Have you ever asked Siri a personal question? I have, and the answer was ‘I don’t have an answer to that’. Thus, in this digital age of increasing human redundancy, the role of the professional performance coach is bucking the trend and in places like Great Britain is growing fast and moving rapidly in the opposite direction.
Most of us are familiar with the role of a mentor – an older and more experienced person passes on wisdom to a more junior one – think Merlin to King Arthur, Alex Ferguson to David Beckham, Maya Angelou to Oprah Winfrey. A more recent iteration of mentorship reveals itself in the growth of a thriving coaching industry.
The modern coaching phenomenon has its foundations in elite sports coaching. Tim Gallwey’s 1975 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, sought to resource athletes to ‘improve your game and discover your true potential by increasing your concentration, willpower and confidence.’ Drawing on a number of disciplines from the psychotherapeutic world, this book established something of a fresh genre, which was very quickly adopted into management journals and business schools around the world. The transition from sport to business seemed complete when, in 2001, Jim Loerh and Tony Schwartz penned their Harvard Business Review article, The Making of a Corporate Athlete, using their experience of working with elite athletes to offer advice to corporates on how best to deliver ‘sustained high performance’.
Since these early developments, the term ‘coaching’ has grown and sub-divided. ‘Life Coaching’ focuses on personal growth and development, and is normally paid for by a private individual. ‘Skills Coaching’ tends to be industry – or sector – specific, and is often part of internal corporate development programmes. Finally, there is ‘Performance Coaching’, sometimes called ‘Executive Coaching’, which seeks to support and develop people normally in senior positions who want to enhance their contribution and optimise their performance. The ubiquity of coaching is such that there is hardly a serious corporation that doesn’t engage trained professional coaches.
Although many coaches will use some psychoanalytical tools, they are neither therapists nor counsellors and should never pretend to be. A good therapist, often a trained psychologist or psychoanalyst, tends to unlock their clients’ past history, helping them to understand its impact on their current and future life and relationships. The focus is very much on the needs of the individual.
Coaching is something of a different beast, and is often deployed by businesses to address specific organisational needs. For many senior leaders, as they rise in the organisational ranks, their peer group of trusted colleagues falls away, and a coach can fill the gap. A coach will primarily focus on the future: future capabilities, future skills, future mind-sets, future behaviour, future influence, impact and performance. The coach will tend to be change-focused, supporting the client as he or she navigates through times of personal or professional change and/or leads others in a transformative process. This orientation towards future/change is, understandably, attractive to elite athletes (where it all began), to entertainers and to high net worth individuals, all of whom are using performance coaches in greater numbers. Wealthy families are also starting to engage coaches to prepare their children to manage inherited wealth and privilege with wisdom and impact.
So why, at a point in history when the digital revolution is in full swing, does a heavily ‘human’ industry thrive? First, I must declare my hand. I have been a coach for 17 years, and have found it to be an enormous privilege to journey with people through times of significant change towards a way of living and working which is healthier, happier and more effective. Coaches tend to experience high levels of personal satisfaction, and this must be one of the reasons that so many are attracted to the profession.
But I don’t think this is the only reason that the industry is growing and flourishing. In our urbanised world, where the traditional structures of extended family and local community are fracturing, many find themselves isolated from trusted advisors, and are willing to pay for that gap to be filled. In the corporate world, in often highly politicised environments, where the pace of constant change and excessive expectation can be paralysing, an independent and trusted companion can be highly valuable. In addition, social media platforms have created an increasingly self-obsessed culture in which human beings are encouraged to find themselves the objects of endless fascination! This is an era in which we love to analyse ourselves – and we’re only too keen to glean insights from psychometric personality assessments into our ‘default settings’ and belief systems and how they affect our daily life. Such tools are the essential contents of a coach’s kit bag.
All of that said, my sense is that the current growth curve in coaching counters the digital tsunami primarily for a much simpler reason – coaches are human! In a coaching session, where trust, rapport and human chemistry provide a stable platform for development, a living being is critical. At its best, a coaching relationship is a place of safety in which to consider challenges and explore responses without fear of consequence. It is also a place of risk where clients can dare to step out of fixed patterns of behaviour, exploring new ground, encouraged and supported by a guide. Neuroscience continues to uncover new truths, such as the relatively recent revelations around the malleability of the brain. If our neural pathways can actually change physiologically, our mind-sets and thus our behaviour can change too.
This is revolutionary, and the best resource to support such change is an accountable, supportive, trusting and ongoing relation- ship.
Thus, the coach can be a listener, a truth-teller and an explorer, interrogating truth and reality in deep conversation. They can also be an objective sounding board and an independent voice asking incisive questions that others could never ask. Seniority can shield people from important conversations, yet the coach can speak truth to power, challenging assumptions and provide candid feedback. As one senior client recently noted, ‘The opportunity to be told the unfiltered truth is bloody painful but priceless for a bloke like me.’
A coach is both a challenging provocateur and an encourager-in-chief, or indeed a simple advisor offering a view – and none of this would be possible or effective without the warmth of human empathy.
So, until an algorithm can look another human being in the eye with conviction and compassion, this human touch will be essential. So many of the insights gleaned in coaching sessions are discovered in a location no search engine can ever go – the place of human connection. And thus the coaching of choice, in our increasingly virtual, Artificial Intelligence, digitised world, will, in my view, continue to be delivered by the kind of software which has skin on.