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To Give or Not To Give... (Advice, That Is)

By Brian Underhill, PhD, CEO, CoachSource

I will never coach in front of a live audience again.

Over a decade ago in Vancouver, I was asked to conduct a “coaching fishbowl” for a large business coaching conference.  A local owner of a family manufacturing business was brought in.  After only a few minutes together, we were thrust on stage where I would now coach him in front of hundreds.

Having worked with Marshall Goldsmith for a few years at this point, I relied (best I could) on my training and experience.  After getting a quick lay of the land of the challenges he faced in his business, I helped him narrow down to a leadership growth objective (to micromanage less).  I then assisted him in generating an action plan to accomplish this objective.  He supplied a variety of ideas on what he could do to improve.  After he ran out of ideas, I then suggested a few as well.  The clock was ticking, but he had a pretty formidable action plan in just a short 20 minutes.

Ding!  Time’s up.  "Job well done,” I thought…especially with such little time, and NO assessments to work with.  I gave myself a pat on the back; A pat that was quickly cut short. 

“That was not coaching, THAT was consulting!!” screamed a man who might as well have been standing atop his chair.  “I’ve been in this field for 15 years, and THAT was CONSULTING!!!”

“I run the largest coaching school in [blah blah country]” said a lady in the first row.  "We would never call that coaching!”

Another agreed: “I can’t believe you gave him ADVICE.  I would NEVER give my clients advice!”  I felt 2 feet tall.  At least I was sitting in a chair, so no one noticed.

Soon enough - and to my slight relief - others began to retort in my defense.  “That was exactly how I would coach,” said one.  “Of course I give advice,” commented another.  “Executives expect you to have something to say,” agreed a third coach. And with that, an all-out war erupted right there before my eyes.  

While the poor facilitator had to negotiate the warring factions, I honestly just wanted to pack my things and disappear - perhaps walk all the way back to California if I had to.

On Advice Giving

You see, I committed an unforgivable sin in the eyes of some - I committed the “A” word.  I gave advice to this leader during a coaching session.

In our beautifully emerging profession of coaching, the giving of advice is a hotly-contested debate (along with certification, which I’ll save for another blog when it’s a slow news day!).  Is it acceptable to give advice in coaching?  And if you were to give advice, are you actually coaching - or maybe instead you are consulting, mentoring or something else?

In one corner, the International Coach Federation and many training organizations offer a very clear opinion on this - coaching is not about advice giving.  In fact, the ICF certification examination docks significant points for any coach caught giving advice during an audited session.  The idea is that the answers lie within the leader, and the coach’s job is to bring those answers to light.  Marcia Reynolds, the fifth president of the ICF (and CoachSource coach), says “People are far more likely to commit to behavior made through self-discovery. Unless someone is totally eager to try out your advice, a [leader’s] strong ego may work backward to justify their previous behavior.”

On the other hand, many executive coaches are well known to offer advice during sessions.  Marshall Goldsmith once said, “If you have some advice to give, then give it!  Don’t sit around asking a series of bozo questions trying to get the executive to guess what you have been thinking about all along!”  In fact, one of our busiest coaches, Craig May of Texas, says “I'm a former business executive.  My clients choose me as their coach because of my ‘been there / done that’ business and leadership experience…I just don't think that a coach is coaching unless they are telling, instructing, showing, demonstrating…giving advice.”

The argument in favor of advice-giving is that executive coaches often have considerable business experience of their own, and have coached hundreds of leaders with similar issues - therefore, they would have something to offer to help the leader improve.  One Fortune 500 VP, Leadership Development once told me, “If the leader knew how they could change a key behavior, they would just do it!"

The Great Hat Swap

Along the way of screening over 1,000 executive coaches, I will often ask a coach their opinion on giving advice.  In fact, I now call their answer "The Great Hat Swap".  Why?  Here is a very typical interview question I ask:

Me: Do you ever give advice when you are coaching?

Coach:  Well, what I do is I tell my client, "Right now I am wearing my coaching hat."  I then ask them: “Do you mind if I offer you some advice right now?"  When they say, “No, I don’t mind" I then tell them, "Ok right now I am putting on my consulting hat” and then I offer the advice.  After I have given my advice, I then tell them I am putting my coaching hat back on.

Me [Writing privately in the coach’s file]: “Does the hat swap thing.” 

So coaches WILL give advice, but perhaps only after asking permission.  (By the way, how many clients ever say, “Yes, I do mind.  I don’t want any advice right now!  Keep that coaching hat on!”)  And to boot, nearly every time I ask any ICF-certified coach (including MCCs) whether they ever give advice, they will always secretly admit that they do when coaching - in other words, they admit they do one thing to pass the ICF requirements, yet in actual practice they do things differently.

It’s ALL Good

But perhaps it is ALL good?  Let’s go back to the definition of executive coaching, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, from our book Executive Coaching for Results: “Executive coaching is the one-to-one development of an organizational leader.”  In our definition, we are focusing on the development of an organizational leader - and whether the giving (or lack thereof) of advice facilitates that development, then any approach is acceptable.  

In 2003, industry researcher Tony Grant defined coaching as a “Goal-directed, results-oriented, systematic process in which one person facilitates sustained change in another individual or group through fostering the self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee encompassing attributes along a continuum.”  This continuum includes directive and non-directive approaches, and whether or not the participant is leading the agenda, or the coach is.

So, instead of grasping at straws, maybe we need to recognize that all approaches can be valid - and it is up to the skill of the coach to determine how and where each approach might be employed.

At times, great shifts can be made by effective questioning.  “When you make a reflective statement and ask a powerful question that makes people stop and question their own thinking,” says Marcia Reynolds, “the automatic processing stops and the brain quickly rewires to make sense of the new awareness.”

But at times, just the right advice at the right time can greatly change the trajectory of someone’s life.  I’m sure you can recount multiple times when this has happened to you – as I can.

I’m still never coaching in front of a room again (I’m only halfway through my walk from Vancouver to San Jose)!  But at least I can be assured that it’s ALL good.

What do you think?  Enter your comments in below.


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