time, money, quality, and quantity. First, state the business results as goals, the critical process to get there, and the time frame.

Money: Sales, Revenue, Profit, Discounts, Employee absenteeism, Employee retention.

Time: Project length, Production time, Downtime, Task time, First-to-market innovation, Approval time.

Quality: Meet quality standards, Defects, Prevention or relapse, Customer satisfaction, Meet environmental standards, and Positive media visibility.

Quantity: Production, Number of services, Service volume, Customers, Inventories, Market share. 

Leader Interpersonal Behaviors

The measurable goals on the leader and team factor lists must be specific, observable, and repeatable. For example, 

Give goals and expectations.

Ensure team paraphrases for understanding.

Invite opinions, concerns, and reactions.

Ensure commitment to goals.

Clarify decision style.

Give specific feedback.

Encourage collaborative differences.

Uphold expectations.

Acknowledge achievements.

Team Interactions

For example, 

Paraphrase to clarify understanding.

Give opinions, and raise concerns.

Clarify readiness level to commit.

Seek decision clarity.

Give input outside their functions.

Manage conflicts collaboratively.

Hold peers accountable for mutual agreements.

Own mistakes and initiate problem-solving.

Lead their teams in alignment processes.

Test the Leader and Team Lists

Make sure the lists contain interactional verbs, i.e., actions directed toward someone.

A specific goal makes clear behaviors that serve the goal.

When the right set of simple interdependent behaviors is chosen and applied simultaneously, they are the key behaviors necessary to break through to a higher level of performance.

The leader and team lists should identify the critical actions to be made daily to achieve business success.

If the leader and the team pursue these behaviors during daily interactions, could someone watching a movie of these interactions identify the desired behaviors and accurately describe them? Could an observer recognize the behavioral expectations set forth by the leader?

The executive and the coach assess the frequency and quality of these interactions over time. How many times do they see these behaviors in meetings? Are they consistently and effectively used in every meeting, whether the leader is present or not? Are expectations clear, and do team members seek the leader’s clarification?

Reinforcement of these specific and observable behaviors affects how the team does business.

Each situation is unique; therefore, the behaviors are customized and built from the ground up so that the client is convinced that this combination will make a difference.

Incorporating these behaviors into their regular way of doing business helps the leader and the team own the skills and have confidence in applying them in other challenges and contexts for other organizational goals and results.

The leader key factor list can become the agenda from which the two of you will work together to help her incorporate a new way of acting.

Truth on Advertising: Clients Will Balk

The executive is probably working under pressure and in complex work situations, and he may shrug the Three Key Factors exercise off as a waste of time or claim he already has all of it in place.

The process is iterative, and the clients create the criteria for building a successful enterprise. The value of the Three Key Factors is in using them.

To begin a productive discussion, start with the key factor that energizes the client the most. Go with the energy; if the leader is fixated on laying blame on their team, ask for a list of all the ways in which the team does not function well. The list can easily convert into categories for the team interactions factor by simply replacing the negative actions with positive ones and making specific, proactive, and measurable behavior goals for each item on the team interactions list.

Connect the leader interactions to the team list she just created by asking what specifically they will have to do differently to lead their team there.

“Now that you know specifically what changes your team has to make, what are you going to have to do differently to lead them there?”

Hold an outcome focus, link the coaching effort to business results, and prioritize the business and leadership development areas that need attention.

Help the client be specific about her goals, help her to keep the ownership for deciding which goals and measures to pursue, and help her to ensure that they are the right goals for the business.

In the coaching conversations, focus on the link between the Three Key Factors.

Insist that the client describe how their development is essential to the business.

Measures provide a way to see progress. The ultimate measure is whether they make their bottom-line goal. But it is the team interactions and leader behaviors that will get them there. The measures for these goals provide the leader and the team with growing knowledge of the specific actions that directly affect business outcomes.

Do the new leader and team behaviors directly affect results? If they can see this is the case, they will be more likely to commit to changing their actions accordingly.

Slow Down Goal Setting to Speed Up the Action Later

Clients may become impatient and irritated with lengthy goal conversations, wanting to move to action. Clear goals and measures for those goals provide the focus for effective action.

