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In 2014, when I decided to expand my primary career focus in psychotherapy to also include coaching high-performing professionals, it was hard to ignore the side-eyed glances of those who wondered if what I was doing was really a thing (or even the “right” thing). Myths about professional coaching were pervasive and I felt that some were passing judgment on my decision to pursue a non-traditional career path as a coach. There were those who felt that coaching for professionals was a luxury reserved only for those at the top—the C-Suite, tycoons, the rich, and celebrities. Why would I propagate such an elitist cause? Still others perceived coaching to be a bit like “snake oil,” filled with promise, but weak on science. Was coaching even a legitimate industry? In a largely unregulated field, the gap in capacity across coaches and coaching experiences was immense, and this presented a branding problem for coaching.
Fast forward five years, and the paradigm has shifted. Today, coaching has become widely accepted and embraced—it is now a billion-dollar industry with nearly 50,000 professional coaches worldwide. To be fair, there are still some stereotypes about coaches in the media (think Dr. Wendy Rhodes on Showtime’s Billions or Denpak on HBO’s aptly-named parody Silicon Valley), but most people understand that these are silly parodies created to entertain and make people laugh. Instead, organizations are increasingly embracing the importance of developing employee capabilities and investing in coaching for all their people, particularly frontline managers. And, companies like BetterUp are demonstrating the value of evidence-based coaching, as well as showing that coaching for all individuals, not just the C-suite, is now a possibility. All of this progress has contributed to what I think of as “the new wave of coaching,” which stands in stark contrast to where we were just five years ago.
It was this very progress that was top of mind for me when I recently had the honor of attending and presenting at BetterUp’s annual Coaches Conference, alongside 115 BetterUp coaches who traveled to be there from 12 countries around the world. While I was at the conference, I had a chance to think about where coaching has been and where it's headed. Here are some of my reflections.
In recent years, the demand for coaching employees at all levels (not just senior leadership) has surged. Simultaneously, thanks to technology and other developments, coaching is more scalable than ever—enabling greater access for more individuals than previously possible. Add that to the fact that coaches are among the most mission-driven professionals I’ve ever worked with—consistently seeking new ways to extend their reach to anyone who stands to benefit—and it’s easy to see why the field is growing. A testament to the global scale of these shifts, BetterUp now offers 1:1 coaching sessions in 34 languages across 62 countries, truly embracing the company’s mission to democratize coaching.
In a presentation I co-led with my colleague Andrew Brush at the BetterUp Coaches Conference, we shared a recent finding that shows a sense of purpose in the workplace is so highly desired that adults in the United States are, on average, willing to give up 20% of their lifetime earnings in exchange for a career that always feels meaningful. At BetterUp, we believe that the search for meaning at work is not a concept reserved for just the C-Suite. It is something that all employees—from frontline managers and all the way up to members of senior management—should strive for.
Amidst a $10 billion self-improvement market, top leadership coaches today consider competence, integrity, and alignment with science a core part of their professional identity. Science-based coaching draws from a variety of disciplines—including organizational psychology, positive psychology, and behavioral economics—which generate new research every day. The scientific underpinnings of what we do at BetterUp were evident throughout the conference, from renowned researcher and Stanford professor Dr. Leah Weiss’s talk on purpose and meaning at work to our very own Dr. Andrew Reece sharing new research on the cross-section of gender, coaching, and leadership.
Emblematic of our approach to coach training, Dr. Weiss’s talk provided a clear line of sight into how we can leverage data (individual and organizational) and research to inform practice. Our research on topics of Meaning and Purpose at Work, The Value of Belonging at Work, and The Power of Reflection in Workplace Learning all highlight the opportunities for coaches to tap into evidence-based studies to guide and shape their work.
Coaching is a science, but it’s also an art. And like any art, there is a massive difference between early levels of practice versus mastery. For those who seek mastery, as top coaches do, there’s never been a more exciting or complex field to artfully navigate. Given the world of work is more diverse and more global than ever, cultural agility and competency are critical skills for coaches to master, as is a nuanced understanding of D&I and inclusive leadership. Further, since coaches aren’t just striving to help individuals solve problems or explore possibilities in the short term, they are focused on creating individual plans to effect sustainable gains and long-term capabilities.
According to researcher Angela Duckworth, success stems from a combination of purpose and grit. The grit and perseverance coaches demonstrate on their path towards mastery is illustrated by BetterUp coach Shane O’Sullivan’s response to why he joined BetterUp. “I want to be the best coach in the world,” he explained. “I asked myself, ‘Where can I align with the best coaching organization in the world?’ I did my research and I found BetterUp.” Shane goes on to clarify, “So you’re never actually there, becoming the best coach. But you’re always in the journey or process of trying.”
As a coach, I’m heartened to see the direction our profession is heading. Yes, we will have to continue working to overcome outdated myths, and we must ensure our focus moving forward is best aligned to meet the needs of those we serve. But this is a dynamic time to be a coach, so—rather than bemoan outdated myths— I’m inspired to work even harder to help make coaching a scalable, evidence-based tool that can be used as a force for positive social change. Based on my experience at the conference, we are well on our way. In time, I trust the popular misconceptions will be replaced by this new, bright reality.