“Yes, my boss fully supports the idea of my receiving executive coaching,” a prospective client answers. “And the company will pay for it – they see it as an investment!”

Those are great words to hear from a client as she or he begins the exciting journey of executive coaching. Such a message provides a sense of the support the client is receiving from the company and from the individual to whom they report – their boss.

As we set the stage for coaching engagements, the boss, who usually serves as the “sponsor” for the coaching, is a critical part of the process. Oftentimes, though, I sense that while the boss is a strong supporter of the idea, the role of sponsorship might be so new to him that he is not able to fulfill this critical role in a manner that will best facilitate the coaching for the client.

So what is the role of a sponsor in executive coaching? Essentially it is about building a platform for learning.

As a coach, I can help build awareness in the sponsor before moving to action, by discovering the boss’s knowledge about coaching and his understanding of the power of the process and how he can help it succeed. I find that an hour with the boss at the beginning of the engagement is time well spent in setting the foundation for coaching. Many bosses have experienced coaching and intuitively see its value. Some are very knowledgeable, yet lack personal experience, while others want to see improvement in a subordinate, but have little knowledge about how coaching can help.

Businesses routinely invest and look for a return on investment. The ROI for coaching isn’t always about direct return on dollars, but there is a return on the investment in the capabilities of the human being with whom we work, especially if the client and the sponsor are aligned on the outcomes they desire. Where would I like to see growth in this person? What capabilities would I like him to enhance? As the client becomes more effective, how can he help the rest of the team and the company at large? Where can he be more effective?

Usually, as we discuss contracting for the engagement, I have a chance to speak with a sponsor. Or else I am able to speak with the sponsor during our initial three-way meeting between the sponsor, client and me. That is an opportunity to assess the sponsor’s understanding of the process and how he or she can help. I work to help the sponsor fully understand why he supports the coaching of the subordinate and has a clear idea of what he believes to be the developmental needs of the individual. Natural questions emerge. What motivated the decision to pursue coaching? Is it to enhance a specific skill? Is it to address a gap in someone’s capabilities? Spending time on the answers to these questions and others is critical.

The sponsor can be an effective partner in the coaching process in a number of ways:

  • First, she needs to understand that the process of coaching is a confidential relationship between the coach and the client. Anything that is discussed in coaching sessions is strictly off-limits to anyone but the client and the coach. The only thing a coach can talk about to a sponsor is whether the client is actually pursuing the coaching and regularly attending sessions. This ground rule is commonly understood by human resource professionals and is part of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) code of ethics. It is critical to the relationship of trust that must be developed between the coach and client.
  • I always remind clients and their sponsors, though, that while the coaching relationship is confidential, their relationship is not. This means that the sponsor can provide encouragement and support for the engagement, by not just paying for the engagement, but also asking questions of the subordinate and showing real interest in the process. Curiosity and inquiry can be the guide for the sponsor, as she or he can ask open-ended questions: What are your impressions of the process? I’m very interested in what you might be learning. How can I help you with your developmental journey? While the boss-subordinate relationship may not naturally flow into fluid answers, it is always beneficial for any boss to be interested in a subordinate. So often we are so busy in our professional lives that we can’t find the time to display interest – but it is always worth it.
  • The most effective bosses/ sponsors with whom I have worked are the ones who are open about their own development. Oftentimes they have experienced coaching and are willing to share part of their journeys and how they have changed and grown. Other times, they benefit from the learnings of a subordinate and readily listen to and celebrate in the growth of another. And then there are the magical moments when the trust between subordinate and boss is such that the boss can shift her or his behavior and strengthen the relationship and the effectiveness of their team and organization as a direct result of the subordinate’s feedback and input. In such a case, it is best to view the client and boss as a system – not two individuals – their communication and interactions can be dramatically affected by reaching a level of understanding that transcends strictly professional transactions and becomes one of a strong interpersonal relationship.

The sponsor can be so beneficial in the coaching process. He or she can transform the process to one of continuous development by strengthening the relationship at the outset of the coaching and continuing it long after the engagement ends. By joining together as professionals who both see themselves as always learning and developing, the individuals have a platform that supports the future – a real platform for learning.