Dr Benita Mayhead

Thesis title: Duty of care in coaching: from ethical frameworks to the development of the coach

Start year: 2019

Supervisor(s): Dr Ioanna Iordanou, Professor Peter Lugosi

Doctor of Coaching and Mentoring

Founder at North-52 Limited. We are a specialist coaching, mentoring and leadership development company.

Current role: Director, Executive Coach and Coach Supervisor

Why did you choose to study the Doctor of Coaching and Mentoring programme?

I recall a conversation with one of the faculty when I enrolled for the MA in Coaching and Mentoring at Brookes (yes, the MA). I was stopped in my tracks at the very suggestion that I (who had left school at 16) would ever be considered as someone who could undertake a Doctorate. A seed was sown in that conversation, and it became clear in the subsequent two years of the MA that I loved studying, loved the research and very much wanted to continue. Hence, I applied to do the doctorate and started it straight from completing the MA. I looked at other universities and considered doing the PhD, but I wanted to be part of a cohort, and as a coach practitioner, the doctorate at Brookes ticked more boxes for me. I started on the doctorate in October 2019 and was awarded the doctorate in December 2022.

How did you find the balancing between working and studying a doctoral programme?

This was very difficult. Speaking candidly, the programme is described as part-time, and whilst this may be the case on paper, the reality is quite different. I am self-employed, a fellow director with my two partners and I therefore have choice and flexibility with what corporate work I take on. I managed to complete the Doctorate within the specified 3 years but this required meticulous planning and diary management. I first tried to block one or two days per week for the doctorate work, but the further I got into the programme, the less effective this strategy became. I needed to supplement the two days a week longer periods of time, chunks of time, where I could completely immerse myself, and be away from distraction. It wasn’t just the practical research and writing of a thesis, but the space needed to think, reflect and process. That part required a different type of energy that I could only satisfy when I stepped away from my corporate work for periods of several weeks, and on a couple of occasions, months. I recognise that this isn’t possible for everyone, and am grateful to my family and to my North-52 colleagues as they enabled this to happen.

Describe your experience working alongside fellow doctoral students. What did you learn from them?

I do believe that my success in completing and achieving the doctorate was in part due to my fellow doctoral cohort. We supported each other through the ups and downs, ran self-managed study groups and writing hubs where we would work in sync together. My research buddy, Dr Christine Vitzthum, and I would also spend long periods of time writing and working together. We spent a week in Malta on a self-imposed writing boot camp which we created for ourselves. Writing sprints like that enabled deadlines to be met. I also took a research sabbatical for a month and my husband and I decamped to Cornwall with our dogs. He worked from the house we had rented, and I wrote tirelessly every day.

As mentioned, I did consider doing a PhD but I wanted to be part of a cohort, and the Doctorate in Coaching Mentoring offered that. It was the right decision, and I am pleased I took that route. Not only did we help each other as a cohort, but I have made lifelong friends amongst them.

To what extent did the programme expand your professional network?

The doctorate has expanded my professional network in several areas. From a research and academia perspective, I was invited to join a group of scholars who write cases for Sage on coaching. This has been hugely developmental. The research has also resulted in invitations from some of the professional coaching bodies to present at special interest groups and conferences. Furthermore, during 2023 I will have presented my research at two academic conferences. Outside of academia, organisations have been interested in the research and this has in turn expanded my professional network across various sectors.

What has the standard of teaching and support been like on the programme and also comment on blended modes of study (virtual/face-to-face) and the learning resources available to doctoral students?

Dr Judie Gannon and the team at Brookes had to transition when the Covid pandemic hit to ensure we had a seamless doctorate experience. The team worked tirelessly as we all adapted to a new, virtual way of working. The quality of the taught content has been high throughout, and continued to be so during the covid period. Support has come from various channels. Throughout the three years, the faculty were available for questions and conversations as needed, and Judie herself was accessible for check-ins on particular areas. One main area of support came from my supervisory team, in particular Dr Ioanna Iordanou. Her continued attention and interest in my research was invaluable and her feedback helped hugely. Doing a doctorate requires a degree of self-sufficiency. Learning resources, materials and support are available but it requires the doctorate candidate to go and find them. My relationship with my supervisors was a very successful one, and I put this down largely to how we contracted to work with each other (as any coach would do). Deadlines were agreed ahead of time, and dates were honoured and stuck to. This helped us all.

