“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
I find myself increasingly intimidated by people in the executive coaching world. Many in the profession claim to be able “to unlock clients’ dormant potential and to provide them with a sense of self-fulfillment”. As these coaches seem to have so much to offer, how can I reach the Olympian heights they profess to dwell in? With their amazing skills, they say they can “deepen their clients’ learning, improve their performance and enhance their quality of life, both personally and professionally”. It must be true because they present glowing testimonials of clients who, thanks to their life-changing interventions, have become phenomenal leaders.
Amidst the boom of executive coaches, there appears to be an even more elevated type of coach: the master coach. These remarkable professionals differentiate themselves from the pack by being “always on the lookout for the things their clients don’t want to see or don’t want to hear”. They are their clients’ key to self-actualisation, bringing them to places they never thought they would be able to reach.
Joining their lofty ranks seems to be an accounting game, requiring (according to the websites of some master coaches) between 2,500 to 10,000 hours of direct coaching experience. Another requirement is to regularly practise “self-coaching”, a process that can “allow your soul to emerge and be seen”. What this is all about remains somewhat puzzling to me. As an executive coach myself, I would apparently be “more fulfilled” – and make “more money” – if I were to sign up for one of their training programmes.
At the pinnacle of the coaching pyramid is the most trusted advisor. Compared to run-of-the-mill executive coaches or master coaches, trusted advisors shine (or so they say) by being reliable, credible, personable, passionate, authentic and able to connect emotionally. And, if we believe the self-descriptions, they also provide their clients with an “Echo”, “Anchor”, “Mirror” and “Spark” function.
Finally, many of these executive coaches, master coaches and most trusted advisors have designed sophisticated frameworks packaged as catchy acronyms, such as FUEL, GROW, SMART, PURE and CLEAR.
Preventing coaching from becoming a fad
When I put on my “sceptic hat”, however, I wonder whether the propositions by executive coaches, master coaches and most trusted advisors are somewhat of a marketing ploy. Much of their pitch sounds like psychobabble, language that is heavily reliant on jargon and catchphrase expressions. And based on my experience, people who tend to resort to this kind of language often have little or no real training in psychology.
I would like to add that, to the best of my knowledge, the psychological dynamics that guide human behaviour are far from neat. Human behaviour doesn’t fit elegantly into boxes, categories or snappy acronyms. Oversimplified models exclude the subtle nuances of human dynamics and what’s really happening in the coach-client interface.
Furthermore, I believe that the coaching profession isn’t doing itself any favours by exaggerating what it has to offer. Contrary to all the hype found in the literature of coaching training programmes, creating behaviour change isn’t easy, fast or linear. There are no miraculous cures in the helping professions. As any psychiatrist, psychoanalyst or clinical psychologist can tell you, behaviour change is hard work that comes with many setbacks. In most interventions, it’s two steps forward, one step back. Therefore, the exaggerated promises made by executive coaches, master coaches and most trusted advisors create highly unrealistic expectations.
Unrealistic, over-hyped sales pitch made by many of coaches and coaching programmes debase the coaching profession. It’s high time to debunk the shallowness behind the proliferation of jargon and boastful claims in executive coaching. In its place, we need richer frameworks to define the kind of work coaches are capable off, as well as ways of assessing the quality and real impact of their coaching interventions.
The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Coaching as the language of change and learning has a salient role to play. However, while doing so, it must stay grounded and avoid turning into a fad.
“This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2018”
INSEAD Knowledge, 2018Read more
"Peer coaching and strategy alignment"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review discusses how peer coaching interventions can make a huge difference to the implementation of a strategy or change initiative of an organisation.
Published on 1 May, 2014
"Conundrums coaches face in their practice"
This article sheds light on the challenges facing coaches when undertaking the journey to becoming a group coach.
Published on 11 Nov, 2014
"The tragedy of the commons"
Published on 26 Oct, 2016
"Learning to manage in the gray zone"
Published on 7 Apr, 2015
"Managing the passive- aggressive leader"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review discusses challenge of managing passive-aggressives.
Published on 20 Feb, 2014
"Fairy tales for today’s executives"
This blog looks at the leadership journey as a fairy tale and cautions against the five deadly dangers of leadership.
Published on 18 May, 2015
"Dreams as entry points to executive subconscious"
Published on 15 May, 2014
"Through coaching, a deeper interpersonal awareness will develop within executives with narcissistic tendencies, which can reduce their tendency to see the world in black and white."
In this last blog in our KDVI Blog Series on Narcissism, we explore how organisations can manage the downsides of employing narcissistic executives. In particular, we turn our attention to coaching as a means for getting the best out of narcissistic executives.
Published on 6 Jun, 2018
"Are you a mentor or a martyr?"
In this blog entry for Forbes, Manfred Kets de Vries discusses the differences between mentoring and martydom.
Published on 16 Oct, 2013
This book provides an in-depth look at the coaching process, considering the diversity of both individual and organisational learning through the lens of psychodynamic mindfulness.
Published on 15 Apr, 2014