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.

Professional “Status” for Nurses and All Those Other Professions

It was really interesting to read the responses to my recent bit on CBC’s White Coat Black Art. In particular, yikes… did I offend a few nurses! Some respondents were pretty choked that I would suggest that nurses pursue credentials just to gain status, instead of out of a commitment to their patients and their profession.

The only thing is, that wasn’t really what I was suggesting at all. Hence a follow up blog. In the WCBA interview, I talked about the ways in which higher/more education credentials can help professional groups to jockey for status, especially when they are forced to compete for control over a given type of work. It goes something like this:

“We are more qualified to do this kind of work than you are because we learned how in (insert valuable education program here), and here’s the credential to prove it. Do you have this credential? No you do not.”

The response of the rival group is either a) to increase its own credential requirements to prove equal or superior capability; or b) to dismiss the knowledge and skills as something you don’t need to “learn” how to do at school.

The example I used in my earlier blog on this topic was the shoring up of the nursing profession in the face of the growing presence of Physicians’ Assistants in the field. The increasing use of practical nurses is another case in point. Practical nurses perform many of the tasks as nurses do, and are solidifying their educational requirements to prove they can capably do this work. The more it is accepted that PNs can do the work, the less it seems necessary to pay more expensive nurses to do it. The nursing profession as a whole must respond in a manner that protects and hopefully even enhances the importance of RNs to good healthcare.

Although I have focused on nurses, the point of my discussion was never to “dis” the nursing profession, or any one profession for that matter; as I hope will become clear, all professions have incentives to be highly regarded. And of course individual people pursue their occupations (usually) out of passion and commitment and interest, not in order to gain status. But individual people are not the same as the organizations or institutions they are caught up in. And professional organizations, industrial lobby groups, political parties, and chambers of  commerce are diverse examples of organizations that benefit their members by promoting the legitimacy and value of what those members do [1].


So let me explain that person versus organization distinction further. The thing that makes credentialism[2] so interesting is that it is not the consequence of individual motivations, but of what we can call “institutional actors.” This line of thinking comes out of institutional and (to some extent) organizational theory, and examines how institutions “act” in response to other institutions and environmental cues. [3]. It’s sort of like the personification of corporations in the (aptly named) documentary, The Corporation [4]. So we set aside the fact that institutions (companies, schools, professional organizations et al.) are ultimately made up of individual people and treat the institution as a whole. We work with the assumption that the whole is different somehow from the sum of its parts – just like we can’t reduce a person to a catalogue of his or her body parts!

Then we ask questions like, “How does this institution respond to changes in its environment?”  Just like you’d have to meet new people, change your habits and learn new things if you moved to a new city, an organization might have to change in response to, for example, a new policy or a new kind of technology. Think, for example, of how companies have had to change their marketing strategies in response to the growth of the internet.

Here’s another great example: some years ago, Edmonton Public Schools began to operate as a “quasi-market.” This means that schools are still publicly funded and subject to Alberta’s education legislation, but are encouraged to “market” themselves to attract students by offering innovative programs and learning environments. The idea here is that the parent/student “consumers” of public education get the benefits of a market – competition and innovation – without the risks, because the system is still public [5].

So if you want evidence of how this policy change has affected education in Edmonton, Alberta, you just need to attend to the growing proliferation of roadside signs as schools re-invent themselves in order to attract parents and students. One of our neighbourhood schools, for example, has recently niched itself as an all boys academy; another is now offering Spanish bilingual education for elementary school age students. Because boundaries are open, schools are free to attract students, but they are also free to fail and face closure if they can’t keep their numbers up.

The point here is that, under the open boundaries system, schools change what they do if they want to stay open in order to survive. No individual school – its administration, teachers, parents, students and community – is going to “go gently into that good night;” schools, as organizations, are invested in their own survival. So they examine what competing schools are doing, try to discern what parents and students might want, and actively seek out a niche. If they rely on their old ways of being and think of themselves just as neighbourhood schools that serve their geographical communities, there’s a chance they won’t make it. Or at least they’ll find themselves struggling with fewer students and less funding. And hey – who wants less funding?

In my consideration of the professions, we can think about professions in the same way I just discussed schools – as institutions that need to survive. If we return to the question of nursing, we can see that the profession as a whole involves all sorts of institutions and organizations – higher education (where nurses learn and get their degrees), unions, and professional associations. All of these entities have a stake in nurses being valued in their workplaces, so all will maneuver in response to changes that threaten the well-being and welfare of the nursing profession as a whole.

So when I talk about status seeking through more education, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about the way institutions behave – that’s institutionalism – and not, as I think some of White Coat Black Art listeners took it, about status seeking by individuals. Because nursing has historically been treated like “women’s work” and marginalized next to doctoring, it’s always had to work hard to be recognized as a profession. And now nursing is facing new threats as more care work is provided by practical nurses and aides.

I wouldn’t propose to offer any solutions to the complex business of providing the right mix of health professionals for a given setting – that one is out of my league. But I do think it is important to look at how professional organizations – and the nursing profession is just one among many – seek to ensure how their own interests are protected in the process.


[1] I want to add a few words about “legitimacy” here. It’s an especially important concept when we are talking about professions, because members of the public come to use professional services on the basis of recognizing that the “professional” exclusively possesses skills and knowledge that not just anybody can get/use. That’s why you’re willing to pay for that person’s services, and it’s the basis for professional’s compensation (like making big bucks); you accept that the person possesses a legitimate combination of knowledge, skills, and experience that you can’t cobble together on your own.

[2] Credentialism, if it isn’t clear, refers to the growth, over time, of schooling required to be recognized as a legitimate worker in a given area. Historically, occupations have required more and more schooling for entrance. One example is school principals. It is increasingly difficult to become a school principal without a master’s degree, but this has not always been the case. Physiotherapists now require a master’s degree, not just a baccalaureate (undergrad) degree.

[3] Institutionalism is a field of study that, much as I described above, studies institutions (instead of people). It asks questions like: why do institutions behave as they do? How do institutions affect each other? What causes institutions to change (or not)? How do institutions affect the way society is organized? For further explanation, here’s the Wikipedia entry.

[4] The premise of The Corporation was that a corporation has the legal status of a “person.” The documentary systematically examines the behavior(s) of a corporation and concludes that if the corporation were in fact a person, it would be a psychopath!

[5] For an explanation of quasi-markets, see J. Kachur (1999), Privatizing Public Choice: The Rise of Charter Schooling in Alberta. In Contested Classrooms: Education, Globalization and Democracy in Alberta.