What does it take to be a master coach?

What are some of the lessons learned by those who have achieved mastery in coaching?  This was a question I wanted to explore, when my coaching colleague Sue Stockdale and I talked to five AC Accredited Master Executive Coaches to find out what they learned about coaching over the many years they have been operating in this industry.  These interviews took place with Richard Andrews, Adrian Bailey, Alison Dixon(Griffiths), Elaine Patterson and David Willcock.  Each of them has been coaching for over 15 years and work primarily in the corporate sector.

The areas we explored with them were:

  • What are the personal qualities that helped you succeed as a coach?
  • What are the biggest lessons you have learned from your clients?
  • In what ways do you give back to the wider coaching profession, or is the end of the journey towards mastery?

What are the personal qualities that have helped you succeed?

Deep levels of listening

Whilst all coaching textbooks would include the ability to listen as a key coaching skill, the subtlety at Master level is to be able to distinguish what you are listening for. All of the coaches described how they work at a cognitive, behavioural, physiological  and emotional level, and are comfortable going into a coaching session with a high degree of uncertainty yet working “in the moment” with what the client presents.

Adrian Bailey cites the teachings of the late Dr Freddie Strasser, with whom he studied at Regents College whose approach was to always listen for the emotions as they will tell the coach much more about the person than the words.  An example of this is being able to offer the observation back to the client says Bailey. “If the client looks sad, then offer that to them – you look sad, then be silent and see what they say.  The emotions are likely to give you a clue as to what needs to change. Because what clients say they want, and what they really want are usually different”.


Another quality that was common across those interviewed was their willingness to be accepting of others. Elaine Patterson believes it is important because by using her ability to be accepting she creates a safe space to be able to offer feedback on what she is observing to her clients without attachment or judgement. Her clients are then freed to work with what is offered or not.

This was similar to Alison Dixon who described how she has developed this ability over time. She reflected “when I started out as a coach, I was told not to bring emotions into the session, and not to spend too long discussing them, as you needed to move clients forward. I have learned to just be with clients and be present with them where they are at, as they might not be ready to move forwards.  By just being present in the moment, allowing your own ego to get out of the way, and accepting that you put your client at the centre of the relationship and you don’t need to fix it or sort it, you just need to be there for them – that is key to remember”.

Risk taking

“When I take big risks with my client we are much more likely to see big progress.”  Richard Andrews believes that by building good rapport with early on with clients, he is able to take more risks, which yields results.  This might be in terms of asking challenging questions or being prepared to be tough and face the prospect of losing a client.  However, when he has been prepared to take a risk, it has brought a positive outcome for both him and the client.


What are the biggest lessons you have learned from your clients?

The importance of contracting

Several of the coaches reflected that they had learned the importance of contracting from working with their clients, and particularly the value of keeping relationships and the number of people involved to a minimum.  David Willcock explained that whilst a coachee may be committed to participating in coaching sessions, often its other stakeholders that can influence the degree to which it is likely to succeed.  For example, with a one to one relationship, there are only two parties involved. But if you have coach, coachee, line manager, and HR there are in reality six relationships going on, and this increases exponentially the more others get involved.

Adrian Bailey outlined a situation he experienced when HR, the coachee and the line manager all gave a different account of what the issue was that was to be addressed. Even after six weeks, there was no common agreement over a coaching goal which made it very difficult to set up a coaching relationship.   He recommends making sure there is a clear common goal before you begin, get evidence to back up what is stated e.g. diagnostic tool, and minimise the amount of people involved.


You cannot deliver a great result unless you are willing to give yourself to coaching


There appeared to be a rule of thumb that the ‘degree to which the client engages with the process, has an impact on the level of results achieved.’ But this concept also applies to the coach.  Alison Dixon believes that you have to be prepared to work “on yourself” as a coach so that you increase your own self-awareness and address your limitations and self imposed obstacles.  And by observing the process within those you coach, this can be the encouragement you need as a coach to shine a light on the dark corners of your own behaviours and personality.


In what ways do you give back to the wider coaching profession?

With Mastery level comes the unspoken expectation that the Master will pass on their learning to others so that they can also develop “greatness’. It appears that this is the case with those interviewed.  The activities varied from being a tutor on a coaching training or coaching supervision programme, providing coaching supervision, writing books, speaking at conferences, and being involved in the development of the Coaching Supervision Accreditation process for the Association for Coaching to developing apps based on Jungian psychology.

The common theme was enhancing the professionalism of coaching – particularly with the broadening use of coaching, when these days anyone can call themselves a coach – it is only through the accreditation processes set in place by organisations like the Association for Coaching, International Coach Federation, EMCC and others that standards and benchmarks are becoming more recognised by buyers of coaching services. This market need also encourages more coaches to become accredited.


Reaching Master level is clearly not the end of the road for these coaches. They all expressed an intention to keep improving and learning, and each person offered some words of wisdom for those starting out in the coaching profession today:

  • Go for accreditation. You need a balance between theory and practice, academic work, and practical experience with supervision. The ability to reflect on how you are doing will help you improve.  David Willcock
  • The key is experience. Gain experience and get feedback, so there is a balance between theory and practice.  Richard Andrews
  • Talk to a number of other coaches and ask them about their experience, you can learn a lot from them.   Adrian Bailey
  • Have fun, don’t take yourself too seriously, and treat coaching as a privilege.  You have permission to be all of who you are in this line of work, and if you don’t want to go there, then please do something else!.   Elaine Patterson
  • None of us achieve success without the help of others.   Alison Dixon


This article first appeared in the Association for Coaching Bulletin and has been adapted for this site. 

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