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

[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.

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

Peer Pressure and Overwork: The Case of Public School Teachers


“Oh man… report cards next week too.”

When I was a kid I did what many kids did and worked at McDonald’s.[1] And there was this one other kid – I can’t even remember his name, but he had really white teeth, and he worked like a dog. He never stopped smiling, he never screwed up, and when our shift supervisors had us competing for speediest sales over the rush periods, he always won the “contest.” (He got a free burger or a t-shirt or something.) I kinda hated the little jerk. He made the rest of us look bad. I on the other hand, at 15, had already mastered the cynicism of the seasoned line worker.

It wasn’t until some years later I understood that my resentment slotted neatly into a long and venerable tradition of detesting keeners and brownnosers. Because they make everyone else look bad. In old-school labour parlance, workers who disregarded group norms by working flat out and producing more than others were called “rate busters.”[2] This took place under a piece-work incentive system where theoretically, every worker would be motivated to produce as much as possible to earn the most money possible. So what’s interesting here is that despite this incentive system, the majority of workers adhered to a norm of producing at less than full throttle.[3] Rate busters, because they breeched this norm, were ostracized. Continue reading

My Free Time is More Awesome Than Your Free Time

The section of my dissertation I’m working on these days is entitled “The Good Job.” This has involved re-reading a favourite: Barbara Ehrenreicht’s “Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Making it in America” It’s a wry, witty, gritty auto-ethnography, pulled together over Barbara’s – I really feel like I want to just call her Barbara – several month experiment of trying to make a living on minimum wage.[1]

She makes her case: the working poor are really damn poor. Unless they are doubled up with partners, family members, or strangers, they’re sleeping in cars or living in tiny single room apartments. Working as a waitress, then as a maid for a franchised cleaning company, and finally a Walmart clerk, Ehrenreicht quickly realizes that living in a trailer park is actually something to be aspired to if you work for minimum wage. But this isn’t what really gets to her, I think. It’s the indignity of the whole business. Because poverty is accompanied by its own special brand of invisibility Continue reading

Jumping on the Co-Op Bandwagon

Last week’s media offerings included a couple of stories on co-op education. First was this BC story about private college health sciences students placed in co-op experiences in fast food restaurants. This might be cool if building tacos and poutine helpings required some form of post-secondary credential but… well come on. Clearly not all co-ops are created equal. There is a “buyer beware” element at play here, and these poor suckers in their matching uniforms were caught up in it.

On the heels of this piece, which rightly expressed concern that students were being exploited, was this Globe and Mail article arguing that a co-op program makes your university education “worthwhile.” Here, author Andrew d’Souza takes a supply-side perspective,[1] arguing that co-ops are a great way for students to learn if their formal education and skill sets will actually be in valued in the labour market.

In either case, it appears that co-op placements, widely in demand by students, are the next evolving story in learning “market,” in which the student free-agent had better read the signs and signals well or else. Continue reading

Internships: The Next Frontier of Credentialism


In one of my morning foray into the Twitterverse, I recently encountered a posting for this  internship: “Help keep children’s camp memories alive AND get $1000 as a Memory Book Designer Intern!” [1]. Click that sucker. Turns out the internship opportunity is one of many posted in a Serving Communities Internship Program – a partnership between the Alberta government, Volunteer Alberta, and a range of student organizations.

This seems like a decent idea on the surface. To its credit, the program does appear to stress meaningful opportunities, and those posted on the website overall seem to emphasize marketing and communication skills, and a project-based approach with clear outcomes and goals. These are sound strategies for experiential learning, and many of the placements do sound like interesting opportunities for young people. The placements also support the always-strapped volunteer sector and encourage young people to engage with these organizations. All good stuff.

There’s an important problem here though. Although the internships are capped by a $1,000 bursary, some quick calculations based on the time requirements posted by the organizations offering the internships show that the “opportunities” on offer pay as little as $3.00/hour. I suppose you could argue that this is better than nothing, given that the work could just as easily be classified as volunteering for no remuneration at all. But in my mind, this is just another red flag pointing to the increasing use of internships as the next frontier in credential inflation. Continue reading