Growing a set of sharp teeth

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Written by Training Journal on 1 September 2012 in Interviews

TJ talks to UK chairwoman Gladeana McMahon about the Association for Coaching's achievements over the past decade

Over the past few years coaching has become increasingly popular with organisations, whether it comes in the form of one-to-one sessions between senior leaders and executive coaches or line managers having regular coaching conversations with members of their teams.

And a trend away from heroic, command and control leadership towards a more inclusive style that requires employees to think more for themselves makes the organisational climate even more favourable for sustained growth in coaching.

But as coaching does continue to grow, and as organisations and employees both become more informed about the profession and about what they want from it, it faces new challenges: organisations are becoming more selective about the external coaches they employ and want to be able to evaluate the contribution coaching makes to the business. At the same time, the move towards giving line managers coaching skills and building coaching cultures narrows the opportunities available to external coaches, so they must work harder and harder for the work that is available.

One organisation that has seen the rise of coaching in the UK, and has its eye firmly on what the future holds for coaches in this country and abroad, is the Association for Coaching (AC). It celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and TJ took the opportunity to look both backwards and forwards with chairwoman of the UK branch Gladeana McMahon.

The AC was founded in July 2002 by coaches Katherine Tulpa and Alex Szabo. They are currently CEO and COO respectively of the AC's global board, having taken the decision in 2009 to try to extend the AC's reach internationally. The organisation now has three strands: globally, in the UK and in Ireland.

"Katherine, Alex and a number of others who became the AC's first council were on the very first cognitive behavioural coaching course that we [McMahon and Professor Stephen Palmer] ran at the Centre for Coaching," says McMahon. "When we were going through the part of the training which was about the professional aspects of coaching, such as supervision, I mentioned professional bodies. At that time there was only the International Coaching Federation, which was in the UK but an American organisation, and nothing else that we knew of.

"A discussion ensued about how professions tended to go through a certain development cycle and that we were hitting that development cycle now - people were becoming concerned about the quality of coaching and the kind of people that were doing it etc. That was at the beginning of 2002.

"Then Alex and Katherine came back and asked Steve if he could help them set up the AC - we have a lot of experience with professional bodies. We said we would support them but didn't have time to do the whole thing from scratch."

Just six months later, the AC held its first meeting, coincidentally in the same place that we are meeting - the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in central London.

McMahon remembers that they got "kicked out" when the RSA shut its doors at 8pm and they finished their meeting sitting in a nearby park. "Luckily it was summer," she laughs.

"So in a very short space of time the AC went from being a discussion to reality."

And since then the organisation has continued to grow, holding conferences, publishing books, running continuing professional development events for coaches and establishing an accreditation scheme and a supervision working party. Its aim was - and is - to ensure people buying coaching, whether individual clients or organisations, get a top-quality service, educating people about what coaching is, establishing standards, promoting ethics, best practice, thought leadership - "all the things you would expect from a robust professional body".

It had always been the AC's intention to be an international body, says McMahon. The founding group decided to start in the UK first - "it would be a template" - before extending itself into other countries. So it concentrated on establishing itself in the UK during its first seven years and found that most people were "receptive and very interested" in its aims.

"I think we hit the market at just the right time. People were thinking 'there are coaches everywhere. Everyone and his dog seems to be a coach. How do we know what's good? How do we choose? What are the implications? Is it just a fad? How do we stop the cowboys?' All that stuff.

"At the time there was a lot of interest from coaches - there were a lot of ethical individuals who realised that it was in the interest of all parties, including coaches, to have a professional body. They would benefit from extra things like CPD events, networking, keeping up to date etc.

"There were certainly a lot of coaches who felt this was worthwhile and welcomed it, so we grew quite quickly. Organisations were then not particularly sophisticated; they were beginning to start thinking 'we're using coaching but we don't really know how to do it or how to select a coach', so I think then we were welcomed. Not by everybody - there were some organisations that said 'we do it this way and it's fine' - but by most."

Likening 2002 to "the Age of Aquarius", McMahon says coaching at that time was "just blossoming": the future for the profession was full of opportunities and possibilities, but there were also potential problems. The AC's founding group could see them and "wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem".

