Executive Coaching, Managerialism, and Coaching as a Profession

In a recent investigation in to ADHD coaching, I noted that it is a no-barriers-to-entry kind of occupation. Anyone can hang a shingle as “coach” and there are countless consulting businesses offering executive coaching, ADHD coaching, organizational coaching, and even grief coaching for the bereaved. This got me interested in whether and under what circumstances coaching could be considered a “profession.” The short answer, for a number of reasons, is “no,” but this doesn’t mean that coaching can be dismissed.[1] Indeed, something of what makes it so worthy of investigation is how pervasive it has become.

So I hit the academic databases to look a little more into this “is coaching a profession thing.” One thing I love about going through databases of research is that you get a good “flyover” of how a topic has been approached over time. It’s kind of like how you can see land survey patterns once a plane is high enough: there’s some order to ideas that you might not otherwise see when you are too close and can get at it from one or a couple of angles. Anyway, I found it interesting that the concept of “coaching” comes primarily out of two areas. The first probably won’t surprise you: it’s sports coaching and sports psychology. The second may or may not be a surprise: it’s executive coaching. So, the practices and “norms” associated with coaching for ADHD and other specialty coaching fields are likely to take some of their cues from discourses of managerialism.

45686261 - man pointing finger retro style pop art. we are waiting for you
Peak performance, baby!

Okay so what do I mean by “discourses” and “managerialism?” They are terms that tend to be used in academic work, but their meanings aren’t obscure or difficult. A “discourse” as I use it here (and as it tends to be used in academic work) is a collection of words, ideas, images, people and concerns that are commonly called to mind around a topic. So as a simple example, we could take “discourses” that have developed around the internet and privacy: What comes to mind? Facebook, commercialism, Twitter, the right of state authorities to dig into your personal stuff, over-sharing, and conversely the role of anonymity in how we engage online. You could probably readily add your own ideas here.

Hopefully you can see that the idea of a “discourse” is a very intuitive and useful way to talk about a basket of ideas that in turn can offer a rough-and-ready guide to how we collectively perceive and value some aspect of our society. Another important point to keep in mind is that a lot of these discourses become so normal to us that we take them for granted: We don’t ask why some ideas are important and popular, while others get little or no attention. In other words, some discourses are more powerful than others in terms of their capacity to shape and reflect our thinking.

On to “managerialism,” then. What is that? Managerialism is a discourse — a basket of common ideas and concepts, remember — that pertains to what managers do: continuous personal improvement, which is linked to continuous organizational improvement. Think back to Dale Carnegie’s (1936) “How to Win Friends and Influence People” right through to popular recent organizational improvement strategies like Six Sigma. Because I’ve described this discourse as managerialism, I’m emphasizing that there are a lot of norms built into this body of reading and associated practices. One of them, I’ve already stated: it’s the idea that it is right and good for our self-improvement to be tied to our productivity at work. Books like the ones I just described, curriculum in MBA programs, and executive coaching are all resources that consistently emphasize productivity, extroversion, ambition and strategic thinking are important and worthy personal attributes.

So here is where I’m going with this: If the ideas that accompany “coaching” are mostly determined in organizational and corporate environments —that is, by the practice of “executive coaching,”, the values that align with those environments are more likely to colour or filter the way that we understand coaching relationships (and life) generally. This is the argument made by Western (2012): managerialism, he states, “is a way of thinking and doing that transcends the workplace and enters into all aspects of modern life” (p. 177). What he emphasizes here is that in the context of managerialism, coaching means improving your ability to play a role, so that you can eventually come to see yourself as a collection of “roles” that you perform – that what you do is more important than who you are, that your life only matters when you deliver a good performance in the eyes of others.[2]

Managerialism does not by any means exhaust the ways we can think about and understand a “coaching” relationship. Indeed, Western does a nice job of framing other coaching “discourses,” including the “psy-expert discourse,” and the existentially oriented “soul guide discourse” (Western, 2012). However, when we talk about the legitimacy and value of coaching generally, I believe we have to take the power of that managerial discourse quite seriously. What I learned from my brief foray into the literature about coaching, is that a critical amount of research on the topic is done by “executive coaches” from the perspective of executive coaching, and in the interests of giving executive coaching professional credibility.[3]

Okay well, so what? Why is that a problem? Here it is: There is a pile of money tied up in executive coaching, and much of it is paid for by corporations in the interests of improving the productivity and performance of management elites. This means that a very prominent discourse, or way of thinking about coaching, serves to make it normal for our organizations to watch us, counsel us, and shape our values and interests as workers rather than as people who may not otherwise be interested in a 24/7 psychic dedication to corporate or organizational bottom lines (Garvey, 2014).[4] And we’re not just workers, right? We are parents, friends, sons, daughters, community volunteers, and people who engage in activities for pleasure, growth, and to share the company of others. Not everything we do has an agenda. Executive coaching instructs one that this isn’t okay. Which isn’t okay.

Regardless of its present status as a “profession,” coaching is intended as a helping relationship toward some form of self-improvement. I’ve no doubt that countless dedicated coaches and coachees can attest to the sense of purpose and fulfillment that accompanies this joint work, and that this can be ethically undertaken. Whether coaching “professionalizes” in a direction that reinforces performance and “doing” over better “being” remains to be seen.

[1] If you are right into finding out *why* coaching isn’t a profession or would beg to differ, this chapter provides a useful overview/discussion: Lane, Stelter and Stout-Rostron, 2014. The future of coaching as a profession. In Cox, E., Bachkirova, T and Clutterbuck, D. (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching, pp. 377-390). London and New York: Sage.

[2] Kind of bleak, huh? “Performativity” is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel like shit about yourself most of the time. It stands in stark contrast to the humanist ideas I much prefer: authenticity, living according to your own values, living with integrity that transcends your life roles, growth for its own sake, healthy (and again authentic) relationships, pleasure in being, not just doing. You get the idea. Also that I’m basically a hippie.

[3] See, for example, Bennett, J. L. (2006). An agenda for coaching-related research: A challenge for researchers. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 58(4), 240–249. http://doi.org/10.1037/1065-9293.58.4.240; Bozer, G., Sarros, J. C., & Santora, J. C. (2014). Academic background and credibility in executive coaching effectiveness. Personnel Review, 43(6), 881–897. Retrieved from http://10.0.4.84/PR-10-2013-0171

[4] Garvey. R. (2014). Neofeudalism and surveillance in coaching supervision and mentoring. e-Organisations & People, 21, 4, 41-47. Also see Alvesson, M. & Spicer, A. (2012) A stupidity‐based theory of organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 49(7), 1194-1220.

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