The evolution of coaching (Part Four) – finding your place in the coaching world
Part I: The coaching landscape
The coaching profession is growing and changing fast. The pandemic has combined with technology, new business models and shifting attitudes to work and life, to accelerate existing trends and create a new landscape for the coaching industry. After touching briefly upon this emergent landscape by drawing upon a recent FT article, I want to explore the issues, questions and options that the individual coach faces in relation to finding a place within this world that works for them.
Clearly the coaching profession is growing fast, however reliable data is hard to come by given the diverse and dispersed way the industry is structured. Nevertheless, headline data from picking the first item in a google search includes:
- Growth estimate is 6.7% pa between 2017 and 2022
- There are now more than 6 million people on LinkedIn with coach in their title
- Market size of the industry estimated at $15 billion (2019)
Impact of the pandemic
A recent article in the FT by Emma Jacobs explores the impact of the pandemic and how technology and the tech start-up business model is changing the way the industry works, with the rise of platforms such as CoachHub and BetterUp. The pandemic, by accelerating the acceptance of working online via Zoom, Teams or other portals made it easier to both receive and to provide coaching.
An unexpected consequence of the dissolving of physical barriers between the workplace and home space, has been an acceleration in the merging and mingling or the professional and personal, the bringing together emotionally and spiritually of our work and personal lives. The pandemic brought a more explicit dialogue into play about well-being and mental or psychological health in the workplace. If levels of stress at work were high before, they were even higher during the pandemic, with new uncertainties and pressures brought to bear on already stressed-out leaders and managers. There seems to have been no let-up since the pandemic, although there are countervailing forces, with more flexible life-work patterns helping some, whilst others have apparently jumped ship altogether as part of the so-called great resignation. I read recently about the growth of ‘quiet quitting’, people reducing their work stress by doing the bare minimum to get by (although I am not sure this is new!). Others have been prompted into a ‘great rethink’ about their working lives, where they fundamentally reassess their values and need for meaning.
Jacobs makes the case that an executive coach is now a must have for CEOs, to combat isolation and ‘work through complex and confidential issues that can be difficult to discuss’. Shifting geo-political-economic-market forces following the pandemic that include war, climate change, supply chain disruption signalling an end to the era of unfettered globalisation, people shortages and now inflation and recession will only increase levels of anxiety for leaders within organisations. The nature of what takes place in coaching conversations is therefore changing. Quoting executive coach Sally Bonneywell, CEOs ‘need to contain their own anxiety and also that of their direct reports’. Coaching is now more openly about emotional and psychological wellbeing and not just about driving performance and changing behaviours. Intrinsically it has always about personal growth, and this is becoming more explicitly accepted. The narrative in the FT article suggests the shift is already taking place away from pure performance coaching towards holistic coaching, from working only on the problem or the goal towards including the whole person, their psychological health and personal development.
Good for coaching? Good for the coach?
Is all this growth and change good news for existing coaches and those now entering the coaching profession? Not necessarily, for various reasons.
The evidence seems to be that the number of coaches is growing at a faster rate than the number of coachees or the demand for coaching. The structure of the industry and the way in which coaching is delivered and experienced is also evolving, for example with an increasing proportion of coaching taking place in-house, either through specialist internal teams or job-plus networks of coaches where part-time coaches support colleagues in another part of the organisation. The structure of the market for external coaching provision is also changing and becoming more competitive and diverse.
I get the feeling sometimes that the coaching industry has become something of a honeypot that isn’t delivering for many of those drawn into it with unrealistic expectations or even false promises. One of the features of the executive coaching end of the profession is the aura of prestige that surrounds the rates or fees that people charge and pay for coaching. Exceptional coaches who build their reputation can charge eye watering fees and this fits hand in glove with the desire of senior executives to equate price with value (see also the management consulting industry) and happily pay the asking rate. Of course, as coaches we are not simply charging for our time in front of our clients, nor also all the time to build and manage our business, nor also to deliver a return on our investment in training and development. The value-based model is perfectly legitimate, as are other approaches, for example establishing the going rate in a particular sector or charging what people are able to pay.
