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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No One is Talking Precarious Labour. Why Not?

When it comes to labour on university campuses, a divide has emerged between tenure-track professors, and sessional (temporary) instructors.[1] Sessional workers are precarious workers. And they are far from the only precarious workers. In fact, precarity exists across the labour market, and it’s growing. Despite these facts, few Canadians outside of universities even know what “precarious labour” is, let alone identify themselves as precarious workers. So what’s the deal?

Let’s start with a definition. In essence, a member of the precariat is one is who is involuntarily, insecurely employed and/or underemployed. That definition can include a lot of people, Continue reading

Jesus Was An Entrepreneur

Okay, so that was a cheap attention grab. Jesus was not an entrepreneur. Or perhaps he was some sort of “social entrepreneur.” But he certainly wasn’t running around trying to figure out how to reinvigorate capitalism. If he was here today, that would be what it would take for him to be considered a Saviour.

I’ve been considering whether “Entrepreneurship Saves,” because of this seems to me an emerging zeitgeist (kind of a social mood) that ought to attract our scrutiny. In my home digs of Alberta, the “entrepreneurial spirit” has been touted as a provincial virtue. In 2011, our public education system, in keeping with this message, launched a curriculum framework that aspires to “Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit.”

So if our education systems are supposed to produce an “entrepreneurial spirit,” what is it? Continue reading

Who is Teaching Your University Classes?

Cliche image of a professor. Why are they always dudes with beards writing on chalkboards? And why is it always math?

Cliche image of a professor. Why are they always dudes with beards writing on chalkboards? And why is it always math?

I’ve spent much of my summer researching university recruitment literature. I want to see how the rhetoric of university life compares to the reality, particularly for “first generation” students — those whose parents didn’t attend post-secondary education.

Through this exercise, I’ve had to sit down hard on my own cynicism at times, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of teaching, and of university professors. There’s some over-the-top material here. Take this institution, which promises, “Our award-winning professors are brilliant minds who will engage, motivate and inspire you.” Or this one, which echoes, “You will learn from nationally and internationally renowned teachers and researchers.”

This is, frankly, bald rhetoric. And there are a number of reasons why parents and students alike should be sitting up, and taking notice.

Reason Number One: Research is Over-rated. Seriously.

First, we should be cautious about buying in to the “academic rockstar” discourse. Continue reading

The Maclean’s University Rankings: Celebrating 20 Years of Pointless Competition

The 2015 edition of the Maclean’s University Rankings marks the 20th anniversary of the publication. Although it is subject to derision by the institutions it features, most of these protests have subsided into occasional whimpers. Really, there’s not much the universities can do. As Maclean’s states in the methodology for the study, the data they pull is publicly available, or generated through their own research; they don’t rely on the universities to get it.

The Maclean’s University Rankings drive me crazy — in part because they are so very, very badly done, and more deeply because they play a significant part in generating and legitimizing a toxic culture of pointless competition in our higher education system. Yet the damn things continue to fly off the shelves. Why do we buy in? Continue reading

Career Building and My Big Fat Data Analytics

Legwarmers

“Big data” lets you monitor your social reach, but at what price?

True Story: When I was in junior high, I was very, very concerned with getting my social status right. Who wasn’t? But it was particularly loaded for me because I had proven, to that point in my short life, to be a pretty abysmal failure at all things “social.” In my quest to achieve ever-elusive popularity, I learned to listen to music I didn’t particularly like. I did my level best to appear older than I was, and to at least give the appearance of sexual worldliness. I obsessed about my clothes and my hair. God it was painful.

I don’t think I am unique in this revelation about my adolescence. That’s why adolescence sucks. All the world is a mirror for a frail ego, confronted with a terrifyingly vast array of possible answers to the question “Who am I?”[1] I also don’t think I am unique in reflecting on this stormy period of life and thinking “Oh thank God that’s over with.” Or so we thought. Continue reading

Why Grad School is Kind of Like Lego

Worst Idea LegoOne thing that drives me nuts about higher education is that it provides no assurance that people will learn to think. It is remarkably easy to acquire vocabulary and ideas, and then unwittingly abuse them because you don’t actually understand the key ideas you are trying to work with.

So this got me thinking, that grad school is kind of like building with Lego. I always sucked at Lego. I was playing with my friend’s kid a few weeks ago, and looked at the bazillion different blocks on the floor around me, and thought “I got nuthin.”

“You could follow the instructions,” my young friend suggested helpfully.

And then I thought of The Lego Movie. The neat thing about the movie is its premise on the well understood fact that the real fun and creativity of Lego is going off script and making your own stuff. Unless, like me, you really suck, and then you just make things that aren’t really things: Continue reading