What's in a name? That which we call a Coach (Part 3) by Yvonne Thackray

Part 3: Shaping the Field called Executive Coaching

Photo: Fredik BodenThe two root disciplines dominating executive coaching are psychology and management consulting, which are also used to define the boundaries of executive coaching (includes personal development).


The logical assumption is that executive coaching has its root in psychology, because psychology is all about working with the whole individual on their behaviours, thoughts and emotions and how that impacts various areas of their life. The five theoretical traditions in psychology that have been adapted to coaching are psychoanalytic, behavioural, humanistic/phenomenological, trait, and social cognitive, and they all have different concepts of the person. Both the psychoanalytic (aka Freud) and the behavioural (Skinner) models developed from biology are focused on ‘curing’ pathology. The humanistic/phenomenological approaches of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (influential in HPM) focuses on the integrity and sense making of individuals that creates health and happiness as a reaction to psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Positive psychology extends the humanist thinker’s beliefs that focus on how to help human beings prosper and lead healthy happy lives. The trait approach focuses on measuring a person’s psychological characteristics, and the social cognitive tradition focuses on how an individual is motivated to understand both self and the social world in order to establish a sense of order and predictability.

An executive coach with a psychology background will see what they have been trained to see, and as long as the coaching assignment was successfully completed (based on feedback) it will confirm that this is the right approach.  Their coaching identity is the sum of their experiences and feedback through their educational training as a psychologist, as Berger and Luckmann (1967:178) note: ‘psychologies produce a reality, which in turn, serves as the basis for their verification’ (Rousseau 2014).

Management Consulting

Management consulting is concerned with improving efficiency and increasing effectiveness in organisations through technology and management practices. The rapid growth in management consultancy coincided with the rising status of corporate managers in all sectors e.g. mining, banking and finance. Management consultants provide expertise on the claims of possessing the knowledge that clients learn experientially, Jackall (2009) labels this as ‘ambiguous experience’.

The history of management consulting begins with Taylor's scientific management principles of measuring and accelerating efficiency at work (1910s), Mayo's studies of cooperation between managers and the workers (1920s and 1930s), Drucker’s focus on executive effectiveness, and Levinson’s study of the psychological contract (the unspoken contract) between an individual and organisation (1960’s and 70’s). The knowledge base of management consultancy is social science.

As consultants moved away from reporting on ways to implement process changes to technical challenges to being engaged in implementing their recommended changes, they became embroiled in the social structure (politicking) of the organisation and the ‘expert [now] trades in other’s troubles’ (Jackall 2009:148). Executive coaching is an example of one of the techniques in executive development practiced by management consultants to deliver change.

Executive coaches with psychology knowledge who have a consulting background rely on knowledge, ability or skill to master a challenge or solve a problem (Kilburg 2004 as cited in Ozkan 2008). They rely on the instincts they developed during their life (professional and personal experiences) and refer to a bricolage of published works. In a similar way this is how they present their coaching identity[1].

The reality is...

Today the market is a more sophisticated consumer of executive coaching and it wants to see progress. Likewise, there is increasing demand amongst the independent suppliers of executive coaching that I spoke with, and there is a building momentum and consensus for it to become a formal profession. Different countries have different approaches, for example in the United Kingdom there is an increasing interest from different stakeholders to move towards a Chartered Institute, in Australia the commercial coach training organisations offer government accredited coach-training programs under the Australian Qualifications Framework, in America the Graduate School Alliance for Education in Coaching (GSAEC) is leading the way in professional graduate education for executive and organisational coaching. One of today’s challenges of becoming a profession is about who ‘owns’ the definition of coaching, and from which expert body of knowledge it will stem from.

It is clear that executive coaches come from a diverse social and cultural background. Bono et al (2009) carried out a survey of executive coaching practices and they concluded that the debate should move on from whether an executive coach should have a psychological training to ‘what we can expect coaches of different backgrounds to do best and what type of training would help all coaches be more effective (p. 386)’. A caveat exists. Irrespective of the background of executive coaches, what is a consistent message from executive coaches is how to define the client. Acceptable clients are ‘mentally healthy’ and have ‘higher functioning’ based on the official distinctions in DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). The ability to correctly diagnose a client depends on the executive coaches training, and exposes the subtle influence of ‘psy’ discourse. 

[1] A number of practitioners have second degrees in psychology at the graduate level, and through informal conversations it seems that it is likened to therapy in that helps them to understand their experiences of past situations and be more self-aware of past behaviours and not transfer onto others during coaching.


Bono, J.E. et al., 2009. A Survey of Executive Coaching Practices. Personnel Psychology, 62(2), pp.361–404.

Jackall, R., 2009. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers 2nd ed., Oxford University Press.

Ozkan, E., 2008. Executive Coaching: Crafting a Versatile Self in Corporate America. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rousseau, N., 2014. Society explained: An Introduction to Sociology, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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