The impatience is mostly not about time constraints but may indicate the leader’s lack of clarity. The process of aligning himself and the organization and honing in on specifics requires hard work. Stay with him, and keep inquiring about clear goals so he can be productive during the implementation.

If the business situation is too ambiguous to know confidently what team interaction goals and measures would achieve the bottom-line results, the client may establish those he believes will affect the bottom-line results and establish midpoint checks of the measures to calibrate them and see whether they take him and his team in the right direction. The specifics set at the beginning can be adjusted later if needed, but spend the energy upfront on setting and monitoring them as the client proceeds with the action.

Step 8 Involve the Boss

Find out what the boss wants most out of his employee’s performance. Help him identify his direct report’s Three Key Factors.

Provide guerrilla coaching to the boss regarding his supervision of his employee. It may give you a platform for an explicit coaching contract with the boss.

Conduct three meetings with the boss: preparation sessions for the three-way meetings, the three-way meetings themselves, and periodic follow-up meetings.

The client works within a system that has to be acknowledged, honored, and mined for data and direction for the coaching contract.

Meet with the client’s boss as part of setting up the coaching contract to find out what he cares about most regarding his employee’s development and performance.

Main agenda for the preparation meetings:

Identify how the boss views the essential elements of the client’s Three Key Factors.

Discover how the client’s Three Key Factors, if delivered well, allow the boss to obtain success with his own Three Key Factors. Get the boss to be specific about how these two sets of Three Key Factors reinforce each other. {Direction & Alignment}

Help the boss identify new leader interpersonal behaviors that he needs to change in supervising his direct report to increase the chances of success in the coaching contract.

Discover the boss’ time frame for when he wants his direct report to achieve the measures of the Three Key Factors and how he will monitor this progress.

Prepare the boss for a three-way meeting with the boss, his direct report, and the coach. Offer to coach the boss during that meeting.

In three-way meetings:

The boss communicates his expectations to his direct report, shares the Three Key Factors expectations, and works on gaining clarity and commitment from his direct report regarding these issues. {Commitment}

Client, boss, and coach cover when and how the boss will monitor progress.

The boss offers the services of the coach to the direct report. He distinguishes between the goals for the client (required) and how he gets there (optional use of a coach).

The coach helps to keep the boss on track with his goals in the meeting.

Periodic follow-up coach-boss meetings heighten the boss’ level of responsibility to supervise:

Help the boss clarify his satisfaction with the client’s progress and what areas need ongoing work.

Identify an action plan the boss will carry out for any of the following: getting the information he needs to assess his direct report’s progress, giving feedback to his direct report, and coaching the boss on his progress on his new leadership interpersonal behaviors with his direct report.

{The interpersonal behavior of a leader is a leadership tool. Seeing their contribution to a pattern established between themselves as the boss and their direct reports helps the boss identify new leader interpersonal behaviors that he must change in supervising his report to increase the chances of success in the coaching contract.}

{Evaluating a direct report is the responsibility of the boss. Decline the boss’ request for your evaluation of her employee. The coach can offer to coach the boss on ways he can get the information he needs to make an evaluation himself, identifying what criteria he wants to define to evaluate progress, development, or performance and thoughtfully weighing a direct report’s strengths and challenges and how to communicate the results.}

If the coaching is initiated by a high-performer client herself, involving the boss may happen in reverse order. You can do the preparation work with your client first. After helping her identify her Three Key Factors, you can meet with the boss and have him identify his direct report’s Three Key Factors from his perspective and then initiate the three-way conversation. When the boss initiates the call to the coach, the boss runs the first three-way meeting. When the client initiates the coaching, the client can lead the three-way meeting.

A Word About Assessment Tools

Promote giving and receiving direct feedback among people in organizations rather than letting them triangulate their relationships through assessment tools.

Help both sides of a challenged system; the leader to receive feedback productively without reprisals and the direct reports to give behaviorally specific and actionable feedback.

Involve your client’s boss in giving assessment feedback directly rather than through you.

Assessment tools, surveys, and style or type Inventories should not replace important face-to-face conversations. These tools easily become excuses for the boss to avoid performance management of his direct report by relying on her to get the information from a 360-degree process or for the direct report to avoid giving feedback directly to a boss or a peer and unloading it in a 360-degree survey.

People can hide behind their anonymous feedback and hope that someone else will face the leader in question with the feedback.