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Years ago, the hiring of a “coach” in a workplace evoked certain sentiments–and few of them were good. Coaches were typically reserved for high-level executives and managers, not regular employees. On top of that, they were often brought in because of a problem with a manager who needed behavioral instruction and correction.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the tables have turned dramatically. Coaching has acquired a far more positive reputation–and in practice typically means something almost entirely different. Ambitious employees are clamoring to be coached. Companies are adopting the practice at record rates. Coaching’s goals, availability, and even fundamental perception across the workforce have undergone a revolution. It’s now seen as a highly desirable benefit to career growth.

This was happening even before the Covid pandemic, but the shift to remote work has accelerated the process, highlighting the impact of technological advances in delivering the service. At the same time, experts across the field say they’ve noticed other distinct trends, including a move toward democratization, a broader array of topic areas, and a proliferation of new vendors. All told, coaching has grown as a profession, with increasing numbers of certified coaches and courses to train them. From Day One talked with HR executives and coaches to see how the field has evolved–and how it’s influencing workplace culture.

What Is Coaching Now?

The rise of coaching is part of a greater emphasis in Corporate America on continuous learning, which has myriad benefits, including the development of future leaders, the teaching of new skills, and greater diversity and inclusion. Yet the diversification of coaching has created blurred lines, changing buzzwords, and debate about precise definitions. Coaching, mentoring, training, and consulting are all separate practices, but they can also be combined to some extent.

The traditional definition of coaching, said Alec Levenson, a senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC’s Marshall School of Business, had a “very specific connotation” and almost always meant “executive coaching, the idea being that, by the time somebody gets to be in an executive role, a managerial role, they’re two or three rungs up the hierarchy.” Coaching was sometimes done by other high-level executives who could empathize with a leader’s situation and advise them on corporate decisions and very specific situations.

Coaching now, however, tends to involve targeted, one-to-one conversations that are goal-oriented and designed to help participants follow their own paths and come to their own conclusions. The scope of topics is more holistic than in the past, including coping mechanisms, goal determination, and a plethora of other subjects that can be applied not only to an employee’s current position but further career development. According to Bravely, a coaching platform, the topics most often discussed by the firm’s users break down along these lines: performance and role (25%), general stress (21%), manager conflict (17%), promotion guidance (15%), and company culture and environment (10%).

In a corporate setting, coaching is almost always done by professional, accredited coaches, HR leaders said. “I think when you talk about certified coaches, [organizations like the] International Coaching Federation (ICF), they’re pretty much aligned in what coaching is,” said Jackie Bassett, director of people strategy at University of Chicago Medicine. However, she added, “When you talk with leaders throughout organizations, you get definitions that are all over the map.”

In practicing their craft, coaching professionals typically take “a developmental approach, based on asking versus telling,” observed Bassett, adding that such coaches do not focus on “telling them what to do, not even giving advice, but really asking the right questions to help them come up with the answers themselves. The coach doesn’t have to be a subject-matter expert; in fact, it’s often harder if they are.” The process, she added, “enables self-discovery [that] can be applied to any future situation. I passionately believe that it can be the most powerful and most under-utilized tool there is.”

Coaching is quite different from traditional management-training sessions, observed Fidelma Butler, VP of talent and organization development at ZenDesk, which makes customer-service software. “A generic training course, where people all gather from different experiences and different backgrounds to study a particular topic for a couple of days, or even to view an online course together, that’s standard content,” Butler said. “That’s the same, no matter who the individual is to do the training, whereas coaching is hyper-personalized. It’s much more about meeting the people where they are at a certain point in time. It’s much more customizable. The individual gets to drive the agenda of their development and coaching, rather than the organization or the person who developed the course content.”

Democratization: Coaching Becomes More Accessible

Realizing just how beneficial it can be, employers have embraced coaching for a wider range of employees who show potential, not just for the elite or those who fall short of expectations.

“Coaching used to be done only for people who were in trouble and was done for remedial reasons,” said Jeanne Schad, global talent solutions and strategy practice leader at Randstad RiseSmart, a talent-mobility consultancy. No longer. “It’s an interesting thing that rarely happens in business–that the same word has grown to have the opposite meaning,” said Schad, who is also the founder of a professional-coaching network. Now, “you get coaching and it’s a reward. More and more people are seeing the benefit of having a sounding board to access outside of themselves and outside of their traditional management structure,” she said. As a result, “many organizations are united around the idea that they want to democratize coaching, they want to make it available to everybody.”

Besides the practical impact of enhancing employee skills, the broader application of coaching sends a message inside and outside a company that it’s a good place to work because it cares about the growth of its employees, said Stefanie K. Johnson, associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and author of Inclusify: the Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams. Companies are saying, “We see you as being a high-potential employee; there’s obviously a strength we want you to invest in,” Johnson said. “I feel like people are stoked about it.”

