What is Developmental Coaching?

At the start of any coaching engagement I always begin by establishing the goals and expectations of the client. A little while ago I started work with a new client who had a short-term priority that he wanted to tackle first. Christmas was coming, so in our first session, he wanted my ideas on quick wins to boost his sales. I told him I’d do my best to give him some ideas but also that they probably wouldn’t be very good.

He wanted to do it nonetheless so we spent an hour brainstorming some ideas.

Next time I saw him was after Christmas and I asked how his sales had gone and whether the quick wins we’d worked on last time around had made a difference. Sales had been great but he reluctantly admitted that the new ideas hadn’t really made any difference. I was very pleased as he looked at me and smiled saying “It doesn’t really work like that does it?”

Coaching isn’t consultancy and no it doesn’t work like that. So we got to work and looked at broader themes about the business and his role in it. By talking about these things he developed a different understanding of both which concluded with unexpected decisions about recruitment and the launch of a major event, which is still growing several years later.

So the coaching began with a look at (failed, smaller) concrete actions and ended with decisions about (successful, larger) concrete actions. What happened in between these two was Developmental Coaching.

Coaching in the workplace was developed in the 1980s out of sports coaching, with assumptions of specific short-term gains. This has been overlaid with a number of other ideas, including the application of psychological and psychotherapeutic approaches. Tatiana Bachkirova, has led of this in the UK in her role as Director of the International Centre for Coaching & Mentoring Studies at Oxford Brookes University. In her 2011 book Developmental Coaching: Working with the Self she emphasises models of stage development and self-actualisation.

This is about the human platform; get the foundations in good order and work and life requirements will naturally build up well from this. The developmental coach works at two levels: with the “presenting issues”, the immediate work issues that need to be addressed, but at the same time, with the human platform on top of which the presenting issues sit, like the tip of an iceberg.

Many people are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or “Maslow’s Pyramid”. This proposes that we have five levels of needs: Physiological, Safety, Social belonging, Esteem and finally Self-actualisation. To move up the pyramid we need to cover the lower bases first: without food, shelter and protection from predators we’re not bothered about or adept at improving our social position and status. Similarly, the pursuit of self-esteem through achievement will be abruptly halted if we’re deprived of our basic needs; if your house burns down the satisfaction of running a marathon at the weekend shrivels up rather.

At the top is the notion of self-actualisation, which if you really pushed it has us sitting on a fluffy cloud on the way to Nirvana. The Greeks were a little more sanguine; as Socrates put it “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

Reflection, self-awareness and knowledge are core to coaching that looks to encourage Cognitive Development. This is the idea that like children, adults plateau and then break though into more mature levels of engagement with and understanding of the world around them. The difference is that with children this “stage development” seems to be a natural function of simply aging. When very young, children don’t have a sense of perspective and if they see people in the distance believe that they’re actually just very small people. As they get older and they experience people coming from far away towards them they develop a more complex and realistic understanding i.e. a concept of scale. The difference is that as adults we plateau in our early twenties and don’t by default keep progressing. If we do this is a consequence of our specific experience. Developmental Coaching is a slightly bolshevik attempt to hasten this progression.

It encourages the client to get used to seeing themselves more objectively, to the point where they might see themselves in the third person at times.

This talking out is a key feature of developmental coaching and growth in self-awareness is what clients frequently cite to me as the most significant benefit of coaching. First sessions can sometimes see major breakthroughs although time and refection is absolutely vital. This is why many coaches prefer intervals of several weeks between sessions. Over three to six months it’s common to develop significantly changed understanding, which in practice often complements parallel work and discussion of practical problems and issues. In fact, ‘developmental coaching conversations’ as something distinct and explicitly separate shouldn’t be apparent at all. Rather it should be a consequence of the general process of talking in depth about things that matter.

It’s also why many coaches begin a session by simply asking “what’s important now”. The enquiry is led very naturally by the enquiring mind and sometimes in all sorts of unexpected directions; in the immortal words of Lester Freamon “all the pieces matter“.

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