Fresh thinking, and even honesty, is needed about professionalism in Coaching by Jeremy Ridge

I thought Professionalism was meant to be good and could be relied on… but it seems some fresh thinking is really needed.   As it seems there are a number of different meanings given to the idea- representing a number of conflicting interests. Greater honesty about these interests would help. It’s an ethical thing!

1          Why it is important to me

I came into coaching when someone said to me –“Jeremy, did you know what you do is now called coaching!” I replied “… well I am well used to calling what I do by all sorts of things – driven by what the client prefers to call it.”

That was some ten years ago, now.

It then became very clear, at the time, there was quite a rush on to run the coaching flag up the pole of general attention. I thought it would be really good to establish some real authority, professionalism as I saw it, as to what this coaching thing is about.

Where is the authority to follow?

However, I have found that all that glitters is not gold, as they say!

The issue lies in the widely different meanings people bring to what they really mean by this term ‘professional’. It seems we are still to establish what would be the best, and most authoritative meaning for the use of the term –in the best interests of all.

I would like to lay out the different approaches to this term, professional, here, as a way of giving some form to where important work still needs to be done – at least before I feel fully comfortable about my use of this term 'professional!' 

2          Why is professional as a term so important?

To start with, dictionary meanings are also quite open in meaning:

  1. Worthy of or appropriate to a professional person; competent, skillful, or assured.

  2. Engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as an amateur.

  3. A person engaged or qualified in a profession.

 The attraction of using the term is that it short cuts a great deal of time and resource in checking out whether people get what they are looking for.

  • The central issue about the use of the term professional is the implied ‘contract’ created, and whether it is then delivered. (Contract originates as a legal term – but also can refer to mutual expectations more).

  • Users can benefit, as well as ‘suppliers’. It is a great idea that has been widely, and increasingly used across society in many.

  • It also helps people know what they need to do to be able to deliver the service involved and remain ‘professionally’, and even legally.

  • It can even in some instances provide assurance against challenge or complaint about services.

  • The issue of checks and balances where there are significant risks of self-interest are increasingly important.

And they are all still a major part of the issue when the term professional is loosely applied in Coaching.

2.1      My expectations of the use of the term – in brief

The meaning, typically taken from its use, is that the professional knows what they are doing.

  • They get it right all the time (not occasionally, like amateurs).

  • They can be fully trusted to deliver a service as required …. as specified.

  • They know what they don’t know, and don’t stray into this. They know where their boundaries lie for what they do.

This is a very exacting standard, and contract. The term contract makes it clear that there are potential penalties for breaking this contract.

3          Looking at the different ‘standards’ used in adopting the term professional

Surveying how it’s being applied in our field, there seem to be different standards involved in the use of the term – professional - which is ironic, as standards are what the whole thing is about! I would expect more honest attention to this standards issue.

Looking at the sources of authority, in the field at present, three large categories come first to mind. Two we know well – and the third is more in its early but important early stages, and is likely to be the force that really drives progress.

3.1      Category ONE - The self-appointed, ‘supplier,’ sources of authority:

The risk, here is conflicts of interest, where the self-interest of the suppliers does not work to the best advantage of the user. The user has little opportunity to input into the supply of the services.

a) INDIVIDUALS – with self-appointed authority as a professional Coach - may just decide to announce themselves a professional coach – typically on the basis that as they ‘earn their living’ through what they do, they must know what they are doing.

b) COMMUNITIES – of ‘like-minded’ individuals – again on a self-appointed basis. 
As Gray 2010[1] puts it in:  Journeys towards the professionalisation of coaching: dilemmas, dialogues and decisions along the global pathway,
“If coaching is to become a profession it must adopt criteria such as the development of an agreed and unified body of knowledge, professional standards and qualifications, and codes of ethics and behaviour.  While some of these are already completed or in development, the continuation of a multiplicity (and growing) number of coaching associations suggests that the pathway of coaching to professionalisation may be at best bumpy, and at worst derailed.” 

  • This has happened in Coaching where numerous bodies have created themselves, or appointed themselves as experts in Coaching. They create a basis for ‘registering’ people – but on terms they have given authority to by themselves. (See Yvonne Thackray’s blog: Culture driven from the centre: Comparing two coaching bodies who compares this approach)

  • This can be seen also by ‘Training organisations’ … Anyone can offer a quick two day course, with the award of accreditation. Furthermore, it was raised in a recent paper by Maltbia et al (2014) the lack of empirical validity of the core competences and the conflict of interest between certifying coach training schools and accrediting its members threatens its credibility[2].

  • It can also be seen in other ‘knowledge oriented’ communities which may see their perspective adding an edge to their members in the field. For example, Psychology and Psychotherapy/Counselling have both adopted the coaching term in relation to their mainstream professional position by starting ‘Coaching Divisions’.

The lack of agreement for where authority lies across this major diversity of claims speaks even more to the real risk of conflict of narrow interest.

It is remarkable how little serious collaboration of substance there is yet across all these bodies.

In medicine, as an example of a more mature area for ‘professionalism’ that may be worthy of role-modelling, a recent review saw more issues ahead in considerable detail.

Haffert and Castellani 2010 identified 10 key aspects of medical work (altruism, autonomy, commercialism, personal morality, interpersonal competence, lifestyle, professional dominance, social justice, social contract, and technical competence) and then arranged these within different clusters to identify seven types of professionalism: Nostalgic /Entrepreneurial /Academic /Lifestyle /Empirical /Unreflective /activist.