Younger Workers Welcome the Advice

While older workers may still see coaching’s negative connotations–Did I do something wrong?–younger workers in particular take a pro-active approach to it. “People want coaching,” Johnson said. “It’s seen as an opportunity to improve skills, especially among millennials, who are very focused on getting better, improving.”

Bassett agreed, connecting the trend to generational culture. “A lot of the younger generation are more used to these ongoing, real-time feedback conversations.” The individual and institutional results, seen firsthand with more and more regularity, just drives the popularity of coaching, experts said. “When you experience it, it’s hard to describe with any other word than transformational,” said Schad. “It can really make a difference in how you see your situation when it is reflected by somebody on the outside, and that is unique to coaching.”

Coaching as a Blossoming Career

As coaching has grown in popularity, so has the population of coaches themselves, a phenomenon which brings with it both pros and cons, according to insiders. “During the last recession, the number of coaching training schools jumped dramatically. When I did training in 2005-06, I think there were 40-something ICF-certified programs I could do,” Schad said. “By 2010 or 2011, there were over 2,000. The industry of coach training sprang out of nowhere. I think it was indicative of the attraction and appeal as a career option,” particularly for experienced people who may embrace the profession as a “third career or early retirement,” she said.

Not all of those individuals should necessarily be coaching, though, according to some experts, who complain about a too-broad definition of coaching and a lack of oversight when it comes to credentials. “I actually think that there might be too many coaching-accreditation bodies,” ZenDesk’s Butler said. “If you’re an individual looking for a coach, it’s very hard to start at a blank page and look for that. There are very low barriers to entry for people who want to become coaches and the quality of coaching can vary massively.” That said, however, the proliferation of coaching choices can mean that “there is a coach out there for everyone,” Butler said.

Technology Brings Access–and Affordability

As the availability of coaches increases, so does the price range, while apps and other innovations have made it easier for employers to find good coaching fits and also provid access to them. In pre-pandemic times, there were “a lot of coaches flying around the country to meet with these folks,” Johnson observed. Since then, “coaches are doing more virtual meetings. It’s just a smaller footprint and cost,” she said.

Thanks to new coaching platforms, “You’ve got coaching now that can be done on demand,” said Schad. “You’ve got coaching that can be done in the moment; you’ve got coaching that can be done through text messaging rather than live.”

Organizations are particularly keen when it comes to harnessing technology for “coaching at scale,” said ZenDesk’s Butler. “How do you, as an organization, provide coaching at scale when it is [usually] for one person, at one moment in time, over five or six sessions? How do you, at scale, provide a solution for people? I think that can be really challenging.” Butler continued: “The tech platforms are how we scale. That’s the important piece. We really need the tech platforms, because for a company of our size–more than 4,000 employees–we can’t provide coaching without a solid tech platform behind it.”

Bassett, of UChicago Medicine, said that technology was undeniably “helping in a lot of ways. I don’t see any downsides versus being in a room,” she said. “I think you can still get that engagement connection. There are plenty of upsides, because it’s much more accessible.” And competition brewing within the coaching-startup world, she said, is helping to make the practice available and attractive at a “broader scale and price.”

Coaching as a Boost to Diversity and Inclusion

While coaching is defined as a category separate from training, consultation and mentoring, those practices can still be combined to more comprehensively address personal and corporate issues, said Sharon Hart, an executive coach at the firm Talking Talent, who has more than a decade of experience as a certified coach.

Reflecting the widespread expectations for Corporate America to improve its record on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Hart’s firm has seen an increase in demand for comprehensive programs to address company culture and DEI. Talking Talent has responded by offering a combination of webinars, group discussions, and one-on-one coaching. It’s all focused on client-driven conversations leading to reflection and self-realization, she said.

“We’re helping to break down the barriers and helping to get people to feel safe to share,” said Hart, adding that, among her clients, many were “afraid to talk about” diversity and equality.

“There’s a stigma about, ‘I’m afraid I might say the wrong thing,’” she said. “When we approach it with our coaching hats on, we’re offering more of an invitation to reflect, now that the defenses are down, and we can say, ‘We give you permission to have the experiences you have had. What do you want to do with that?’”

Coaching Diversifies Even Further

Just as Talking Talent offers a range of services from group coaching to one-on-one sessions, the coaching world in general has seen an uptick in variations of how the practice is delivered. One trend gathering steam is peer-to-peer coaching.

“The key definition of peer coaching is that it’s about two individuals within the company. They reflect on current practices, what’s happening, and what the challenges are,” said Madhukar Govindaraju, founder and CEO of the coaching platform Numly.  “They refine and share ideas. And eventually they’re solving problems. You develop a trusted connection between the two. That’s the first step. And it’s a private conversation.”

That safe space can potentially improve the performance of employees and the wider organization, further broadening the conversation about diversity and democratization. “Right now, companies are pivoting from the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion, to one of inclusion and belonging,” Govindaraju said. “You need to create a sense of belonging in the employee experience. And we’re not just connecting them, we’re helping them with developing the skills they need. We empower employees to help each other.”

Sheila Flynn is a Denver-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.