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«ABSTRACT Research Paper Purpose There is a hidden paradox inherent in the ideal of continuing professional development (CPD) for executive coaches, ...»

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Becoming Simultaneously Thicker and Thinner Skinned:

The inherent conflicts arising in the professional development of coaches


Research Paper


There is a hidden paradox inherent in the ideal of continuing professional development (CPD) for

executive coaches, stemming from the fact that the coach wishes to retain or preserve the freshness and

openness of a ‘beginner’, whilst also acquiring greater robustness and resilience in the face of difficult assignments. The paradox reminds us of the ‘castle and battlefield’ metaphor of Roger Harrison (1963): on the one hand a strong container is needed and on the other vulnerability to allow the coach to be affected and even hurt by the coaching experiences. The objective of this paper is to find ways of resolving this paradox, based on what coaches themselves say about critical moments in their practice.

Design/methodology/approach Sixty-nine critical moments as reported by 60 coaches are content-analysed with the help of grounded research.

Findings In the analysis a picture emerges of doubts (instrumental, relational and existential), which the coaching process opens up for coaches, and which CPD may help them become aware of, explore and lay to rest.

The most promising methodology for doing this seems to be coaching supervision, conducted in the safest possible environment.

Research limitations/implications From this qualitative research by a single researcher inter-rater reliabilities cannot (yet) be reported.

Practical implications It emerges that what coaches need most from their CPD is robustness in the face of their instrumental and existential doubts, and vulnerability when it comes to their relational doubts.

Originality/value With the growth of the executive coaching profession, there is increasing interest in the value of continuing professional development for coaches. Executive coaches are embarking on CPD in large numbers, and are asking what is most relevant to them in their ongoing development. This paper offers empirical data that may inform CPD.



executive coaching, supervision, continuing professional development, adult learning, critical moments, organisational psychology


Erik de Haan (erik.dehaan@ashridge.org.uk) is the Director of Ashridge's Centre for Coaching and Programme Director of the Ashridge Masters (MSc) in Executive Coaching.

He specialises in the interpersonal and emotional aspects of working in groups and organisations. Prior to becoming an organisation development consultant in 1994, he obtained his PhD as a theoretical physicist with a dissertation on the way in which people process information and take decisions. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Reason in Practice: The Journal of Philosophy of Management. Hehas published a variety of articles, together with the books The Consulting Process as Drama (1997), Learning with Colleagues (2001), Coaching with Colleagues (2004, co-authored by Yvonne Burger), Fearless Consulting (2005) and Relational Coaching (to be published in January 2008).

1. Introduction

In executive coaching, leaders and managers submit issues from their practice to conversation, to explore and bring those issues forward with the help of an executive coach.

Drawing from its roots in sports coaching (first reference in the 1860s, see Garvey, 2006), industrial counselling (first reference in the 1930s, see Baritz, 1960) and remedial action (Frisch, 2001), the coaching intervention is increasingly seen as a developmental journey, particularly by senior executives and consulting professionals. Bluckert (2005a) categorises executive coaches into two main groups: those who focus on learning and development leading to performance improvement, and those who focus on personal growth and change.

He offers a working definition that attempts to combine the two schools as ‘coaching is the facilitation of learning and development with the purpose of improving performance and enhancing effective action, goal achievement and personal satisfaction’. Other broader definitions include Pemberton’s (2006): ‘two people engaged together in raising the awareness of one of them, and therefore their ability to act’ and our own: ‘a method of workrelated learning which relies primarily on one-to-one conversations’ (De Haan & Burger, 2005).

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1. Analytical (psychodynamic) coaching is based on the works of Freud, Jung, Klein, Bion and others. Its emphasis is on primary process thinking, conflicts, transference, understanding and interpretation, as the individual attempts to understand from the inside (Brunning, 2006).

2. Cognitive and behavioural coaching, also known as directive coaching, draws on the works of Pavlov, Skinner, Ellis and Beck, and others. Its emphasis is on rational analysis and step-by-step plans, as the individual attempts to improve from the outside (Whitmore, 1992; Skiffington & Zeus, 2003; Greene & Grant, 2003).

3. Person-centred (humanistic) coaching draws on the works of Rogers, Maslow and others. Its emphasis is on internal evaluation and self-actualisation, as the individual attempts to move the focus inside (Kline, 1999).

4. Paradoxical coaching draws on the works of Erickson, Bateson, Watzlawick, Farrelly and others, putting the emphasis on paradoxes and drawing on and mobilising defences, in an attempt to upset, surprise or manipulate the individual from the outside. For examples of paradoxical coaching and of ‘milder’ (ironic) and ‘stronger’ (provocative) related approaches, see De Haan & Burger (2005).

While these varying approaches may appear to differ greatly, there is likely to be more agreement in practice than in theoretical outlook (Corsini & Wedding, 1989). In addition, the personal preferences and limitations of each individual coach will make certain approaches more attractive than others. Bluckert (2005b) identifies similarities and differences between coaching and therapy. Similarities include the bringing about of behavioural change and help in understanding how the client’s cognitive and emotional reactions can interfere with personal effectiveness, performance and well-being. Also both may adopt a client-centred, collaborative partnership approach. Key differences identified include the fact that executive 3 coaching focuses on a client ‘system’ which has the organisation of the client included (Armstrong, 2004). Coaching is therefore more work-related than therapy. Coaching may also be more results- and action-focused than therapy, and the educational backgrounds, competences and experiences of coaches and therapists are quite different. On a more practical level, there are generally differences of place, duration, frequency and costing.

