When this author began coaching in the mid-1990s, the emphasis was on defining coaching by its boundaries rather than by its frontiers. In the search for professional identity, there was intense preoccupation in setting out the definitions, limitations, and barriers for coaching. Early coaching skills courses at MF would involve lengthy and often angst-ridden discussions about the boundaries between coaching and, for example, therapy, counselling, and mentoring. Executive Coaching, as it was then firmly labelled, was an elite, even esoteric activity reserved for senior leaders and managers only.
Fast forwarding to 2023, we see an explosion in coaching activity. There are more coaches than ever before, more organisations using coaching than ever before, and a burgeoning number of niche and specialist applications of coaching. There are a zillion books and blogs, too.
Simultaneously the discourse amongst coaches is shifting. Much of the discussion around coaching practice currently centres on what we really mean when we say, as we do in our foundation principles, that we coach the ‘whole person’. What we have traditionally meant by this claim is that we coach the so-called ‘being’ self - that part of the person concerned with values, beliefs, identity, and purpose, as well as the ‘doing’ self - that part of us concerned with tasks, achieving goals, and developing skills. Now, coinciding with the arrival of many therapists training as coaches, we have begun to explore the role of coaching in areas more traditionally associated with therapy and counselling. Can we as coaches legitimately work in areas such as trauma or the shadow side of our clients being? What are the frontiers here?
Exploring further, we see coaches engaging with other important aspects of being, such as working with the body, with the spirit, and with our creative selves. Simultaneously, important fields of learning such as neuroscience and positive psychology offer ever widening frontiers of knowledge and expertise that are directly relevant to coaching. What will our future learning needs be?
Meanwhile, the frontiers of reach and scope for coaching expand rapidly. Coaching is increasingly available to middle managers and more junior staff as well as to senior figures. Technology and artificial intelligence are rapidly developing coaching tools available to anyone with a mobile phone.
Not least, coaches are beginning to explore the potential for positively influencing the agenda on vital social issues such as DE&I, sustainability, and the environment. We are increasingly questioning how much of a role we have in influencing the coaching agenda. None of this exploration is easy, or uncontroversial.
The frontiers of coaching offer many exciting possibilities. However, we must also be mindful to be aware of the dangers of ‘fad surfing’, of seeking novelty for its own sake, or adopting a coaching topic purely because it has become fashionable. There are many ongoing developments in coaching which have yet to see full fruition, but which are steadily delivering radical change; coaching for women in leadership is one such example.
Frontiers are exciting. We need to embrace the bold spirit of the explorer, because there are no maps of unknown territory. However, we will still need to make use of our established coaching navigational tools – our skills, judgement, ethics, and experience - to ensure we explore shrewdly, humbly, and wisely as well as boldly.