However, talk of high fees can create unrealistic expectations which can only be met if you are able to create sufficient demand for what you are offering. This takes us back to the role of small, large or corporate providers of coaching services whose success is driven by their ability to create demand for their brand and proposition. This is why something upwards of 20,000 people have applied for job’s at BetterUp – who say they only accept 9% of applicants and they currently have a pool of 2,500 coaches and likewise CoachHub say they only employ 5% of applicants. I wonder about the profile and motivation of the unsuccessful applicants and what has drawn them towards testing these options.
The issue for the individual coach might be the extent to which you are willing to fit within the confines of one of these platforms in order to be gainfully employed as a coach, versus how important it is for you to work in the way that is right for you. This is the essential trade off.
Some essential questions
Against this whole backdrop, individual coaches are faced with juggling a number of interrelated issues and choices about how they work.
- How do I find the coaching work I want to be doing?
- How do I meet my career and financial needs?
- What other activities or modalities might I combine coaching with?
- How do I want to work with others?
These questions imply some basic choices, for example:
- Do I work for myself or someone else? If someone else, do I work as an in-house or an external coach?
- If for myself, am I a solopreneur or do I build a brand that employs others? Are there other options or choices?
Before answering any of these, it may help to reflect upon some more essential questions about yourself and coaching:
- What is my calling or purpose?
- Who am I becoming as a coach?
- Who am I drawn to work with?
- When am I at my best?
- What do I most enjoy doing?
Proposition, positioning and portfolio
We explore these questions on our coaching accreditation programmes and the way coaches finds their answers and resolve the trade-offs are many and varied. Some people will develop a niche proposition and positioning, for example leadership coaching within a sector where they have experience (e.g. health, education, finance, leisure, music, etc.), or coachees with common issues (e.g. young people, career transitions, mid-life crisis, fellow professionals, start-ups, etc.), some may combine coaching with other modalities or ways of working (e.g. team coaching, group retreats, mindfulness practice, nature, art, healing, etc.), whilst some may prefer to seek variety by working with different types of client. Others will view coaching as one part their portfolio with organisational clients alongside mentoring, facilitation and consulting, within the broader scope of organisational or leadership development.
An issue highlighted during the pandemic is the sense of isolation that can be experienced as a coach. Most coaching still takes place one-to-one, although there are other formats that can work. Most coaching now takes place on Zoom, Teams or other online platforms and although this suits many people very well, others would prefer to get back to in-person work if possible. We all have different psychological profiles and different social and relational needs and how these are met within a coaching work life is an important consideration. Coaches on our courses receive plentiful coaching for themselves from peers as well as course tutor coaches and may decide to use some of this for resolving these professional issues.
A general rule of thumb is that for young coaches or those without established networks from a previous career, gaining experience by working for an organisation either as an in-house or external coach is a good idea. However many boutique leadership coaching firms like Meyler Campbell or the large platforms like CoachHub, both mentioned in the FT article, are looking for well credentialled and experienced coaches or at least those with a leadership track record, so there can be a Catch-22 here.
Coaches who are transitioning from leadership or professional careers in the corporate world have the most options and are often the best set up with their own ready-made networks. Setting out on your own to establish a business or brand makes more sense for experienced coaches or leaders who are leaving organisational employment to establish a portfolio career. However, we are coming across an increasing number of ‘millennials’ making the decision to leave direct employment earlier in their working lives and who is to say they shouldn’t?
Part II: The hard road – some guidance
For now I want to focus on the challenges facing those coaches that don’t want to be employed and are seeking to build a new career, business or brand. [You might want to skip to the final part if you are not in this situation!]
Not all external coaches are natural business developers or networkers and many find it challenging to find enough clients to make any kind of living out of being a coach. This is why organisations like the Life Coaching School that I mentioned upon in my previous article can be an alluring proposition that promise to help you build a profitable business.
Of course, all coaches need to find their own answers to the issues of finding work, being supported both professionally and in developing their business.
