What does the future hold for coaches and the Executive Coaching profession? Change is all around us – be it in principles, practices, or technology and all these changes are driving the profession to a newer distinct reality. But how does this reality look? What do these changes mean?
In a fireside chat hosted by Global Coaching Lab, three respected leaders who approach coaching from different perspectives shared their thoughts on the next wave of coaching. Ram Gopalan – Executive Coach and Founder of Simply.Coach, Ram Ramanathan – Executive Coach and Founder of Coacharya, and Venkataraman Subramanyan (Venkat) – Executive Coach and Founder of Global Coaching Lab, discussed how more people are becoming coaches, the role technology will play and what it means to have a coaching culture.
The coaching industry has had a rapid growth over the last decade. A study commissioned by International Coaching Federation (ICF) and conducted by PwC suggests that the revenue from global coaching crossed $2.8 Billion in 2019. This is a 21% increase over the 2015 estimate and is only expected to grow every year.
In the same survey, ICF estimates that there are 71,000 coaches worldwide. However, this number could be higher as the coaching industry is not regulated by any formal authority. With such a high supply of coaches, why do so many people still aspire to be coaches? Ram Ramanathan believes that this is because coaching is not a fringe vocation anymore and is being integrated into the L&D space in organisations. More counsellors who have a background in psychology are also venturing into this space. They make good coaches as they have the patience and the customer centricity required to do the job. “People management is founded on the principle of communication, interacting with people, and building relationships. In some ways, coaching fulfils these if appropriately applied rather than merely being a remedial behavioural change mechanism”, states Ram Ramanathan.
Ram Gopalan believes that the stigma around Executive Coaching has slowly disappeared. More senior leaders who undertook coaching are seeing the impact and want their organizations to benefit from coaching. So, there is both a supply and demand for coaches driving these numbers. Venkat summarises that Coaching is going through a journey from ‘Awareness to Appreciation to Application’. As people become aware, they start appreciating and then the application happens where they build a coaching culture.
But with so many coaches worldwide, there is a lot of competition. Coaches have to find their niches in order to survive, and with so many different niches (Executive coach, Career coach, Transition coach, Life coach, etc.), what is coaching morphing into? Ram Gopalan believes that when you take an intervention and convert it into a vocation, you are left with no choice but to differentiate yourself. But in the end, all coaches are in the business of making others better. Ram Ramanathan agrees. He feels coaches have to stand differentiated and specialise in something to promote themselves and to gain credibility and visibility. He feels this is a natural evolution and is a good thing. However, he also states that, “There is an age-old cliché about coaching: All coaching is life coaching after the first few sessions.” This is because the fundamentals of coaching remain the same and regardless of what coaching one undertakes, they end up exploring the being and awareness of the person, which falls into the realm of life coaching.
This is why building a coaching culture in an organisation is easier said than done. The word ‘Coaching culture’ has become a buzzword but in order for it to work, organisations must develop an engagement culture backed by good communication. To address their challenges, leaders must engage with their teams to find solutions and provide feedback through reflection. The whole system needs to work in a sustainable manner. If it is seen as a means to an end instead of a cycle, it would not become a culture that can be sustained. “The ability to absorb a coaching culture depends on the maturity level of the organisation and its employees”, observes Venkat. If the leader has great ideas and the team has high execution levels, then coaching will help. But if the organisation is still young and employees still need supervision to perform their roles, then bringing in a coaching culture would be a challenge.
The other subject that is often discussed is technology. According to an article in Forbes, the question on the impact of technology on coaching is being asked by CEOs who have Executive Coaches, Leaders who coach their teams and HR Managers who supervise a cohort of coaches. Increasing costs, democratization of coaching, the comfort digital natives have for technology and the inability to measure ROI for coaching are some of the reasons why more organisations are looking to adopt technology. All three leaders agree. They believe that technology will always be an enabler and will elevate the game. Executive coaching used to be reserved for top executives, but organizations now want to democratise and invest in coaching their next cohort of leaders or middle management. “Even a lowest paid human coach would be very expensive when you try to scale it to 2000 people. After that there is consistency, quality, customer experience, etc. to look at”, says Ram Gopalan.
