The evolution of coaching

Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
27 Nov 2012

27 Nov 2012 • by Changeboard Team

The start of coaching

Although coaching seems to be a relatively new profession, the function of coaching and mentoring can trace its roots way back into antiquity through sports coaching and the ancient philosophers. Coaching today has borrowed tools and techniques from many sources and disciplines; some can be traced back to the 1930’s with the influential ‘success formula’ self-help books of Dale Carnegie. Various schools of thought which have emerged over the decades have influenced the coaching practised today, not least because coaches come from various backgrounds.

Coaching pioneers in the 80s and early 90s

The origins of the personal or executive coaching date back to the ‘80’s.  In the UK, John Whitmore was a pioneer in bringing methods from sports coaching into the business world and coined the term ‘performance coaching’. He worked with Graham Alexander, who developed the GROW model and Tim Gallwey, whose work on the ‘inner game’ identified that internal interference is what gets in the way of high performance, not the opponent.

In the US Werner Erhard’s est approach stimulated Laura Whitworth to develop the co-active coaching model and start the Coach Training Institute, and Thomas Leonard developed his Life Planning training to start CoachU.  Both these coach training organisations have trained tens of thousands of coaches; Whitworth is acknowledged for professionalising coaching and Leonard for commercialising coaching.

Coaching at work in the 80s

Managers were asked to manage the performance and satisfaction of their team members in a direct way as HR was transformed to a support model. In the ‘80s, management training emphasised communication, interpersonal skills and a coaching style.

There was very little professional coaching; management consultants used Edgar Schein’s ‘process consulting’ methodology to facilitate people and teams. Talented employees worked with a mentor to help with their career development. Those with difficulties consulted an employee counsellor. Coaching was almost entirely for those at the top of organisations and coaches were seen as a sounding-board for top executives.  

Infancy of coaching in the 90s

As the early schools of coaching started to turn out qualified coaches, the International Coach Federation was founded in 1995 to establish standards and competencies. 

Coach training in the UK emphasised a non-directive client-centred approach, though the various schools trained different methods. There was growing popularity of techniques from NLP for behavioural and beliefs change among non-psychologists. Psychometric profiles became popular as a development tool.

The growth in coach training meant increasing numbers of coaches seeking to practise in personal/life coaching and executive/business coaching. Management consultants and trainers started offering coaching services, seeing it as an extension of the organisational and individual change services they already provided. Psychologists and counsellors also saw coaching as a simple extension of their existing practice and entered the market.

Rapid growth in 00s

In 2002 Katherine Tulpa and Alex Szabo founded the first dedicated body for coaches in the UK - Association for Coaching (AC) - to professionalise coaching and to provide learning support for the wide range of coaches:

  • Life - for the individual and covering any aspect of their life.  Many newly-trained coaches entered this market, coming from various backgrounds
  • Executive – at the senior levels, many ex-senior managers started coaching; they brought an ‘expert’ approach. Management consultants and trainers used the tools and models from management development, often providing a blend of non-directive coaching and 1:1 training
  • Business – some consultancies transformed their services into business coaching, working on the business; these tended to be quite prescriptive
  • Coaching psychologists and counsellors – perceived as deeper cognitive-behavioural coaching for those with mild mental health issues.  Practitioners with this background had academic qualifications, regular supervision and ongoing CPD
  • Sports – on the periphery, due to own qualifications and systems. A number of sports stars started executive coaching businesses
  • Specialist – Marketing, sales, etc tended to be more prescriptive and often delivered by phone.

Coaching was poorly understood by organisational buyers. Many used coaching in a remedial way for poor performers; some saw it as ‘soft and fluffy’ talking, some likened it to the high performance coaching in sports, and it became a status symbol for ‘talent’ and ‘high potentials’.  Management development became a blend of classroom learning and 1:1 coaching to support implementation, which expanded executive coaching down the management layers. 

The work of the coaching associations to establish and promote competencies, standards and accreditation of both coaches and coach training courses has helped to clarify what is required to operate as a professional coach. The huge discrepancy in how coaches are perceived has not disappeared, but coaching buyers are more aware of what they require of a coach. 

Organisations have trained their managers in coaching skills to use in developing others at work, especially with the cuts in training budgets. In some companies people are trained to act as internal performance coaches. Mostly these coaches are part-time, alongside their main role. This has made coaching more accessible for staff, while external coaches are used for senior managers. At this level the focus is more on transformation to create effective leaders and on transpersonal coaching to support the leader in understanding meaning and purpose and share this with those s/he leads. 

Maturing in 10s

Professional coaches now provide team coaching and coaching-in-groups. Both demand advanced skills in holding the process for a number of people at the same time. Companies expect the coach to develop the participants to be able to self-coach and build autonomous sustainability.

Coach supervision emerged as a trend. Around 2008 there was much debate about regulation and the coaching bodies recommended self-regulation. One factor demonstrating self-regulation is supervision, and coach accreditation now demands that coaches have ongoing supervision. 

Coaches continue to take on developments in the understanding of thinking and behaviour as seen at this year’s Association for Coaching 10 year anniversary UK conference ‘From Inner Game to Neuroscience’. With increasing numbers of coaches and growing performance coaching capability in companies, coaches are specialising. This is partly in response to buyers’ preference for a coach with experience in the field. The early claims that a coach can help anyone are now moderated to specific markets.