Milton Friedman, Nobel prize-winning economist said “In one sense we are all Keynesians now; in another, nobody is any longer a Keynesian”.
Of course he was talking about economic theory but a similar point might be made about the growth of coaching in organizations: in a sense we are all coaches now and I wonder what it really means to be a coach in this post-industrial and post-pandemic era.
Coaching might be seen as a learning relationship. Maybe you are a coach, a mentor, a facilitator, a team leader or perhaps you simply like to support others with their learning. Or you may engage the services of a coach or mentor. Or do you simply gravitate to learning relationships informally with co-workers, family, or friends?
Whilst I realize there are many consultancies, professional and academic bodies that offer training, accreditation, and qualifications for coaches, none of them have the right to govern the way coaching is done or who can do it. If you have ever asked someone a question to help them think through a particular challenge they face, the chances are you have been a coach.
Furthermore, if you find yourself supporting the development of a work-based team in reviewing how it is functioning and how it could improve its performance then you have been a team coach.
And if you have supported someone in their career development in order to enable them to progress upwards then you may have been a mentor, more of the American genre, or if your role has focused more on personal career development and learning then you were a mentor more in the European and British tradition.
The person you are coaching or mentoring doesn’t really care a lot about what type of coach or mentor you are, and they may not be interested in your qualifications.
What they will care about though is your ability to apply some of the essential skills, such as building trust, listening at a deeper level, asking thought-provoking questions, providing practical feedback, and sharing your wisdom in order to help them do what they want to do or to become who they want to be.
I tend to see four widely accepted forms of work-based learning relationships between learners and those helping the learning; coach, team coach, mentor, action learning facilitator. Here I focus on certain aspects of coaching and I will discuss mentoring and action learning facilitation in future columns.
Busting a few myths about coaching
The business of training people to be coaches has grown significantly over the last 20 years. You can now become or engage a life coach, executive coach, career coach, team coach, agile coach, a “whateveryouwannabe” coach.
You may have been trained to use a particular coaching methodology and hopefully that will be based on a known philosophy or theory of human learning and change; say Rogerian, Gestalt, action research or positive psychology.
Why has this professional field (not a profession per se) grown so fast? A cynic might say it is to develop and maintain a business stream for those who generate income from coaching and so creating barriers to entry works rather well.
A more enlightened view might be that it reflects an awakening around the importance of the human dimension of business relationships and the opportunities to develop and grow through the work one does. Recognition of the need to move beyond the Industrial Age of Taylorism, of top-down management by objectives, and the employer bias in the psychological contract.
Maybe there has been a realization that employees can be supported in their own development to achieve their potential and the place of work provides the playing field to play on.
Carl Rogers said 60 years ago that “This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
And back then Reg Revans was imploring us to recognize the value of collaborative learning in his formulation of ‘action learning’ driven by business-related questions to tackle real business challenges. And Kurt Lewin, the founder of modern social psychology had recently formulated the idea of action research or creating change through a cycle of inquiry, reflection, and action in order to do social good.
So the growth of recognition of the value of learning relationships, in particular coaching, is a good thing, but let’s get a few things straight about this professional field.
Coaching is not a profession
It’s not a profession but you can be professional in your approach to coaching, and other key learning relationships such as mentoring and action learning facilitation.
The word profession is seen in the Latin ‘profiteor,’ to profess or make an oath based on certain values. Different types of profession can be seen as:
- Ancient; such as the priesthood, law and physicianship
- Medieval; trade occupations including surgery, dentistry and architecture
- Industrial; such as engineering
- 20th Century; say teaching, accountancy and personnel management
- Emerging or ‘professionalizing’; such as sourcing, coaching, cybersecurity, digital design.
So how does coaching measure up against the characteristics of a profession:
- Assessment process for entry: individual associations can set their own rules on the requirements for entry to their own levels of membership, but they have no monopoly of control over the practice of coaching.
- A common body of knowledge: no one professional association has the ‘definitive’ body of knowledge for coaching. It draws on knowledge from a range of psychological and social psychological literatures.