She feels the AC has achieved "a lot" during its ten years, highlighting its accreditation scheme, recognition for its coaching course, and work on coach supervision and co-coaching as particularly notable achievements. There was a "tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm" within the organisation when it started that enabled it to do a lot in a relatively short time.

"We wanted to be a professional body that did all these things but that wasn't stuffy or bureaucratic or dictatorial and was as inclusive as possible. There's a delicate balance between being inclusive and having standards and [achieving that balance] is what differentiated us: we have always been for the members and ensuring the outside world and their needs were taken care of."

While McMahon won't admit that the AC has failed to achieve any of its original objectives - she says it has been "really pushing forward" since its inception - she will go so far as to say that, in some respects, it hasn't pushed as hard or as far as it could have done. For example, she says the AC was the first to recognise the importance of regulation, holding a debate in 2010 with other professional bodies on the question of whether coaching should be regulated. "We spearheaded the whole thing around regulation and coaching. We felt it needed debating," she says.

"It's not such a hot topic among our members now but it's still there."

The AC had grown to the point where it may have to take on more paid staff - at the moment only its "professional people" such as accountants, solicitors and administrative staff were paid and the rest were volunteers - to be able to push more in areas such as disseminating thought leadership and best practice and developing its courses.

It had been "working really hard" on its course recognition programme, for example, and on having a tiered system that would encompass a course accreditation programme similar to the one already available to coaches. "Our individual accreditation is really rather good now - it really has teeth. It's always had teeth, of course, but it's developed and grown and is based on experience, so now it's got sharp teeth.

"Now we want to push ahead with our courses so we can look at what's really good training for different levels within coaching."

McMahon says the AC is seeing more line managers coming on its coaching courses, as organisations do more to develop coaching cultures. There has also been a shift towards more coaching done internally and the AC is working with other bodies to develop a recognised quality standard, similar to the kite mark, for internal coaching.

"We've excelled in many ways," she adds. "Now we're taking what we've developed and pushing those even further."

So in what direction will the AC be pushing during the next decade?  Coaching supervisor recognition, thought leadership, enabling coaches to maintain and develop their skills, and helping organisations develop their internal coaching are all high on the list of priorities, as is "stretching the boundaries".

Educating the public about coaching will also be a focus. Although corporate coaching had "got its act together" since the days when it was quite fragmented, the self-funded route (ie personal and life coaching) had not matured to the same extent and still "needs looking at". Life coaches, for example, didn't know who their clients were or what issues they may have, and had to be very clear about their level of competence and be able to make a decision about whether to refer clients on to another professional such as a counsellor. That was easier to do within corporate coaching, where the boundaries were much tighter.

Reliable and credible research into different coaching models, to find out what worked and for whom, would be a key area for the future of coaching - to establish it as a credible profession and ensure it was taken seriously, and to add value for both coach and client. The AC was conducting such research itself, that was practical rather than academic and that would provide the answers to questions being asked by organisations, such as how long coaching should be for a certain issue or what a reasonable fee structure would be in a particular area of the country.

"We want to look at practical things so we are looking at people who are in HR and L&D, in key roles, and asking them what they want from the research.

"Coaching is about being the best you can be," says McMahon. "It's about adding value and it's about targeting needs. Therefore, everything you do needs to come back to that. Our vision is very much around all of those things."

Regulating coaching is still a concern for AC members and changes in technology that are giving rise to more home working and more virtual teams, for example, are affecting the way coaching is delivered: coaching via Skype and coaching that blends technology with traditional face-to-face delivery are both on the increase. McMahon predicts that there will be greater emphasis on internal coaching, although there will still be a role for external coaches, and that organisations will be keener to evaluate the cost and quality of coaching programmes; there will also be a debate about the merits of coaching providers over individual coaches.

"Everything has to grow and develop," she concludes. "Society changes; the way we work changes; our economic situation changes. I think there's a real role for coaching in the future but it will change to meet the changes in the market. I can see all kinds of changes happening.

"Coaches will need to be extremely flexible, highly knowledgeable, technically literate and creative in the way they deliver coaching."


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