Few professions however, have shown the obvious and constant change of state that coaching has over the past three decades. From the early 90s to the present day, the coaching movement has transitioned between three states, or ‘ages’, on its journey to being not only a more effective but a more understood practice.
While some will argue that ‘coaching’ has in fact been around for millennia – consider Socrates in the agora of Ancient Athens – coaching as we think of it today actually only became recognised as a specific practice in the late 80s and 90s.
Mentoring, therapy, sports coaching and management theory are among its varied intellectual influences, and before long coaching manifested itself as a uniquely pragmatic practice that was predominantly theory-free. As a result it could be easily picked up and employed by managers within organisations, and a broad set of groups found themselves attracted to what the practice appeared to offer: a positive focus, flexibility, simple process-driven models and for some peculiar reason, a sudden expectation of riches!
Casting a glance back to these heady days, it is evident that coaching has matured a great deal. It has grown up, learned a lot about itself and become wiser! Animas founder, Nick Bolton, actually believes that coaching has thus far experienced three significant ages in its first three decades moving from the Cowboy Age to the Codified age to the current Considered Age. An age which will also undoubtedly evolve itself.
The story however, is one of a profession in a state of maturation, intent on responding to the world around it. To get a better sense of its journey, let’s take a look at the three stages Nick identifies.
The first age of coaching we will call the Cowboy Age. This doesn’t mean that coaches were lassoing their clients atop broken steeds, and giving their sessions inside a wild-west style saloon. Instead, it refers to the regulations and understanding, or lack thereof, surrounding coaching in the 90s.
The cowboy or Wild West era in the US was a period defined by a great deal of opportunity and optimism. By the migration of people from east to west, great land grabs, lawlessness and individual moral-compass. So how is this detailing of the American Wild West relevant to the first age of coaching?
In this cowboy age a great number of people considered coaching as an opportunity to do something different, and did so with an optimism reflective of its US origins. The word ‘coach’ began carrying a certain cachet, an energy behind it that people were very attracted to. As a result, counsellors and therapists, mentors and psychiatrists all made ostensible claims to be coaches, in a sort of migration from east to west, despite changing nothing about their practices, or taking any particular coaching training. It was just a word that people were using, and really at this point it lacked any true meaning.
At the same time, people were also viewing coaching as a business opportunity, a sort of land grab, in an attempt to claim new territory in coaching. “I’ll become a coach and make a lot of quick cash” became a common mindset for a number of these new coaches. Again, an example of people attempting to seize a new opportunity and turn it in their favour.
Coaching found its place temporarily alongside MLM (multi-level marketing) and spread betting as a way to make a quick buck and everyone seemed to be doing at least one of the aforementioned. In reality, coaching didn’t fit alongside MLM or spread betting at all. Why? Because they are intrinsically about making money. Coaching is not. It’s a skill that relates to building and enhancing human relationships.
While the cowboy age was the first step towards a recognition of coaching as a specific practice, in a Wild West era of lawlessness and individual moral compass, there was little hope of it taking root straight away. What it did do however, was highlight problems that needed to be addressed. Coaching needed lawmakers to create order, a sheriff if you will.
In what could be considered a direct response to the preceding Wild-West age of coaching, the noughties flipped it on its head as it moved into what we will term the Codified or Lawmaker Age. 1995 saw the birth of the International Coaching Federation (ICF), a body dedicated to professional coaching, that campaigned worldwide for professional standards within the coaching profession. The Sheriff had arrived. Not quite lawmakers but certainly guardians of the profession. And just before the turn of the century, coaching began to make the transition from something that had no regulations or definitions, that anyone could claim as their own, to a practice that started embracing a code and form of ethics
Additionally, a number of models unique to coaching began popping up, perhaps most famously the GROW model popularised by John Whitmore, which is still used by a number of coaching schools today. Whilst there were positive aspects to take from working to these models, coaching and GROW arguably became one and the same. Coaches weren’t really doing too much off their own back, they would just use GROW.
These models introduced such tight parameters as coaching became domineered by codification that said ‘don’t talk about the past…don’t bring emotions into it’ and a whole host of other ‘Don’ts’ that meant if you did these things, you simply weren’t coaching. There were no blurred lines, just very concrete parameters that decided what was considered coaching. Anything outside of these boundaries meant that you might have been counselling, or falling into therapy but you absolutely were not coaching.