I am not going to offer marketing advice or guidance on how to set up a successful coaching business or brand. Maybe like me you receive dozens of emails from people promising to help you to do this, for example via a practical workshop or course, coaching and mentoring support or a guidebook containing all the answers. Some of these could be very helpful, depending upon your story and what you are seeking to achieve.
Instead, I want to invite you to take a step backwards and challenge you to think carefully about how you even structure your business and the way you work with others. I then want to outline the model PCL is developing to support coaches in their professional lives.
Once you have already answered the proposition, positioning and portfolio questions, you know broadly what you want to be doing or offering and to whom. I then have one more question – (staying with P’s!):
Which of the following most closely describes your project:
- A passion with a purpose, e.g. to make something happen
- A service provision, e.g. to serve a specific sector or group need
- A professional platform, e.g. for yourself to be in practice
Your answer to this will tend to shape whether it makes most sense to create a partnership with one or more others to pursue this project or whether you are best working as a solopreneur to maintain full control and direction of your unique venture. Both choices bring their benefits as well as hazards and challenges. A purpose driven project is often best served by coming together with others who share your passion. A service proposition, e.g. for a specific sector or type of organisation can be either but is at least likely to involve others in the delivery of the services. Creating a professional platform is best done as a solopreneur.
If you do go down the partnership route, creating alignment of purpose, clarity of roles, shared goals and explicit ways of working through engaged and honest communication from the start is critical. I have my own very successful experience of doing this with Paul Elliott and our co-creation of Psychosynthesis Coaching Limited, which I would be able to share about but not here.
Towards a new way of working
Why should coaches have to choose between the limitations of either being employed by a company, conforming to a new tech based platform like CoachHub or struggling on their own to set up a viable business? I believe there is another way, whereby you can maintain your independence as a solopreneur (sole business proprietor, owner of your own limited company or other legal structure, etc.) and feel connected and supported by others as part of networks or shared support organisations.
There are two distinct requirements here – for connection, support, services and resources at professionaland business levels. Most independent coaches or hybrid professionals develop their own professional support networks which evolve naturally or by necessity and some of us are better at doing this than others. As well as coming together in different ways with other professionals, there are professional bodies (such as EMCC, APECS, EPA, AAP, to list some of mine) and training and development organisations such as PCL as well as individuals offering supervision and other services. PCL now offers continuing professional support to the graduates of our courses as well as other psychosynthesis trained coaches, which include monthly supervision groups, monthly community forums, our annual symposiums, online resources, posts and discussion groups as well as an evolving annual CPD offering of short courses.
Business support models
On the business support side, some coaches will try to do everything for themselves (usually to save money) and others may be better at outsourcing the elements of running a business they are not well suited to, from branding and marketing, website development and social media campaigns, to business development and communication, to organisation, administration and financial management. There are two key issues here; one is that many people set up their own business only to find they spend too much of their time running the business rather than providing the service that they are passionate about. The other is generating enough business in terms clients and contracts to make this choice viable and sustainable. Both of these issues may drive coaches back to the employment or platform models and give up their autonomy and independence in the process.
PCL hosts a free coach directory for psychosynthesis coaches which forms part of a business development strategy focused on different sectors to offer external coaches as well as tailored internal coach training and leader as coach workshops. Our purpose here is not to emulate the conventional associate model of many small to medium boutique firms, but to help provide a platform and shop window for independent coaches whom we have trained. We have a long way to go to get this going and sing in tune with everyone’s needs, but we have made a start.
The idea I want to explore is that of a dedicated business support platform specifically for coaches, that can provide whatever business support services are needed by solopreneur coaches in a flexible and tailored way that achieves some of the benefits of scale that would be expected from conventional organisations, but where the power dynamic is reversed – i.e. the organisation is serving the professionals, rather than the professional serving the commercial organisation.
