The GWT Blog

Coaching at the Frontiers

Posted on April 20, 2011

By Christina Congleton
Christina Congleton

Compare and contrast:  Marshall Goldsmith, Jayson Blair, and me. First, I’ll tell you how we are different.  Dr. Goldsmith has a reputation for doing “good work”.  He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author, and according to Forbes one of the most influential business thinkers in the world.  Mr. Blair is a former reporter for the New York Times .  He notoriously engaged in “compromised work” by plagiarizing and fabricating news stories and was forced to resign, along with two editors, in 2003.  As for me, I am a master’s student in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, currently reflecting on my professional aspirations.

Aside from a connection to the Times (yes, I am a reader, building a stomach for the digital subscription transition), what all three of us have in common is that we call ourselves “coaches”.  Dr. Goldsmith is an authority on executive coaching.  Mr. Blair, having left the journalism profession, now works as a life and career coach. After completing a year-long training and certification program, I’ve been building my own coaching business focused on human development.  This year I’ll be mentoring a group of students through the same coach training process.

Beyond our shared professional titles, what are the similarities in our work?  The troubling answer is that, even as one of the three coaches mentioned above, I don’t know.  Coaching is an emerging field of practice, still in the process of finding its identity.  It began attracting attention in the 1980’s, and has steadily gained in popularity.  The number of coaching-related articles in peer-reviewed journals has climbed steadily and coaching has been estimated to be a billion dollar industry.  It has also been called a “Wild West”, devoid of barriers to entry or clear selection criteria for consumers.

This wild western terrain is populated by practitioners offering a wide range of services: from Six Sigma business coaching to aura coaching; from Tony Robbins-style motivational work to ADD coaching.  People call themselves “coach” after having read a book, taken a day-long seminar, or dedicated months or even years of their lives to training.

The coaching community did its best to bring a sheriff to town in 1995 by establishing the International Coach Federation (ICF).  The ICF has delineated standards of practice for coaching called Core Competencies, and it has established a Code of Ethics.  These two sets of symbolic codes—one for knowledge and practice , the other for ethics —are what the industry presumptively needs in order to be considered a bona fide profession.  Yet debate continues: whether coaching should be a profession, how it should be monitored,whether its focus should be delineated.

For a study conducted last fall, I interviewed thirteen full-time coaches. A few endorsed the ethics and standards proposed by the ICF, while others said, “I don’t know if the ICF is the answer”, and “I don’t agree with all the ICF has to say”.  Interviewees indicated concerns about the continued lack of barriers to entry, since anyone can “hang a shingle” and call him or herself a coach.  One coach said she was keeping up her ICF certification, but that it held little meaning for her clients. Interestingly, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith does not claim to be certified, yet of the three coaches mentioned in my original comparison he has had the greatest impact on the field.

I’m left with the puzzle of  how best to establish coaching as a profession characterized by good work —work that is excellent, ethical, and engaging.  The good news is that if coaches are “cowboys” exploring the frontiers of a new profession, we certainly represent the warmest hearted of mavericks.  The coaches I interviewed in the fall expressed deep dedication to their work and an impressive sense of responsibility to their clients, their own integrity, and the wider world.  Indeed, such a sense of responsibility is integral to good coaching.  To cultivate a culture of good work, the coaching community will need to do more than tip its hat and ride off into the sunset.  We mustreflect on how we can keep ourselves and each other on a well-travelled path,and how we will invite others to advance toward horizons that are still hazy in the distance, but worth pursuing.