Please talk about a particular research project you worked on and the challenges you were addressing.

Duty of care is not clearly defined in coaching literature, but is described as being part of the ethical framework of conduct in how a coach acts in relation to promoting the welfare of others. It is associated with the coach’s own sense of what is fair and right, both legally and ethically, connected to the coach’s own principles of behaviour. The executive coach has greater complexity in their roles due to multiple stakeholders in the coaching relationship and duty of care is arguably of integral importance. The literature discusses theoretical ethical best practice in coaching, and coaching bodies’ codes offer guidance. Yet, empirical research is lacking on coaches’ understanding and enactment of duty of care. This study is the first to explore these areas and the findings move the duty of care beyond an ethical framework to a development opportunity for coaches and those associated with coaching.

The research was qualitative and inductive, using semi-structured interviews with thirty executive coaches. The findings challenge assumptions on the level of understanding of duty of care in coaching and positions duty of care firmly in coaches’ development and practice. The research evidences that development in relation to ethics is continual and that coaches use reflective dialogue when making sense of duty of care, rather than reverting to ethical codes or training, thus challenging coaching bodies’ positions on supervision and education of coaches.

The study evidences that coaches’ enactment of duty of care encompasses managing boundaries through contracting and ending coaching relationships, and indicates how coaches are custodians of the limits set. The empirical data found care to be at the very core of a coach’s work, and that an executive coach’s duty of care is systemic. The research makes a further contribution to the literature by defining the duty of care in coaching.

To what extent has the programme prepared you for becoming or enhancing your expertise as a coach and mentor?

I’ve been working in the field of learning and development for over 30 years and have been in coaching for over a decade. Before starting the research, I knew I wanted to research duty of care as I was curious to understand how coaches viewed it, and I wanted to contribute to strengthening coaches’ understanding and education on it. The sense of duty I have to our clients and customers has always been strong, and throughout the research, I have developed an even greater sense of it. In our business, North-52, we have made changes to how we operate, we have greater stringency now in our contracting with our clients and customers, and we re-contract regularly. We are also very clear on the endings of coaching engagements. We believe that coaching should not drift aimlessly, and as we have a systemic duty of care to the client and the customer, we continually reflect on how we are adding value. How we care is centrally positioned in our coaching ethos.

How has the programme helped you to develop on a personal level?

The Doctorate in Coaching and Mentoring has been a huge undertaking and both fulfilling and rewarding. Reflections on learning from conducting this research fall into three areas – myself as a researcher, myself as an executive coach, and myself as a person, all of which are intrinsically linked. My background puts me in the ‘non-traditional’ student bracket, not having been to university being just one factor amongst several others. I have used this as a strength in my doctoral journey, as I am not complacent, and I have a high work ethic. I consider education to be a privilege, and I have regarded this whole experience as just that. Not once did I consider giving up, but that’s not to say it was easy. I learnt to have faith in the process, to be open to feedback and criticism, to become more curious and questioning, and to recognise I can achieve more than I’d thought. 

One of the contributions this research makes is that coach development in ethical maturity is a continual cycle, it does not end, as is the same for how we make sense of things more broadly. Learning about my own process of making sense of the research has been a parallel process. Putting space between myself and the research has been needed and I developed a degree of confidence I did not have before to just ‘sit with it’ at times, the wise words of Dr Judie Gannon. The continual need to be producing something, or words on paper, has diminished as I have learnt the power of letting thoughts sit. Some of the bigger obstacles I experienced were overcome through allowing distance and quiet, away from the research.

When I started the doctorate, completion of it was a destination, that’s where I wanted to be. The nearer I have got to arriving at that destination, having overcome the various hurdles (getting on the course, research proposal, registration, ethics, participant recruitment, data gathering, data analysis, transfer, and writing the thesis, and the ups and downs that life brings along as well), the more I have realised that the destination is just the start. Unexpectedly, I now experience a degree of sadness with the doctorate having ended, but this is combined with gratitude for having done it, and excitement and enthusiasm to continue the research in this area. The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know. To that end, I’ll keep on learning.