Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Becoming a First-time Coach: some voices of aspirants, ‘newbies’ and ‘old hands’

This post describes the first stages in a new research study which will be completed by summer 2010.
Like any expanding industry, coaching is drawing in new entrants from other occupations. In a survey, for example, the International Coach Federation (2007) found that 32 % of coaches had less than 2 years coaching experience. While many of these new entrants bring with them knowledge and experience from their original sectors (including human resource development, academia, teaching, counselling and the police, to name but a few), for most, the experience of becoming a coach is novel and brings with it the unique challenges of learning new skills, gaining confidence and building a new business. Coaching is also provided within organisations by internal human resource development (HRD) professionals, supervisors and managers, and by external HRD and management development consultants (Hamlin et al., 2008). Although on the payroll of an employer, even in these circumstances, novice coaches face the challenge of establishing their confidence, and credibility. In contrast to these new entrants are those for whom coaching has been a central part of their working lives and business for many years. So, and especially in current challenging business conditions, what kinds of help and advice can the more experienced coach offer to their first-time colleagues? Knowing what they know, is the coaching industry worth joining? If it is, what kinds of strategies should new coaches adopt in order to survive and flourish? What kinds of pitfalls are best avoided? What are the kinds of first steps that should be taken?

This article does not claim to offer a global, universal picture, or to give definitive answers on this issue, but attempts to illuminate some key themes that new entrants might like to consider. The inspiration for writing the article came from one of the authors attending the 2009 International Coach Federation (ICF) conference in Orlando, Florida. What was surprising about the conference was not just the number of coaches attending (of course), but the significant number of people who are currently in full-time employment (for example, in human resource development, information technology or consultancy) who see coaching as their next career move. They were attending the conference to learn more about the coaching industry, to discover new coaching approaches and techniques and to locate suitable training programmes and qualifications that they might wish to undertake. In a sense, this article is written for them, and for those who have recently made ‘the jump’ into the coaching profession.

First-timers: some lessons from other helping professions
In the ‘helping professions’ such as psychology, counselling and psychotherapy, the pathway from ‘aspirant professional’ to ‘professional in practice’ is, typically, accomplished by a number of stages and activities. These include: long periods of higher education and training, and a period of socialisation into professional values and skills development (in part delivered by supervision both in initial training and post-qualifying) (Webster, Hingley and Franey, 2000). According to Eraut (1994), however, the period in which novice professions have to develop their proficiency continues well after their qualification, with the first two or three years vital for acquiring personalised patterns of competent practice. It is at this point that novice professionals are most vulnerable and exposed. As Schon (1987, 1996) argues, a key is helping new practitioners to deal with real-world practice and how to problem-solve in situations of uncertainty, uniqueness and conflict. Hence, he recommends the development of the ‘reflective practicum’ (Schon, 1986: 16-17) in which new professionals learn to acquire skills in situations where there are no wrong or right answers (a situation not too dissimilar to coaching!). Indeed, he recommends that this process is coached by a more experienced practitioner. Within the practicum, the learner performs set tasks, with the role of the expert practitioner being to demonstrate skills, provide advice, question and criticize.

A study of the induction journey taken by 53 educational psychologists, found that their motivation for becoming a professional could be characterised by four clusters. First there were the pragmatists, those who wanted to use their new skills and knowledge to ‘make a difference’; then there were the ‘philanthropists’, those seeking to improve the lives of their clients; next came the ‘passionate psychologists’ who were fulfilling a strong (and emotional) career commitment to the profession – an overwhelming desire to do this kind of work; and finally, there were the ‘career psychologists’ with the role offering more status, autonomy and better working conditions (Webster, Hingley and Franey, 2000). Most were aware that professional training would have to continue well after the end of formal training, and that good quality supervision was essential. The research found that, for those in paid employment (as opposed to freelance consultancy) induction programmes that included shadowing senior colleagues (including opportunities to see demonstrations of professional techniques) and feedback from senior staff were all seen as vital. A review of critical incidents identified skills and knowledge gaps, interpersonal disagreements and ethical conflicts as areas of professional concern requiring further support.

As this description of induction into educational psychology shows, even where the profession is well established with formal training programmes, placements and arrangements for supervision, new entrants can still find the entry process daunting. So how much more difficult must this be for those wishing to enter the coaching profession? As Wilson (2007) points out, one of the advantages of becoming a coach is that it requires only a small financial outlay to start a business – essentially a business card, a telephone, a headset (if coaching is to be over the telephone) and the ability to create rapport. Some even start their own coaching business without having to give up their day job – gradually building up a set of clients before ‘taking the plunge’. Some also make the move into coaching by undertaking some training and then becoming an in-house coach (Wilson, 2007). However, while many of the professional coaching associations (such as the ICF and the European Coaching and Mentoring Council) offer training programmes or accredit training, none of these are compulsory, nor is membership of any association, or linking up with a supervisor. Hence, while many coaches undertake a professional training programme prior to entering the profession, or at least soon afterwards, many do not.

Then, there is the challenge of building a new (coaching) business. As Gray (in print) comments, many new or aspirant coaches lack both coaching experience and the ability to manage their own business. They face challenges such as identifying their own coaching niche or brand, designing and producing marketing material, networking and achieving referrals, finance and cash flow, and managing their time between coaching, marketing and other activities. Vilas (2005) advises that new coaches need to focus on building up their own networks of prospective clients, offer pro bono coaching at first if necessary and launch an e-newsletter. Intriguingly, she also suggests that coaches should also seek to improve the quality of their own lives – a personally content coach will be more effective in offering their services.

This research study, then, will seek to evaluate the hopes, fears and anxieties of coaches as they enter the industry, and the strategies they employ for survival and success. To provide a perspective on these findings, the study also seeks to explore the experiences of established coaches, to examine their journey to ‘sustainability’ to see what lessons can be learned.

Gray, D.E. (in print) ‘Towards the lifelong skills and business development of coaches: An
integrated model of supervision and mentoring’. Coaching: An International Journal of
Theory, Research and Practice.
Hamlin, R.G., Ellinger, A.D. and Beattie, R.S. (2008) ‘The emergent ‘coaching industry’: a wake-
up call for HRD professionals’. Human Resource Development International 11(3) 287-305.
Jabri, M. and Pounder, J. (2001) ‘The management of change: a narrative perspective on
management development’. Journal of Management Development 20(8) 682-690.
Schon, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner. London: Jossey-Bass.
Schon, D. (1996) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Hants: Arena.
Vilas, S. (2005) Becoming a Coach. Steamboat Springs, Colorado: Coach U Press.
Webster, A., Hingley, P. and Franey, J. (2000) ‘Professionalization and the Reduction of
Uncertainty: a study of new entrants to educational psychology’. Educational Psychology in
, 16(4) 431-448.
Wilson, C. (2007) Best Practice in Performance Coaching. London: Kogan Page.

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