What is coaching? by Yvonne Thackray

That moment has finally arrived as they let those words roll of their tongue, ‘So tell me what do you do for a living?’ With a sharp intake of the breath and a sigh the person standing in front musters their bravado and sureness: ‘I’m an executive coach.’ Blankness followed by realization. How should they respond? Some politely roll their eyes and shake their head in condolence, others simply correct the executive coach standing in front of them and say: ‘Oh you’re a life coach, well that’s just like counselling really…’ before moving onto a less embarrassing topic, whilst some genuinely do not know and ask ‘what is coaching?’ and, for a small minority they quietly break out into a knowing smile, relax and begin talking about their experiences of coaching.

Welcome to the confusing world of the newly emerging field called executive coaching.

Retrospectively, it’s a lot easier to broadly offer reasons why the field began: executive coaching emerged as a response to changes in modern working life in contemporary society. For the recipients of coaching in the workplace, typically managers and leaders (also broadly referred to as executives) are under greater pressure to deliver results working in or leading a ‘lean’ team within a matrix organisational structure. At the same time they are resolving complex challenges as a consequence of the rapid advancements in technology, innovating sustainable solutions that are important to maintain customers, and growing their market against fierce competition locally and globally. Changes in organisational structures, like the matrix structure (employees grouped by both function and product), working in project teams virtually and face to face with peers around the world, has also changed working practices from ‘command and control’ management to a risk-taking and problem solving style that places more emphasis and accountability on individual and team autonomy. Furthermore, it has shifted peripheral employees in many organisations from long-term employment to frequent short-term contracts.

And so, my top 3 reasons why executive coaching emerged

  1. Executive coaching emerged as a response to changes in modern working life in contemporary society.

  2. Executive coaching creates the conditions for executives to work through the various degrees of complexities, often with less experienced/available resources, to be even more productive and still remain competitive in the market with their self-identity intact.

  3. Executive coaching provides the space for executives to reflexively and meaningful organise their thoughts and potential actions, and a place for continuous self-improvement in order to adapt to the volatility of markets.

Explaining what is coaching – well that’s a much harder question to answer beyond the simple model of coaching (see Jeremy Ridge’s’ blog). Unfortunately there is no one size fits all – the universalist paradigm – because each individual is unique and the coach needs to continually create and sustain the appropriate conditions for the client to work through their unique challenges. Let me describe and share some examples of clients I’ve coached around some form of related work issue.

  • A Chinese lady (late 40’s) who worked as a senior HR manager who was based in Beijing in English for an international medical and healthcare organisation.

  • A retired Singaporean gentleman (late 50’s), formally served in the national army and then worked overseas in the technology industry, and repatriated to his homeland to start an entrepreneurial enterprise around sustainability.

  • A Serbian gentleman in his mid 30’s who formally worked in Sales and Training for a local engineering company before becoming a co-entrepreneur for potable water business, and lived through the politically upheavals and changes of former Yugoslavia.

  • An African-American lady (mid 20’s), an entrepreneur fashion designer in bridal and special occasion dresses based in New York developing her online web presence.

How do we explain to the 99.99994% what it is that we do as an executive coach because the services offered should be tailored to the unique needs, motivations and readiness of that individual?

How do we explain to the 99.99994% that coaching is like a conversation but more than just a conversation because the process helps sharpens both the competitive and collaborative edge of the individual in their working environment that impacts and influences them professionally and personally?

I think the first steps is understanding what it is we do, and how we apply our unique coaching approach in the various markets we operate in. Share them as blogs (like I and many others do at the good coach).

I’ve blogged about my practice of coaching for almost 3 years writing over 30 pieces, continually investigating and connecting coaching to the broader disciplines and the market to really understand what is coaching. Every day, every conversation I have on coaching helps me to understand a little more and make sense of this thing called coaching – and through my eclectic approach to understand its importance, usefulness and relevance from a social/philosophical/political/psychological/economical perspective– I’ll continue to report on that – and how they help me make sense of what I do as a coach.

Perhaps then, and with other like-minded practitioners, we can better demonstrate and validate our practice together.