We’ve published our latest Vogel Wakefield newsletter. It discusses bringing coaching into the 21st Century (we may be 15 years into the century already, but this still needs to happen) and what a counter-consultancy approach to coaching might look like. Plus the usual selection of blog posts and notes on our current reading.
Book review: Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, by Simon Western
Simon Western seeks to challenge and expand our view about what constitutes coaching but, in so doing, he also challenges and expands received wisdom on what it means to be a leader in today’s complex and fast-moving organisations.
Coaching is a young practice, scarcely a profession. On the one hand, it has an inferiority complex in relation to other helping professions, particularly psychotherapy from which it takes much of its sense of good practice. On the other, it is rapidly being colonised by big management consultancies and business schools who recognise coaching’s threat to their turf. Talk of codifying what coaching should be through accreditation and even regulation is a sure sign of vested interests attempting to appropriate ground for themselves.
Western’s book, Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, investigates coaching as it is practised rather than how it is conceptualised in the literature. The strength of this approach is that it resists the tendency to reduce and constrain how coaching is defined. Instead, Western celebrates its diversity – from new age influenced life coaching through to corporate coaching interventions with their solutions-focussed processes and returns on investment.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the critique of organisations that we have developed here: the idea that organisations could be less toxic places to work and could play a more positive role in addressing society’s problems. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments again but instead look at how they come out of the approach to coaching that I have been describing in this series. If coaching is, as I maintain, a way of facilitating unfamiliarity, it follows that it is potentially disruptive of the received wisdom in organisations – the things that are so taken for granted that it’s otherwise almost impossible to question them. By putting a premium on connecting with our embodied wisdom, our gut instincts and nagging doubts, it creates space to acknowledge the ways in which the things organisations ask of us might make us uneasy.
Where does received wisdom come from? Narrative theory tells us that it is shaped by the dominant culture of the age. In our age, the common sense is defined by neoliberalism: the idea that the market is the natural way to do things and, if we live with the consequences of the market, this will be better for everyone in the long run. More than that – and more pertinent to this conversation – it’s a common sense characterised by hyper-rationality in which the insights that comes from emotion, values and embodied wisdom count for little.
This is the second in a series of posts based on a talk I gave on being versus doing in coaching. Part one of the series looked at the influences of narrative and mindfulness on how I work as a coach. This post explores the tension between being and doing.
Being versus doing is an increasingly important question for our culture. We live in an era when time is at a premium. Time is money and we’re all under pressure to give as much as we can in the time when we contract our labour to others.
This doesn’t always equate to greater efficiency. In the years since our rubbish collections were contracted out to private management, there has been a clear shift in focus from quality of service to minimising inputs (both time and people). The bin men’s job was never pleasant but now they have to do it as if competing in a macabre version of It’s a Knockout. The rubbish gets collected, but much is strewn all over the place and the bins are left lying in random places – so neighbourhoods are left, in some respects, in a worse mess than before the bin men arrive.
Because this pressure on time can lead to a poor quality of working life, we come to put much more emphasis on our getting the most from our personal lives. So even away from work we don’t escape the pressure to get things done. Films to catch, rooms to decorate, walks to be done in inspiring places – not to mention routine essentials like laundry, shopping and cooking. We really need times of stillness and quiet: opportunities to calm the agitation and connect with ourselves and how we’re feeling about what’s going on.
The book deconstructs the managerialist consensus that construes organisations as being somehow apart from society, and amenable to direction in whatever way managers consider to be “efficient”. Efficiency, in this worldview, turns out to be the right of senior managers/shareholders to optimise the running of the organisation in their own interest. It does not lack an ethical claim. Taylorism, for example, freed factory workers from the tyranny of the gang leader and offered a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But it led to a perverted extreme by which, to quote one of Grey’s contemporary examples, it can seem rational and legitimate to require machine operators to urinate on the spot in their clothes on the grounds that allowing lavatory breaks is too costly.
Book review: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
In the years since the financial crisis, we’ve honed a conviction here at Vogel Wakefield that the way most businesses and organisations are run is bust. Public distrust has been engendered not just by the financial crash but scandals in sectors as diverse as the health service, the media, supermarkets, the police and Parliament. Such is the depth of distrust that we envisage society eventually breaking decisively with the economic settlement of the past three decades. What the shape of the new consensus will be, who can tell? But the future surely entails profound changes for the way organisations are run. The public wants businesses to exercise greater stewardship of community assets and to operate in a more socially-oriented way.
If this vision sounds nebulous and, frankly, utopian, the exciting thing about Frederic Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, is the detailed portrayal it presents of successful companies that are making real today the model of tomorrow. His view of the forces of change is broader than ours. Where we envisage this as a paradigm shift in contemporary capitalism, akin to that from social democracy to neo-liberalism thirty years ago, Laloux sees a fundamental shift in human development, the kind of shift that occurs as human consciousness develops. In this, he draws on the work of Piaget, Robert Kegan and, especially, Ken Wilber.
Last night, I attended a stirring call on the coaching profession to wake up and recast its responsibilities in relation to a world that is messed up and in crisis. The call was made by Aboodi Shabi, who one might reasonably describe as a leader of the coaching profession in the UK. Courtesy of a platform with the London Coaching Group, he extemporised on themes I have advocated myself, most recently in my presentation to APECS. But Aboodi made the case with a passion and bluntness that challenged me to stand up for this agenda with much greater clarity. A theme of the evening was how coaching could “come out” as a profession that engages with society’s problems. Aboodi’s message resonated with a good proportion of his audience, although it also provoked fear and dismissal among a vociferous minority.
I’m looking forward to the APECS symposium on the future for executive coaching on 18th June. As part of a group working on the social and business context for coaching, I’ve submitted a discussion paper. I found it a useful opportunity to pull together the themes I’ve been developing at this blog over the past few years. I’ve been receiving a number of requests to access the paper even ahead of the symposium, so I’m posting it here with the following caveat: my thinking on this is a work in progress rather than my last word. Feedback, critical or otherwise, most welcome.
Anglo-Saxon capitalism is experiencing a shift in the socio-economic paradigm by which we organise ourselves. In the period after the Second World War, a consensus was established around social democracy, with its emphasis on welfare, corporatism and mitigating inequality. As this became dysfunctional, it was replaced by a consensus around free markets, managerialism and shareholder value which, itself, is now being called into question by systemic failure. What replaces it will be contested. It could be a more benign form of capitalism in which organisations accept responsibility for greater stewardship of the public realm or it could be something much closer to fascism or something else again. What role, if any, should coaches play in helping executives both to recognise the shift and to play a role in shaping a constructive outcome?
From today, Valoro becomes Vogel Wakefield, the counter-consultancy. We see this as more than a change of name. We’ve been in business for nearly three years now and we have a much better appreciation than when we started of how we add value for our clients.
When we founded the business, we were spent some considerable time defining our company and our distinctive approach. In retrospect, this was more useful to us as partners than it was to customers. It helped us clarify the common ground that enabled us to work together. But all our clients wanted to know was who we were.
In fact, one executive, demonstrating refreshing plain-speaking, told us the Valoro thing wasn’t making much sense. “You’re Mark and Martin, aren’t you?” he said.