The Field of Coaching
By Jim Selman
Fredrick Taylor ‘invented’ the field of management in the early 1900s because he wanted to create a ‘science of management’. He appropriated the term ‘management’ from the field of ‘training horses’ which is why 100 years later some people still speak of motivating people with carrots and sticks.
In the early years, management was about the organization, function and control of people. It was half a century before early pioneers such as McGregor, Levin and Drucker began to ask ‘why’ management worked or didn’t work and started to create more comprehensive theories to account for organizational performance. It was not until Tom Peter’s “In Search of Excellence” became a bestseller that management theory and philosophy took off, giving birth to an industry of books, consultants and workshops. About the same time, the field of management underwent a metamorphosis and initiated the birth of a new field that was not an extension of the idea of predicting and controlling people. This new field was concerned with the question of how to produce results when we can neither predict the future nor control the action. The new field was “coaching”—and it emerged as an alternative paradigm to management.
Coaching has been around as long as human beings have been dreaming of accomplishing more than they can do by themselves (and more than what most people think can be done). For most of human history, however, coaching was a role in athletic and artistic fields—it did not appear as a serious conversation in business and management until the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States. I know because I was there when the acorn was planted.
Today, coaching is a sizeable industry, associations are popping up in various countries, sub “specialties” are declared, PhD theses are written on the subject and a foundation is even creating a museum of coaching. Academia has ‘appropriated’ coaching from the practitioners. Thirty years ago when I first proposed to my clients that they have a coach, the consensus was that coaching was a ‘flavor of the month’ and that, moreover, something must be wrong with you if you needed a coach. It is now in vogue to have a coach.
For those interested in the history of the coaching field in business and organizations as well as the now broader offerings under the title ‘life coaching’, there is an excellent doctoral dissertation by Dr. Vikki Brock entitled “Grounded Theory of the Roots and Emergence of Coaching“. While many people have been a part of this emerging profession, it began in earnest in the early 1980s when a group of colleagues and I began to offer ‘transformational consulting’ and ‘coaching’ to our clients. Four of these colleagues have gone on to become among the most successful practitioners in the field. Specifically, Vince DiBianca and Bob Berkman founded the DiBianca-Berkman Group, the first large consulting business based on coaching, in 1982. Two other founders of coaching firms around at that time were Dave Laveman and Don Arnoudse.
The question we all asked was, “Why was coaching as an integral part of the game in every field where the pursuit of excellence is a primary concern—except in the area of management?” At that time, there were no coaches in business (except sports coaches as motivational speakers) and most people worked hard to prove that they didn’t need one. Few would go to the boss to show their limitations, and yet that is the starting point in a coaching relationship.
Initially, coaching was very distinct from other forms of ‘helping’ relationships (such as mentoring, teaching, counseling, advising and consulting). In an international videoconference we hosted for 4,000 people in 1987, we asked some of the top sports coaches of the day (John Wooden, UCLA; Red Auerbach, Boston Celtics; George Allen, LA Rams, Washington Redskins) to share the principles they considered central to coaching regardless of the activity being coached. This was the first ever conference outside of a sporting context about coaching in business. Each of these men was not only viewed as an outstanding coach and innovator in sports, but they were also each associated with having produced more ‘head coaches’ than any other coaches in their respective games. These men were also acknowledged for having impacted not only the performance of their players, but also their the values and their lives—a principle found to be equally critical in coaching relationships in business.
The bottom line was and continues to be that coaching is about working with people to shift how they ‘see the game’, their ground of being and their relationship to the world—and showing them choices they would not otherwise have. Beyond this, coaching is about empowering people to take unprecedented actions and helping them to create new possibilities once their goals and breakthrough results have been achieved.
Between 1985 and 1988, we certified more than 200 consultants as coaches in the organization I co-founded called Transformational Technologies. I published the first article on the subject, along with Roger Evered, called “Coaching and the Art of Management” in 1989. In addition to Vince DiBianca, Dave Laveman and Don Arnoudse, other key ‘founders’ of the field (most notably Fernando Flores, Julio Olalla and Rafael Echeverria) began to formalize much of the theory behind the practice of what they had by then distinguished as ‘ontological coaching’. Thinkers like Fredrick Hudson, Ken Blanchard, Warren Bennis and even the esteemed Peter Drucker began to broaden and popularize the idea and appropriated many concepts from the field of organizational development, behavioral science and psychology. Thomas Leonard created an online ‘university’ to teach coaching and accredited programs began to appear in business schools, along with important books by such practitioners as James Flaherty and later Alan Sieler. By the millennium, an estimated 40,000 people were calling themselves coaches.
The distinctions of coaching and leadership are beginning to merge. From my perspective, the capability to coach and the capability to lead are virtually identical, although the roles occur in different contexts. Coaching is generally focused on the individual’s and team’s commitment to action within a well-defined game, while leadership is more often occurring in an historical context and focused on bringing about broader and sustainable change such as building a business, creating a new organizational culture or implementing a major initiative. When we look at creative performance and innovation through the lens of coaching, even our understanding of entrepreneurs has been enhanced.
Finally, Vince, Dave and Don are currently pushing the leading edge (along with Alan Sieler and his book “Coaching to the Human Soul”) in speaking of how the ‘coaching paradigm’ connects with the deep inner wisdom and common commitments of all human beings necessary to lead and prosper in an increasingly complex and unpredictable environment.
It is a rare and humbling privilege to be instrumental in the birth of a new field or movement. New paradigms emerge only because they connect with the vision and commitment of millions of people and combine with the courage of ‘early adaptors’ and practitioners until a ‘turning point’ is reached. Then that ‘original’ idea becomes commonplace. What is most inspiring and gratifying for me is seeing that as coaching has become mainstream, the conversations continue to open new possibilities for human beings to ‘breakthrough’ their historical limitations and achieve their dreams.