And as coaching becomes democratised, millennials and zillennials who are more comfortable with technology will get to experience it. With a larger group of people, it would also become difficult to manage and keep track of the coaching sessions. Ram Ramanathan predicts that since cost, ease of working and measurable outcomes is what organisations want, the future will move towards group coaching. Group coaching or systemic coaching is cheaper and quicker for organisations. It is harder to justify or evaluate ROI for individual coaching. But with group or team coaching, it is possible to set goals and arrive at an ROI. Venkat agrees. He states that as a sales coach he works on deals, accounts and opportunities. This requires a balance between individual coaching and coaching at the critical interfaces with stakeholders or partners.
Ram Ramanathan rues that coaching is unfortunately moving from transformational or transcendental coaching to transactional coaching. In other words, it is becoming solution driven and these are very easy to replicate and automate. His company is working with neuroscientists and natural language specialists to devise a tool that will initially assess coaching conversations and from there mimic the coach. There is already a huge segment of coaching that is technology enabled. There are platforms and apps that handle the routine tasks so coaches can focus on the human only aspects of coaching. Much like speed dating, there are apps that let you pick a coach and have a 20 minute session with them.
According to another Forbes article, the adoption of technology in coaching could include Wearables (like FitBit or Apple Watch), Augmented reality, Virtual reality or Bots asking questions. All three leaders agree that the sooner coaches accept technology as a reality, the better. Rather than fighting it, they can use technology to supplement their coaching.
On the topic of purists who follow the rules and others who wish to serve their client, Ram Ramanathan talks about how coaching should not be reduced to a set of competencies, indicators, and markers. People who are serious about sustainable long-term change will engage a coach to help them reach their goals. Client centricity is key here. The coach needs to think if he is really serving his client, and in turn serving himself. “This is spiritual to me”, he says. He quotes John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ and also an Ubuntu saying, ‘I am because we are’. The coach and his client go through a journey together. Venkat believes that if the client is able to progress and reach their aspirations, then that is where his focus will be. “Every time you engage in a coaching conversation, somewhere it becomes a reiteration or a change for yourself as well”, he states. Ram Gopalan characterizes himself as a golf caddy where he may do the heavy lifting and even make suggestions on which golf club to use, but he will never play the game. The coach walks alongside as a partner, and this is the larger coaching excellence philosophy.
So will certifications, labels and badges matter in the future? Ram Gopalan says it is a necessary evil and a pre-qualification requirement for getting your foot into the door. The three letter accreditation makes it easier to promote or market oneself. Venkat notes that it is self-belief that should drive credentialization instead of getting certified because the system says so. However, getting the badge is not the problem; sustaining the quality of the coaching is. Coaches must focus on self-discovery as no coaching is possible without being self-aware. “Unless you resolve your own baggage or cleanse yourself, you cannot free others of their limiting beliefs”, says Ram Ramanathan. This is particularly true when coaching the next generation. Millennials and Zillennials are already living their life on fast forward. Their ability to explore is far greater and this kindles in them the questions of what they want to do with their life a lot sooner. Coaches can start early with them and help them make those choices and fight their doubts & dilemmas. “They need an inspirational coach”, says Venkat, but coaches cannot provide this if they don’t set aside their own biases.
The pandemic has transformed the coaching industry and the ability to coach virtually from anywhere has made it more accessible for coachees and has given coaches a wider audience. But with heavy competition, they will have to think about sales, marketing, online presence, etc. and work towards differentiating themselves. It is inevitable that for a coach to survive in the future they would need to embrace technology. But balancing technology with their own judgement and humanness can help coaches bring out the best in their coachees. Ram Ramanathan sums it up best when he says that it takes at least 6 months for neurobiological changes to happen. Real coaching or transformational coaching takes time, and the results can only be achieved through a balance between man and machine.