- A code of ethics and a professional association; there is no Hippocratic Oath for coaching, but most professional associations for coaching encourage adherence to certain ethical guidelines that they deem appropriate.
Stop counting the hours
You don’t become better by doing simply doing more of it. I mean you will improve up to a point, but it takes more than just putting the hours in to go from good to great.
In 1993, psychology professor Anders Ericsson wrote a paper highlighting the work of a group of psychologists in Berlin studying the correlation between practice and achievement of violin students.
Their development over time had diverged whereby the elite performers had averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice, whereas less able ones had only completed 4,000 hours of practice. There was no evidence that supposedly naturally gifted performers had achieved their potential based on doing less practice.
Unfortunately this led to the popularization and generalization of the idea of a 10,000 hours rule proposed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers which Ericsson was later to rebut with a paper entitled ‘The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists’. Ericsson’s point was 10,000 was an average and the quality of practice was important.
I am not blaming Malcolm Gladwell for the preoccupation with counting the hours but I see the seduction of a number and it is interesting to see the requirements of various coaching associations which prioritize counting the hours and years of experience to define levels of professional membership and qualification. Thankfully the time-serving requirement is often balanced with a requirement to maintain a reflective coaching log and to work with the association’s competency framework.
|Qualification or Level
|Experience Requirement as a Coach
|European Mentoring & Coaching Council –
Global Individual Coaching
|1 year from first practising as
|3 years from first practising as
100 client contact hours
|5 years from first practising as
|7 years from first practising as
|International Coaching Federation
|Associate Certified Coach
|Coaching log of 100 hours, client names and dates.
Certificate of completion of 132 training hour program
|Professional Certified Coach
|500 hours (450 paid)
|Association For Coaching
|training 35+ hours, coach experience, 75+ hours
|40+ hours coach training
250 hours+ coach experience
|60+ hours coach training
750 hours coach experience
|80+ hours coach training
1,500+ hours coach experience
I decided to look at my own experience with one client over the last eight years and calculated I have completed 4,400 hours of coaching. Some of this coaching went by other names such as action learning set facilitation, academic supervision, mentoring. Try telling me I wasn’t coaching when engaged in these learning relationships though.
I don’t believe the blunt quantification of my efforts says anything about my ability as a coach, let alone whether I should be called a ‘master coach’, which after all is an inappropriately gendered label. Back to the ‘10,000 hours to become an expert’ fallacy; what is the evidence that when I tip from 1,499 to 1,500 hours of coaching experience I am significantly better at it?
Counting the hours tells you nothing about the quality of my contribution, about how I have made a difference to the lives or careers of those I have coached.
To find that out one needs to discuss the real-life experience of my coachees, hear their stories and reflections, understand their sense-making of the value of the coaching they have experienced and actioned.
Counting the hours just measures inputs and reveals nothing of the outputs, contribution, and business impact. It is informed by old industrial cause-and-effect thinking. I would rather have on my gravestone ‘he made a difference for others’ than ‘he completed one million coaching hours’.
I don’t mean to detract from the very well-intentioned work of many great coaches and associations that aim to improve the capability of those working in this professional field but I do suggest caveat emptor.
On a more positive note thankfully most associations offering training, education, or professional development in coaching do have some research behind the competencies they require coaches to develop and evidence.
Reviewing these frameworks does suggest a number of commonly required skills and competencies. I have turned these into a few questions you might ask yourself if you are a coach, or ask a potential coach you are considering engaging one:
- How do you maintain your own skills and self-awareness as a coach?
- How do you build trust in your relationships with coachees?
- How do you enable coachees to achieve deeper levels of learning and insight?
- How do you evaluate your impact as a coach?
- What is your ethical code for your practice as a coach?
Rogers, Carl, 1961, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, London, Constable.
Lester, S, 1995, ‘Beyond knowledge and competence: towards a framework for professional education,’ Capability, vol 1 no 3, pp 44-52.
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