The Coach’s Journey Towards Mastery

by Ian Saunders and Ray Charlton

As the coaching profession matures and increasing numbers of coaches have built a substantial level of experience, knowledge and skill over time, the concept of mastery in the field is becoming as established as coaching itself.  Indeed the Association for Coaching’s Coach Accreditation Scheme, like those of other professional coaching bodies, now offers the opportunity to accredit at a Master Coach level.

The question we often hear, especially in our volunteer roles in the AC Coach Accreditation Assessment Team, is ‘What is a Master Coach?’ A good question. How is coaching mastery defined? What would we see and hear as the indicative behaviours - and results - of a Master Coach?

A group of us who have known each other and worked together for many years started to explore the meaning of ‘mastery’ as a coach, both to define coaching mastery and to lay out the requirements for an individual’s development journey towards it. We call our inquiry ‘The Alchemy of Coaching – in search of wisdom and mastery’. And we would like to share the foundations of our thinking to date here.

What is mastery?

To gain a deeper understanding of mastery, we look to the parallel of the lifelong development of the artisan craftsman. Over a lifetime of developing his competence the craftsman begins as an apprentice. From there he progresses to a novice, and subsequently turns into a professional (often called journeyman). Eventually, over time and with experience, wisdom and expertise, he becomes a master craftsman.

The master craftsman takes others who are still learning and honing their craft under his wing. He supports them to develop over time, encourages their learning and assists them to stay within their capability whilst stretching towards greater accomplishment. Whilst helping others the master craftsman also takes on new and potentially more complex and challenging projects, and continues to learn from both roles.

Mastery in coaching

Just like the artisan craftsman, a coach demonstrating mastery will be highly skilled and yet will be developing continuously. Such coaches will share their discoveries and learning within the profession and support the less experienced and capable coaches. Both master craftsman and master coach have the confidence to work quickly and effectively, selecting appropriate tools both skilfully and subtly. Master coaches know that they are using the right ‘tool’ for the task at any moment and if they make a mistake – and they will – they can recover and ensure no ruinous damage is done. They will take on the most challenging assignments, and be capable of working effectively with uncertainty.

Whilst there are many facets to coaching mastery (and the development journey is a continuing one – there is no end point) we have grouped the most significant elements into four headings and four complementary themes:

Four elements of coaching mastery

1.  Being aware of self, other and situation
2.  Creating and holding the coaching space
3.  Noticing “What do I do when I don’t know what to do?”
4.  Integrating everything to greatest benefit for the coachee

Four themes of coaching mastery

1.  Contracting
2.  Are you operating as a specialist or a generalist?
3.  What tools do you have to use?
4.  Reflection and supervision

We briefly introduce each of the four elements here.

We will address each of the elements in much more depth in subsequent articles in later editions of this Bulletin.

1.  Awareness

The master coach is very aware of self, the coachee and the situation. This awareness is dealt with in real time – ‘in the moment’. It is as if they have a powerful radar picking up signals from every aspect of the coaching relationship, the coachee and the situation. They are able to interpret this data effectively and use it to challenge, support, or encourage at the right time to benefit the coachee. Through acute awareness the master coach brings their whole self to the coaching relationship, ensuring that the work is always done in service of the client.

2.  Creating and holding the coaching space

The master coach creates and holds a safe environment within which the coaching takes place. This enables the coachee to reflect and gain insight; and generates the conditions for the coach to both challenge and support. The master coach builds 

high levels of trust and rapport, quickly and effectively. This coach encourages a genuinely mutual and shared relationship. Both parties have their role to play in making the coaching effective.  

3.  What to do when ‘I don’t know what to do’?  

Situations of ‘not knowing’ what action to take are inevitable for coaches, even if not an everyday occurrence. Coaches who do not have moments where they are unsure of what to do are probably not stretching themselves enough. The less experienced coach will typically become concerned to find themself in this position, so in fear of getting to this place may stay – sometimes appropriately – within tight boundaries.  The more experienced master coach is much more comfortable with ‘not knowing’. A master coach may step out of their comfort zone by declaring that they don’t know what to do and inviting the coachee to share their thoughts and feelings from which they re-appraise together. This ability illustrates that the coaching relationship is a true partnership with both parties explicitly recognising and sharing the responsibility for making the coaching a success.

4.  Integration – the search for wisdom

This is the element that, when done skilfully and appropriately, really makes the difference in coaching. When the coach brings and integrates every aspect of their skill, experience, approach and capability to the coaching relationship, mastery is in action. Integration allows the coach to ‘read’ the situation, to have a broad ‘toolkit’ and the knowledge of which tool to pull out plus the skill and experience to use that tool well for that particular situation. It also includes a powerful desire to continue learning and developing as a coach. Values, ethics, art and science are essential ingredients. The personal development journey never stops; it simply presents new opportunities to learn to use additional tools, gain more skill and experience and integrate all over again.

We see the four elements acting interdependently with the four themes:

1.  Contracting

Contracting, and re-contracting, is required at all stages of the coaching relationship and is a vital part of mastery.

2.  Specialist or generalist

Knowing the nature of the coaching offered enables focus and depth, whether as a master specialist or a master generalist.

3.  The toolkit

The master coach’s toolkit is constantly being expanded, as are the skill and flexibility with which each tool is used. The master coach is able to apply tools which are specific to a particular element; and others to support any of the elements.

4.  Reflection and supervision

Reflective practice and use of supervision are hallmarks of the development of a master coach. Topics and challenges from any of the elements or themes benefit from examination through reflection and discussion with a supervisor.  Insights from these disciplines enhance the coach’s reach and competence and contribute to the attainment of mastery.

In future editions of the Bulletin we aim to expand on our concept of the four elements of coaching mastery and how the four themes work across them.  Please contact us if you’d like to contribute to the exploration.  We do believe that developing the mastery and wisdom required to become a master coach is a continuing journey, a continual challenge and a pursuit of an unattainable goal – perfection as a coach.

Let us end with three quotations:

Here is how Daniel Levitin puts it...
“The emerging scientific picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”

George Leonard, author of “Mastery” writes: “the desire of most people today for quick, sure, and highly visible results is perhaps the deadliest enemy of mastery. Its fine to have ambitious goals, but the best way of reaching them is to cultivate modest expectations at every step along the way. ...Keep your eyes on the path. And when you reach the top of the mountain, as the Zen saying goes, keep on climbing.”

And finally a ‘master’ is ….“a person who is very skilled at doing something” – the definition of master craftsman from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ian Saunders - Alchemy of Coaching, Transition Partnerships and Said Business School

Ray Charlton – Alchemy of Coaching, Creativity and Commitment at Work and Transition Partnerships

Both are AC accredited Master Executive Coaches.

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