What is the role and purpose of supervision?


  • Aims of supervision
  • Types of supervision
  • Supervision and externally resourced executive coaches
  • Managing supervision
  • Using a supervisor

Aims of supervision

In the workplace, the term “supervision” is usually applied to line management, where the supervisor takes overall responsibility for the work of direct reports. In coaching and mentoring, supervision is much more about supporting a practitioner in the quality of their practice, for which they retain full responsibility. While this kind of supervision is most commonly used for professional practitioners, it is increasingly seen as helpful for anyone acting in the role of coach or mentor.

The main aims of supervision, according to Hawkins & Smith (2006) are:

  • To help the coach/ mentor reflect on the quality of their practice. This includes issues such as managing boundaries, keeping the client safe and separating out their own issues from those of the client
  • To help the coach/ mentor in their development as a coach. This includes gaining greater skills and confidence, improving their insight into how they coach/ mentor, enlarging their toolkit of approaches and techniques
  • To provide “a safe and reflective space in which the practitioner… can attend to their own support and how they resource themselves” (p 12). This includes helping them cope with difficult situations and relationships

The supervisor helps the coach/ mentor think through these issues, using a similar mixture of empathy and challenging questions as might be found in very good coaching and mentoring. They also help the coach/ mentor understand the systemic complexity of the relationships they have with clients and that the clients have with their other people at work.

Supervision also benefits the business, by providing reassurance that the coach/ mentor is safe and effective. It is not fool-proof, but rigorous supervision ensures that the coach is able to work within the best of the ability. Most supervision sessions involve discussions of particular client relationships and how the coach can be more effective in supporting the client in question.

Types of supervision

Most supervision takes place either one to one or one to group. The advantage of one to one supervision is that you get complete attention to your coaching/ mentoring relationships. Group mentoring is more cost-effective and provides feedback from colleagues as well as the supervisor, and the opportunity to learn from colleagues’ experience. The trade-off is that the group only deals with your issues by rotation and that you may be constrained by confidentiality in the issues you select to discuss.

One to one supervision sometimes includes observation of a coaching/ mentoring session. In this circumstance, both parties receive practical feedback from the supervisor.

Peer supervision usually takes place between coaches or mentors of different levels of experience – it is typically more of a mentoring relationship than true supervision. Some professional organizations in coaching actually call their peer supervision mentoring. Similarly, it is common in formalised mentoring programmes for managers, who have a lot of experience as mentors, to support people new to the mentor role. A handful of companies internationally apply the same principle to line manager coaches.

Supervision and external executive coaches

Most of the professional bodies representing executive coaches require them to undergo regular supervision. (This is by and large not the case with life coaches!) Under no circumstances should an external executive coach be hired, who cannot demonstrate that they are professionally supervised. Questions to consider include:

  • How often do they attend formal supervision? (At least one hour for every 20 hours of coaching is typical of good practice.)
  • What qualification does their supervisor hold? Valid qualifications include:
    • Post-graduate certificate or diploma in coaching supervision from a university with a coaching/ mentoring faculty, or accredited by a
    • Post-graduate certificate or diploma (or equivalent) in counselling, psychotherapy or a related discipline
    • Note: Having been a coach for a long time, is not on its own a valid qualification as a supervisor. Some professional associations in coaching accredit experienced peer coaches as supervisors, with the aim of developing the coach’s skills – however, this arrangement misses the critical additional element of client safety
  • How have they applied supervision to their practice?

Managing supervision

The key questions in managing supervision are:

  • Do all of our externally resourced coaches have appropriate supervision?
  • How can we ensure similar quality of supervision for internal executive coaches? Given that they will meet much the same challenges as externals, it is equally important that they are supported in their practice!
  • How do we provide an appropriate level of supervision for managers, for whom coaching and mentoring are only a small part of the day job?

Some of the solutions used by companies include:

  • Having joint group supervision sessions attended by both external and internal executive coaches. This creates a valuable sharing of expertise and perspective. It also is effective at surface HR issues, which need to be addressed.
  • “Buddying” between external and internal coaches – a form of peer supervision
  • Regular group supervision sessions for managers, who are also coaches and mentors
  • One to one peer supervision (mentoring) for managers as coaches and mentors
  • No regular provision for managers as coaches and mentors, but regular (six monthly) opportunities to review practice and develop new skills in a large group environment. Plus, in some cases, ad hoc one-to-one availability of a professionally qualified supervisor on an as needed basis

As a general rule of thumb, the amount of supervision time needed by coaches is:

  • For skills coaching, one hour for every 100 hours of coaching
  • For performance coaching, one hour for every 50 hours of coaching
  • For behavioural change coaching, one hour for every 20 hours of coaching

Using supervision

Using a supervisor effectively requires reflection and preparation. You will get most out of supervision, if you:

  • Write a short reflective journal at the end of each coaching or mentoring session, within at most eight hours.
  • Use a checklist of questions for self-analysis, such as:
    • When did I feel most and least comfortable during the session?
    • How well did I use my intuition?
    • Were there points in the discussion, where I did or said something that particularly helped the coachee’s thinking?
    • Were there points when I might have got in the way of their thinking?
    • When and where did either of us feel strong emotion and what did that tell us?
    • Did I sense at any time that I was approaching a boundary?
    • What did I learn from this session?
  • Prepare thoroughly for the supervision session itself:
    • What specifically would I like to review and why?
    • Where am I on my journey to be a better coach?
    • How do I want this supervision session to help me progress on that journey?
    • How specifically am I going to present my selected issue(s) to the supervisor, so they understand enough to help?
  • Just as we want our coaching clients to be “fit for coaching”, it helps to ask “Am I fit for supervision? What can I do to ensure I begin the supervision in an appropriate mental state to take full advantage of the learning opportunity?” If you are not in the right mental state, how can you explain this to the supervisor and how would you like them to help you get there before you examine the issues you want to bring for discussion?

After the supervision session, find time for further reflection – again within eight hours if possible. Useful reflective questions to consider include:

  • How did I help the supervisor understand my issues?
  • How honest was I with them and with myself?
  • What specifically did I learn?
  • What specifically do I need to spend quality time working through in greater depth on my own (or with other people)?
  • How has this helped me on my journey to being the coach I want to be?
  • Do I have a sense of any unfinished business from this conversation? How can I reflect this back to my supervisor?

From time to time, it may also be useful to revisit the psychological contract with the supervisor, perhaps at the end of the session, or in a separate conversation. What are our expectations of each other? How have they changed? Where do we think the relationship is in terms of its useful life? All of this, of course, is a reflection of our relationship with our coachees and hence provides yet more opportunities for self-insight and learning.

© David Clutterbuck 2014. All rights reserved

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