Name: Michael Shiner

Posted at April 13, 2011 at 11:57:14
Comment: Christina, Your interesting post displays the incredibly wide range of professional activities called coaching and the difficult challenge of how to promote good work, work that is excellent, ethical, and engaging, in coaching. I’d like to respond with a few reflections on just one type of coaching – executive coaching. One question that comes to mind in reading your post is, “why has executive coaching exploded?” One possible answer might be the dramatically increasing complexity in the workplace that has emerged since the 1980’s. Globalization, rapid technological change, flat organizations, cross-functional teams, and many other factors have created many workplaces that are increasingly diverse, fast-changing, and complex. The one-on-one experience of coaching can support and challenge leaders in meeting the personal and business demands of this environment. Coaches themselves must be cross-functional, blending expertise in psychology and business. Another question is whether executive coaching is a way of consulting or an emerging profession in its own right? My perception is that many excellent executive coaches also do other kinds of leadership and organizational development consulting. But, their high level of skill may keep them largely busy with coaching. It also seems to me that coaches who are in-demand are, indeed, engaged, ethical, and excellent. That is, they do good work. Having integrity and behaving ethically (like the coaches you interviewed) is an important part of being an effective executive coach. That’s well and good as far as individual practitioners go, but what about promoting good work in executive coaching as a field? Unlike regulated and licensed professions, like teaching, law, and medicine, executive coaching does not have the benefit of professional bodies to educate for, promote, and monitor good work. As you mention, certification and the ICF which might perform some of these functions is, for the time being, a limited player. An alternative model to licensure and certification is that of a volunteer professional associations. One example focused on executive coaching is The Executive Coaching Forum. This is a group of practitioners that have collaborated for mutual professional development, to increase awareness of their services, and to promote high standards and best practices. Their website, containing a handbook that can be downloaded is at . As executive coaching continues its wild ride in an unregulated frontier, two ideas for inviting executive coaches into good work are: promoting the idea that developing oneself to into an ethical and engaged executive coach can lead to excellence and career success, and joining with a professional community of colleagues to identify and disseminate best practices can lead to professional development and increased visibility among potential partners and clients. Michael Shiner

Name: Alexis Brooke Redding

Posted at April 13, 2011 at 02:45:15
Comment: I was very interested to read this summary of your research findings. Your conclusions correspond to those found in research that I conducted on a similar group of practitioners, Independent Educational Consultants (IECs), sometimes called “college coaches”. I am particularly struck by the shared references to the Wild West and concerns about the lax barriers of entry. Having an organization that is able to oversee an aspiring profession, promote ethical standards for practitioners, and maintain order in the field is key for its ultimate success. I can’t help but picture the stereotypical sheriff in the old west, struggling to maintain order along unprotected frontiers and in the face of overwhelming odds. It is certainly a daunting role! What stands out to me is that the research participants in my study all looked to our “sheriff”, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), with reverence. Instead of questioning the organization's role or its message, as you describe, all but one of my participants held up our organization as a shining example of how to protect, promote, and ultimately define the field. (In our case, the one naysayer is someone often accused of compromised work and held up as an example of why we so desperately need to enforce ethical standards!) One significant step that has been taken by the IECA is the investigation and ultimate expulsion of members who engaged in compromised work practices. Taking this type of action helps to ensure that the IECA is evolving into a “domain with teeth”, ready to defend the integrity of its good workers by expelling those who do not embrace the professional standards. Yet, like your group of coaches, there is little anyone can do to prevent non-affiliated members from hanging out a shingle. In this way, our fields are experiencing a similar conundrum – how can we promote work that is excellent, ethical, and engaged amongst those who exist on the margins of the field? How can we protect the integrity of the work we so deeply believe in from being tarnished by the actions of those who do not join our ranks? Add in the lucrative potential of compromised work practices, a modern day gold rush, and the incentive for dishonesty is magnified. While the IECA is working hard to further promote the standards of Good Work, we all face a similar challenge. Reading your entry makes me think that we may have much to learn from the actions of other emerging professions and their professional organizations. Perhaps cross-disciplinary collaboration amongst similar groups that strive to promote work that is excellent, ethical, and engaged could help us all as we work towards the goal of creating law and order along the frontiers of our fields?

