What is the future of coaching?

Coaching has grown significantly in popularity and in professionalism over the past 30 to 40 years, but has this development plateaued? The hot topics of the last few years have been supervision, neuroscience, team coaching and mindfulness, but are these just small incremental changes that have broadened coaching rather than moving it on? What is the next big thing for coaching?

During a recent Challenging Coaching Leadership Live virtual seminar to 900 IBM executives, John and I were asked about the future of coaching. Over the 20 years I’ve been practicing coaching I’ve seen the change from a little understood intervention for the elite few. It was as if coaching was viewed in the same way as horoscopes, a bit wacky, off the wall, with no real evidence of success. Now, coaching is a mainstream development intervention, with professional bodies, accreditation, and according to the ICF 2016 survey there are 53,300 coaches across the globe.

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With every industry, at some point there is a disruptive event. A new player comes out from a blind spot, from ‘left field’ and disrupts the stability of the market, creating a new way of being and a new way of doing business. I haven’t seen this yet in coaching. But as technology is usually the source of disruption, in the future we might be able to download an app for £0.79 from the app store that uses artificial intelligence and does away with the need for expensive and time consuming face-to-face coaching sessions. That would be truly disruptive. As has been evident in other markets, late adopters are left behind and become irrelevant as the customer’s needs moves on around them.

So should coaches reach for their iPads, or start talking to programmers to develop sophisticated algorithms? Well, although I love tech, I’m not going to rush to take up this robotised way of coaching just yet. In fact I see face-to-face coaching as an antidote to the fast technological world we live in. New tech, hand-held devices, social media and the increasing demands of work, have meant that leaders are always connected. The 24/7 on-line culture has created the means to be constantly intouch with what is happening. Like me, many of you can probably now access your emails and files from anywhere in the world, and at any time. As well as the technological means to do this, there also seems to be the pressures from business that leaders should be available and always responsive to customer questions and organisational demands. The globalisation of organisations means that leaders run international teams; conducting meetings via video conferences across time zones. This is the reality of modern business life, and I don’t see this changing.

What I do see is coaching being a release from the confines of this technological world, of viewing everything through a screen; a computer screen for emails, a video conference screen for meetings, and a phone screen for social media updates about friends. The intimacy of face-to-face coaching creates a connectedness with real impact. There is nothing like the raw undiluted power of two people being in the same room being an antidote to the virtual world.

A change that can not be denied is the generational evolution. We have seen the baby boomers, generation X, and now look towards Gen Y, the millennials, born from the early 1980s up to 2000. There are mixed views about the millennial generation. Some theorists say millennials will become more civic-minded with a strong sense of community and purpose. Others say that millennials show greater personal confidence and a sense of entitlement and narcissism, and have also been described as ‘generation me’. Some predict that millennials will switch jobs frequently due to higher expectations.

What is clear is that millennials are different to my generation. My views are likely to be different to theirs, and my expectations are unlikely to be the same as theirs. This difference could be a problem, but I see coaching as a way of bridging any real or perceived generational disconnect. The very fact that coaching requires high levels of listening and empathy are great ways to connect across difference. So I see a greater need for coaches to work to create bridges of understanding across any difference, whether this is age, race, sex, or religion.

A change I do see is around organisational culture. We have seen a rise in the macho culture within organisations, a ‘suck it up and get on with it’ style has been evident over recent years. But I don’t see this as sustainable, and the seeds of change are becoming increasingly evident. I’ve noticed more and more individuals and organisations move away from a macho style to a culture based more on openness and honesty. People are more free to express their real feelings, and vulnerability is valued as true authentic leadership. As a result of increased openness, I see coaching being used by leaders much more frequently as an every day approach to leading people. The coaching conversations between leaders and followers will be more frequent and deeper, as trust grows and people are willing to speak from their heart, without fear of consequences.

Maybe this is the future where external coaches are no longer needed, so I’ll be out of a job, and I might need to start developing that coaching app after all!

Going back to my original question, what is the next big thing for coaching? Maybe incremental broadening and evolution is a good thing, and there does not need to be a dramatic big event, as long as we remain open and receptive to unexpected change.

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