Executive Coaching, Managerialism, and Coaching as a Profession

In a recent blog post on 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.

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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3 Comments

  1. Very thought provoking! I come from a humanist perspective as well. I work in BC in the K to 12 system and am a committed activist for our most vulnerable students – those with learning challenges. Needless to say, as with every teacher I know or work with, our evaluation of our work comes from within: within ourselves, within our group of colleagues, within our BCTF, within our community. We are so bitterly hated and vilified by our provincial government that we never allow the assessment from without to carry any weight. I have worked as a teacher for a very long time – 22 years – and before that, an early childhood educator. I have learned over time to examine my practice carefully, always assessing my effectiveness in relation to my students. Are they happy? Do they try new tasks with confidence? Are they comfortable expressing a range of emotions? Do they support each other? Are they content with the progress they are making? Is their confidence growing? Are they curious? What are they curious about? Are they learning to take responsibility for their actions? Do they fix mistakes without guilt but in a way that improves relationships with others? Are they learning to be compassionate rather than judgemental? Are they learning with a sense of excitement and free from stress? Do they respect and support each other?

    When I read about the corporate agenda, it concerns me. For a person to be happy, they need to feel good about who they are. The privatizing of public education that is part of our government’s agenda fits into this idea of productivity for the corporate agenda. We fight it on every level. Why? Because we are a free people and we have a full and inalienable right to self determination, to self actualization, to live for our own growth and our own benefit and not as widgets producing for the corporate profits of the elite.

    I enjoyed your article and will read the links you provided. Thank-you for your thoughtful analysis.

    • Neat. Thank you kindly for taking the time to read, and for your thoughts. And yes, BC has been plagued by a lot of political tensions in public education. I recently moved from Alberta, so know the deal there quite well. Am still finding my feet here in Ontario. One of the reasons I am so fascinated by “discourses” and languages is precisely because we don’t tend to question where they come from — to your comment about governments adopting these discourses.

      • True, we don’t question where discourses come from. We tend not to question the history of particular discourses, nor do we question the impact these discourses have on our lives. Discourses can both broaden and narrow our understanding and often, there is a deliberate political agenda behind the direction the discourse is pushing public opinion. When governments use a specific discourse to shape public opinion, to make social policy and governance acceptable to citizens, there is a large danger that unless we think critically about how government policies impact our lives, we collude in our own oppression.

        As citizens, by allowing our thinking and analysis to be narrowed by expertly used and carefully framed discourses (also called spin), we can be manipulated into believing what the government wants us to believe. I watched this happen over the last 15 years under the BC Liberals. It took a multi-layered, multi-faceted and relentless campaign of factual information delivered by individual teachers and by our union, using every possible form of communication to educate the public and gain public support. It was a systematic dismantling of the discourse the government was using. We changed the discourse by countering government spin with fact and research, with authentic voices about our experience in the classrooms, with activism on social media and finally, with legal challenges in the courts. We won twice in the BC Supreme Court. In November, we won in the Supreme Court of Canada … but long before that, we won in the minds and hearts of parents and the public as we countered dis-information with research, fact, testimonials, blogs, letters to the editors – multiple acts of transformation of the discourse by multiple individual teachers who believed that what they did and what they said would make a difference. Backed by a strong union, we seized the discourse and transformed it. We made room for the real learning needs of our students, for their voices, for their right to a public education, for their right to have their learning challenges addressed.

        We have an ongoing struggle ahead as we push back on the corporate privatization of public education agenda but we are not easily defeated and we have learned a lot about the many layers of discourse. The importance of discourses in public policy can never be overstated. If you dig deeply, you will find that the privatization of public education is driven by an agenda parallel to the one that drives the discourse around executive coaching.

        Thank-you for the opportunity to think deeply about this.

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