Counsellors' con trick

It's the fastest-growing training practice, but does coaching really help companies?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A current series of advertisements promotes the coaches of famous sports-people; rather than Tiger Woods or Pete Sampras, we see pictures of the powers behind the thrones, along with straplines such as 'It's my job to help Sportsperson X be all they can be.' It is a cute idea, but it also illustrates the growing interest in coaching, and coaches, in corporate life.

Coaching has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the HR market, topping the billion-dollar mark worldwide. Part of the explanation for the boom is the growing recognition that too many senior executives are running around madly, with little or no clear purpose. And if coaching can bring some clarity and self-awareness, business stands a chance of winning over busyness.

But coaching is also a way to avoid tough organisational or cultural issues. If a top team is wracked with dissent over direction, strategy and philosophy, it is all too easy to send in the coaches rather than deal with underlying issues. Problems are defined as individual ones - and therefore solvable through one-on-one coaching - rather than relating to entrenched problems of organisational culture, direction or strategy. In this sense, corporate coaching is the ultimate privatisation.

As for the broader impact of coaching, the jury is determinedly still out. On the one hand, coaching can legitimately be seen as a market made up of unregulated snake-oil salesmen perpetrating a fraud of colossal proportions, adding nothing to organisational value (and possibly detracting from it); or second, that coaching represents the highest stage of capitalist development as firms give their staff the time and resources to discover their true path and live fuller lives - to 'self-actualise'.

To be fair, there is a range of views in between as well. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development - not an organisation drawn to extremes - has sensibly issued a set of guidelines to help firms navigate the coaching waters and differentiate between 'higher-quality coaches' (such as MT's own Miranda Kennett, of course) and 'cowboys'.

As the CIPD's Judy Whittaker puts it: 'Coaching is the fastest-growing training practice, but there is growing concern about the lack of accreditation and regulation of providers.' Right now, anyone can call themselves a coach and set themselves up in business. This is a market crying out for some regulation. Coaching is necessarily about opening up difficult areas for the individual, and untrained coaches can open up challenging personal issues with none of the skills necessary to support the client subsequently. Cowboy coaching is very much worse than no coaching at all.

But even assuming that the issues of quality can be addressed, profound questions remain concerning the coaching bug. There is no evidence for a link between coaching and organisational performance.

In many cases, effective coaching causes valued employees to rethink their lives and realise that being sales director of a baked beans company is not actually their life's mission. This may be great news for the individual but bad news for the institution.

Even when 'coachees' stick around with renewed focus and energy, they may end up more frustrated than before if the organisation around them remains resolutely the same. As one recovering coachee puts it: 'What coaches do is put changed people into unchanged environments with often difficult consequences.'

None of which is to say that there is anything wrong with the process in itself. Good coaching is like good counselling; it provides people with the time, tools, support and space to make positive changes in their life. A vital component of coaching is the ability to listen to a client and then 'play back' to them their own messages in a way that forces and helps them to clarify their aspirations and obstacles.

(This means, incidentally, that no more than two coaches should ever be allowed in the same room. I once joined a group of 10 coaches discussing the future of their business, each 'replaying' what the previous one had said. It was the longest afternoon of my life.)

Coaches insist that what they do is different from counselling, but this never quite convinces. Indeed, the strong suspicion must be that coaching is counselling relabelled in order to get some budget from the finance director.

A society made up of individuals with a clearer sense of their strengths and weaknesses, a more secure focus on their goals and more highly developed communication skills - if you like, a coaching culture - would be a better one to live in. Corporate coaches often report that they make most progress with their clients' personal rather than professional issues; after coaching, Bob may well be a better husband, although his mediocrity as an HR director is unaltered.

The extraordinary achievement of the coaching movement has been to persuade hard-bitten capitalist enterprises to fund this new enlightenment. Despite the absence of any evidence that coaching raises organisational performance, large cheques are being written to help staff lead better lives. From a purely business perspective, then, coaching is indeed a giant con. But from a social perspective, it is a benevolent fraud indeed. Perhaps we should keep quiet, and hope the finance director doesn't notice the revolution he is funding.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk

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