The coaching profession is undergoing a period of rapid growth, maturation and consolidation, which can be seen in the growth of (self-regulating) professional bodies. In the last five years the European Mentoring & Coaching Council alone has gone from five to a staggering 700 members (Julie Hay, personal communication). With such accelerating growth and competition, more and more coaches and clients are questioning what the characteristics are of a truly ‘professional’ coach? And, how can professional coaches best continue their own development in order to maintain and improve their level of quality?

Continuing professional development (CPD) methodologies such as engaging in supervision, undergoing coaching themselves and embarking on structured reflection, alone or with others, on the basis of recordings or transcripts, are enjoying increasing popularity among coaches. In addition to the professional development agenda of the coach, their clients are also increasingly interested in their coach’s quality assurance policy and professional development practices.

The drive for continuing professional development seems to stem partly from the unique characteristics of coaching, where coaches work alone with their client and have few opportunities for peer support and feedback, and partly from increasing competition and maturation in the marketplace, where coaches have to demonstrate their professionalism and effectiveness. The counselling and therapy literature suggests that ongoing professional development is essential to protect both client and counsellor, but there does not appear to be any hard evidence that this is indeed the case (compare McLennan, 1999; Hawkins & Shohet, 1989). A similar pattern is emerging in the literature with regard to coaches (see for example, Mead, Campbell & Milan, 1999; or Stevens, 2004). With the question mark over the value of ongoing professional development, and the definition of CPD possibly being so wide that it could include any conversation, the question arises as to what it is that makes CPD worthy of consideration, and which type of CPD to embark on?

4 At the same time as ‘coaching’ is maturing into a profession that acquires all the characteristics of transparency and accountable practice, there seems to be a diminishing interest in outcome studies as a means to understand the process of change and the effectiveness of the executive coaching intervention (Blackman, 2006). Outcome studies (see Feldman & Lankau, 2005, for a recent overview) which endeavour to determine the degree of effectiveness from quantitative assessments by clients, therapists and others, and the conditions under which greater effectiveness can be achieved (Wampold, 2001), are the traditional way of measuring effectiveness in psychotherapy and coaching. However, it is not possible with outcome studies to gain any understanding of the complex minute by minute and session by session processes of coaching itself, processes that often extend over months or even years and are influenced by countless factors both internal and external to both the coach and the coaching itself. By only using measures of over-all effectiveness, it is impossible to gain an insight into the exact factors that lead to specific coaching results, even if one leaves aside the multiple causality of any result of coaching.

From the more personal perspective of the coach, their development arguably has a doubleedged objective. On the one hand, development promotes the knowledge and skills of the coach, who becomes stronger and more effective as a result, especially in situations that are experienced as difficult. On the other hand, development activities help to make the coach more aware of and sensitive to signals and behaviour on the part of clients. There is an internal contradiction in this: stronger and more robust on the one hand, more sensitive and more vulnerable on the other, i.e. a thicker skin on the one hand and a thinner skin on the other. In the Conclusion section I will come back to this paradox and suggest some answers as to how CPD activities might benefit the full development agenda of professional coaches.

This study adopts a method that inquires into the personal side of coaching and focuses on experienced critical moments in coaching: ‘turning points’ and ‘dilemmas’ as perceived by coaches themselves. In so doing, I follow the exhortation of Rice and Greenberg, who wrote as long ago as 1984 in their book Patterns of Change that “What is needed is a research method that can tap the rich clinical experience of skilled therapists in a way that will also push them to explicate what they know, yielding a rigorous description of the important regularities they have observed”. Over the last decade, we have seen a growing tradition in psychotherapy research investigating these critical moments (Carlberg, 1997; Stern, Sander,

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This study was carried out among 60 coaches, and its central research question was Describe briefly one critical moment (an exciting, tense or significant moment) with one of your coachees. Think about what was critical in the coaching journey, or a moment when you did not quite know what to do.

Hence the area of interest is coaches’ direct experience of coaching and the nature of their response to what happens at critical times. It will be shown that from these experiences of coaches we can infer requirements for sound CPD activities.

2. Methodology Over the past four years, a study of the critical moments experienced by coaches, and how they handle them was carried out at the Sioo business school in Utrecht. Sixty coaches were in the sample, primarily those relatively new to the profession. They were all in their first or second year of coaching practice. Each was asked to describe a critical moment (an exciting, tense or significant moment) with one of their coachees, or a moment when they did not quite know what to do. Some provided more than one critical moment, and a total of 69 real-life critical moments were collected. Permission was obtained from all coaches who participated in this research for their responses to be used in the study.

Content analysis was carried out on the descriptions of the critical moments (see De Haan, 2008), by coding the emotional content in each description: every new internal experience, emotion or thought in every description was coded by a short description, as close as possible to the author’s words. This yielded on average 2.7 codes per description, with a lot of overlap: a set of only 58 different codes was sufficient to capture all experiential content of the 69 moments. Most codes therefore reoccurred in other critical moments: on average every code occurred in 3.2 descriptions of critical moments. An unexpected outcome of this analysis was that all the codes turned out to be indicative of doubts. In other words, the key factor that made the moment critical on all occasions was that the coach questioned something about what was going on, or in other words experienced some form of doubt related to the coaching relationship, the client or themselves. Further analysis was then carried out to group the 58 areas of doubt. Those groupings of doubts are presented in the

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