Name: howard gardner

Posted at April 16, 2011 at 12:40:22
Comment: Thanks, Christina, Michael, and Alexis for your illuminating discussion. You are all far more expert than am I in the ways of 'coaching.' The whole field only came to my attention a few years ago, in what appeared to be the 21st century equivalent of 'consultant', a term very familiar to me in recent decades. On the basis of our decades-plus on the GoodWork project, I have one concrete suggestion. I think all involved in coaching would benefit not only from a set of 'best practices' but also from candid discussions of the various temptations and pressures that threaten good work in coaching and how best to defend against or defuse these pressures. What does a college coach do, for example, when a parent says 'please help me make the best application for my child, and I don't care what the truth is' or when an executive says "My goal is to bump off my chief competitor. Help me!" Frank discussion of what to do when these situations arise, including more or less successful responses, would be helpful to all concerned. Howard Gardner

Name: Alexis Brooke Redding

Posted at April 16, 2011 at 04:00:34
Comment: This is a very intriguing idea – and how natural to have those of us in the coaching/consulting profession build a forum for coaching each other! In our professional organization, we have a tremendously helpful document that outlines the Principles of Good Practice and another that offers 12 clear-cut examples of compromised work. A great complement to these resources would be the kind of candid dialogue you describe. I can envision an online message board where we could discuss the ethical landmines we have each faced, ask for advice on current situations (especially the more nuanced ones!), and learn from the past experiences of colleagues. I feel that we often do this at an individual level, with our close colleagues and friends. However, expanding the dialogue to include people outside of our immediate network and who have very different experiences and perspectives would certainly enrich the conversation. I think that something like this could have a significant impact on our field and I am eager to speak with other IECs to see what they think.

Name: Julie Engel Manga

Posted at April 17, 2011 at 03:43:56
Comment: Christina, thanks for starting a great and important conversation. I speak from the perspective of being both a coach and a trainer of coaches. I think one of the big difficulties in this field is that "coaching" takes so many forms -- kind of like apples and oranges in some cases. Some coaching is concrete-results focused, some is more developmental, some is very domain-specific (e.g., College coaches). So, in this way, the objective of the coaching is often quite different. I think this makes it difficult to come up with a uniform (more or less!) set of standards or best practices, as the purpose of the engagement and even the way of engaging can be quite different. This is different than, say, in the medical profession there are different specialty areas, but all are focused on the health of the patient. I don't have this all sorted out in my own thinking, but thought I'd raise it, as it's part of what makes the landscape somewhat ambiguous.

Name: Lisa Chang

Posted at April 17, 2011 at 04:37:41
Comment: So my main question in response is, why does coaching need to be a profession? I believe coaching does not need to be a profession in order to assist the production of good work in our society. The general body of knowledge that coaching for workers represents is similar in nature to parenting. Parenting is also not a profession, but it is nonetheless vital to society as good parenting skills guide future generations to do good work. Also, I think coaching cannot be established as a profession. The fundamental fact which you pointed out -- anyone can "hang a shingle" and call him or herself a coach – is why it cannot be a true profession. A profession tends to dominate an area of expertise and exercise significant influence over its entire field which means that professions can act as a monopolist – a monopolist of a field of knowledge. Thus classical professions – like medicine and law -- required enforcement of established standards of competence, ethics, and responsibility because by “professing” to these standards they are better able to serve their clients’ interests first and foremost. This knowledge power and prestige that society confers upon a profession, therefore (at least conceptually) must be balanced by the enforcement of high standards of competence, responsibility, and ethics. I do not think society would provide coaching with a formal “profession” status, nor does coaching need to have such a status to be a strong, impactful career field in the future. Furthermore, the current efforts of formalizing coaching knowledge and skills will produce great benefits to society as well. I have conducted research on informal coaching practices in the accounting and finance profession, and found that these skills are critical to guiding good work professionals. The greatest need I believe is to formalize the development and practice of coaching skills so that it can be used to inform and ensure more consistent quality coaching in the workplace.

Name: howard gardner

Posted at April 19, 2011 at 09:21:55
Comment: Glad to see this spirited discussion continue. It is important to recognize that 120 years ago, neither law nor medicine had genuine professional status in the U.S. Even journalism's professional status is tenuous. Professions are MADE, not born. That said, it is very useful to disaggregate coaching and not treat it as if it were a single un-decomposable line of work. It's quite possible that aspects or forms of coaching could become professionalized in a reasonable period of time, while other varieties, by their very nature, are too personal or idiosyncratic to evolve into professions as we know them. Still, nothing can or should prevent coaches from airing their ethical dilemmas and indicating how they dealt with them. Howard Gardner

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