In 2002 both the Association for Coaching (AC) and the International Association for Coaching (IAC) were established, as they joined the ICF as guardians of the profession, intent on dealing with the cowboy-esque lawlessness of the preceding age.
Here’s the thing. Though this period dealt with the lack of rigour that was present during the Cowboy Age, our view is it did so almost too well. The relationships between coaches and clients became stilted, with the former constantly questioning themselves and what they should ask or do next in order that they are ‘still’ coaching. It became stiff, almost robotic in the way that it was executed and people started to realise that it wasn’t working anywhere near as effectively as it could be, following such tight and rigid codes or ‘best practice’.
The gradual realisation that heavy codification wasn’t improving the efficacy of coaching, provided the appropriate space for a rise in Coaching Psychology. Towards the end of the noughties, around the time of the global collapse in 2008, more and more people started considering coaching with a more philosophical and pensive mindset. They began asking more thoughtful questions in an effort to progress from the one-track approach of the Codified Age. “In what ways does coaching work? In what ways doesn’t it? What is interesting about it?” These sorts of questions signified a movement into a deeper interest in coaching.
Individuals started to become less concerned with models and parameters, and more interested in the theoretical background. Coaches began putting more focus on the quality of the human relationship, with emphasis on the dialogue happening between coach and client. The thinking around coaching started shifting. In the 90s and early 2000s people were satisfied with the fact that coaching sort of worked, they didn’t feel a need to think too deeply into what sat behind it.
In this new, Considered Age coaches began to understand that coaching is about supporting and facilitating people into finding the answers for themselves, but in ways that brought in much more of the coaches individuality, personality and own reflections. This is the space that we currently occupy. A sort of middle-ground between the previous antithetical ages. Coaches are now taking seriously the impact that they have on their clients and are constantly considering how to improve their practices in order to make the dialogue between them even more effective.
What Changed and What’s Next?
There is no singularly obvious factor as to what brought around the Considered Age in which we find ourselves, but there is speculation and a number of theories as to what contributed to it. One of the more interesting being that of Hetty Einzig. In her book The Future of Coaching (2017) she considers the 2008 crunch and the collapse of the banks as part of the reason that mindsets changed so drastically. She claims that as the banks crumbled, and previous clients from this particular sector wound up on the scrap heap, coaching moved from being a very success-oriented practice to one that was more reflective as people took a step back, looked at what was happening around them and said “well I wasn’t expecting that.” While there’s no credited reason for the shift into the Considered Age, Hetty’s idea is an interesting one.
She felt that coaching moved from success and career orientation to the self-surveying mindset of “Why am I here? What is my purpose? Where am I heading?” as a response to contemporaneous events that forced people to consider what was happening in the world around them, and their position in relation to these circumstances.
Considering the quick succession of coaching ages in the last thirty years, it is inevitable that the Considered Age will move into a fourth age at some point. When? It is impossible to put a timeframe on it, but shedding light on the direction that coaching is heading is a little easier.
The Cowboy Age was a period for coaching that saw anyone and everyone claim to be a coach in a real ‘anything goes’ environment. Then, as a response, came the rigidified and stiff Codification Age whereby there were so many parameters and models and regulations that coaching became an unnatural and robotic profession. Presently we find ourselves in a much more balanced and thoughtful phase of coaching. People are putting the emphasis on dialogue and asking more considered questions that were never asked previously.
As we move forward this consideration and thoughtfulness will remain core to coaching, but it will likely evolve as we move into a much more integrative age. An age in which the lines between counselling, therapy, mentoring, coaching etc. blur and the practice becomes much more fluid.
Whatever the future may bring, and whatever age we find ourselves in, Animas is not a static school, and our humanistic approach means that we are well placed to adjust to shifting thoughts and perspectives. Our job is to respond to what’s happening around us. Although we are trying to shape it, we are also not alone in shaping it, and so we have to respond to what is actually happening and not just what we want to happen.
As coaching moves into this next age, and indeed the age after that, so on and so forth, Animas will continue to adapt to the changing environment of coaching whilst holding true to our belief in dialogue.