The idea of mutual support networks, resource and facility hubs, shared services etc. is nothing new but I have not come across many examples of it working well in the coaching profession. When I was more active as an in-person coach a few years ago I used to be a member of the Hub in Kings Cross which was a kind of community stroke shared resource for social entrepreneurs – and some of the people I found myself sat next to in the shared space were coaches, although most seemed to recruitment consultants or software developers. I was able to hire a room for coaching sessions there until the Hub realised they could put up their prices and be more like Regus whose rooms I had hired before their prices went up. So I drifted towards using hotel foyers or coffee shops like everyone else. Now much of this activity is taking place on Zoom. Upmarket there are more options, like The Office Group and Wallacespace in London, but their rates assume an organisation is paying the room fee.
More common in terms of support services for the independent coaches I know is a relationship with a Virtual PA or Marketing Assistant. For many coaches, this is all they need once they have got their website set up and it works very well. Perhaps the idea I am proposing is a simple extension of this towards a more tangible networked entity whereby resources, services, knowledge and tools can be shared easily between a network of support professionals in service of a network of coaching professionals. It obviously would need someone or a group to create, develop, coordinate and operate such a network organisation and if that sounds like you then please get in touch with me and we can explore the idea further!
My passion here is to find better ways to support independent and solopreneur coaches and to push back against the corporate tech start-up business model as the answer to everything, including coaching. I might be naïve or swimming against the inevitable tide here and as an increasingly out-of-touch boomer I would be interested to hear the views of any millennials on this. As in so many areas of what is happening in society we have to start a new dialogue somewhere. Business model innovation doesn’t need to be limited to tech disruption of conventional markets or social enterprise experiments.
Part III: coaching as a way of being
If the reality can be as hard as this article might suggest, why become a coach? What is the value or purpose of being trained as a coach within this new context?
Perhaps the choice to become a coach isn’t so all or nothing and there are more nuanced options. Coaching can be something you practice alongside an existing role or profession, and training to become a coach can support you in other roles. There is a new context emerging for leadership coach training which is more about learning new ways of being that support us and those we work with to engage with the challenges and crisis we face. This might be within a formal coaching role, or a leadership or some other role or relationship. In an exchange with my colleague Anne Welsh, she says the following, which I would like to quote:
This new coaching context… requires people to have greater capacity to listen, reflect, develop greater self-awareness. To make clearer choices, to know what is important and yet live with complexity and ambiguity. In the process they develop a more secure inner base and have more access to what is needed for their own resilience. This could support them in any role they are in and can enable them to manage their frustrations by building a small personal coaching practice alongside their other work.
This is a new profession that is rapidly changing and the coach needs to be able to work with the bigger existential questions now much more than previously. This is more the focus of our development than simply learning models and skills for coaching change.
In my next and final piece in this series on the evolution of coaching, I will explore how new understanding about brain hemisphere difference (drawing upon the work of Iain McGilchrist) can inform and transform our relationship with coaching as a way of being and becoming for both coach and coachee within this context we are describing.
To find out more about psychosynthesis and our coaching accreditation pathways, please come to one of our online Taster Saturday events, hosted by Anne Welsh.
Howard, Aubyn (2020), Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching, Abingdon: Routledge
Howard, Aubyn (2022), Working towards synthesis: context, guidance and techniques for engaging with polarisation. Chapter 21 in Nocelli, Petra Guggisberg (2022) Know, Love, Transform Yourself. Theory, techniques and new developments in Psychosynthesis, Vol. II, Psychosynthesis Books
Financial Times article by Emma Jacobs, JULY 18 2022: Why an executive coach is now a must-have for CEOs
Guardian article by James Tapper, 6 August 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/money/2022/aug/06/quiet-quitting-why-doing-the-bare-minimum-at-work-has-gone-global
Daily Beast, Noah Kirsch and Kate Briquelet (2022): https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-revolt-is-brewing-at-prince-harrys-silicon-valley-gig-betterup
Guardian, Rachel Monroe, 6 October 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/oct/06/life-coaching-brooke-castillo-unregulated-industry
Coaching Industry: Global Opportunities, Market and Growth By Amisha Yadav, August 16, 2021: https://xmonks.com/coaching-industry-global-opportunities-market-and-growth/