Traditional definitions of professionalism, within both medicine and sociology, have identified professional dominance as key to medicine’s professional status …. Nonetheless, a top-down hierarchical model of work (as reflected in the professional dominance model) no longer seems to capture these complexities— even as the underlying complexity of medical work, the uncertainties of knowledge and its application to patient care, and the tremendous variabilities that exist with the patient population continue to demand some measure of individual expertise and discretionary decision making. … How organized medicine responds to the problems of internal integration (e.g., increasing subspecialization) and to the challenges of external adaptation (e.g., the buyer’s revolt) will have a great deal to say about the nature and sustainability of medical professionalism in the future. Traditional conceptions of what it means to be a professional—as a stand-alone entity—are neither systematically realistic nor ultimately sustainable. Like it or not, we remain awash in a sea of complexities”[3].

3.2      CATEGORY 2 - ‘independently’ appointed Nation /State and or International authority

This Category brings some independence to the checks and balances. However, the disadvantage is that there will be a lack of knowledge for what is involved in practice, and an excessive over- reliance on exacting procedure, rather than inclusion of the substance that matters.

  • The UK ‘Chartered’ designation is an example, here. The professional Body granted the use of this (UK) controlled term actually cedes authority for its works to the state.
    A Royal Charter[4] is a way of incorporating a body, that is turning it from a collection of individuals into a single legal entity. …….. incorporation by Charter should be in the public interest. This consideration is important, since once incorporated by Royal Charter a body surrenders significant aspects of the control of its internal affairs to the Privy Council. … This effectively means a significant degree of Government regulation of the affairs of the body, and the Privy Council will therefore wish to be satisfied that such regulation accords with public policy”.

  • ISO 17024 is a great process for accreditation – but does not include the knowledge and understanding that is needed in the process.
    “ISO/IEC 17024:2012[5] contains principles and requirements for a body certifying persons against specific requirements, and includes the development and maintenance of a certification scheme for persons.”

The danger, here, is that just because it is possible to create an exacting system for a process it can be put about as having ‘authority’.

3.3      CATEGORY 3 - End ‘User’ authority:

We are now increasingly seeing the start of other forms of authority more involved in deciding how Coaching should work. Especially with ‘Executive Coaching’ – as those involved can be more assertive and knowledgeable. But also this is being led by developments in Medicine.

INTERNAL COACHING: In Executive Coaching, large Organisations in particular have created ‘internal coaching’ using their own staff to provide coaching of other staff.

These organisations are even fashioning their own internal structures for accreditation, and other internal mechanisms for developing their internal coaching – that key to professional status. This is even increasingly independent of current ‘self-appointed’ bodies. (Read more about this in Yvonne Thackray’s blog: How to raise the standards of coaching in 9.5 important ways!)

After all, in executive coaching the use of what is called the ‘chemistry’ session is typical. The End user decides who has the most ‘professional’ capabilities by making their own selection of the Coach for them. The demonstration of having to use the term ‘chemistry’ – borrowed from other areas is symptomatic of the issue.  This would appear to signal a big blind spot that still exists in the field about what really matters. It still relies on whom the end user ‘senses’ (somehow) that they can work better with to achieve their goals.

The EXPERT /PROFESSIONAL PATIENT: Perhaps one of the most recent innovations is the idea in the medical profession about bringing the ‘patient’ as the user more directly into the frame as needing to be an expert about their particular condition. An article in the BMJ “Expert patient”—dream or nightmare? Is quick to highlight the opportunities and risks … but opens up the challenge to the medical profession[6]

Unfortunately this can still seem to challenge traditional notions of trained/learned’ knowledge based authority.

And the methodologies for enabling ‘Professional/Expert Patients’ as well as Coachees is less in evidence.

We keep on referring to how The Coachee sets the agenda, and has also to set the process, as it suits their needs / learning structures.

The process of contracting is key to ensuring expectations are managed professionally. However, in coaching, there is often discovery during the process, rather than everything being known at the start – so contracting takes in a new meaning than the simple ‘starter general objective'.

But these are clear signs that users have taken up the need to bring their own expertise into the mix.

4          How do I fit my practice into these approaches to professional remains difficult?

  1. Coachee Professionalism is key: When I consider my own practice, I can see clearly that it is based on the need to work with the expertise of the Coachee about themselves as central.

    However there is still some difficulty finding frameworks and standards for how ‘professionally’ knowledgeable the other person is about their learning opportunities.

    Terms like andragogy refer to this – but it is still poorly developed and accepted.(Read more here: Adult Learning – the real leading edge of Coaching by Sue Young , Critical Assumptions in Coaching* By Lucille Maddalena, Ed.D. (Guest))

  2. Team Based Professionalism: Eventually there will be an evolution of the idea becoming common elsewhere, that a ‘team’ of different experts/professionals may need to be involved because the issues/opportunities at hand are too wide ranging to fit into one profession’s box … let alone one professional’s box.

  3. The rush to over simplification: Perhaps the greatest risk remains the rush to over simplification of how Coaching works. This generates a push towards conformity with something that is seriously lacking in rigour.

I constantly find fellow well established practitioners who want to share the detail of their practice, as they experience how it works, but find too few opportunities to attract them to do so.

Tell me, how do you demonstrate your professionalism with your clients?

[2] Maltbia, T.E., Marsick, V.J. & Ghosh, R., 2014. Executive and Organizational Coaching: A Review of Insights Drawn From Literature to Inform HRD Practice. Advances in Developing Human Resources, pp.1–23. 
[6] BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 25 March 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:723