Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching in the Workplace

 Abstract

Transformative learning is a concept most often associated with the field of education.  However, organizations are often seeking to transform executives in order to prepare them for more responsibility, more challenging roles or environments. Coaching is often used as one of the interventions to help facilitate significant executive change and transformation. This paper discusses the intersection of coaching and transformative learning.

Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching In the Workplace

Executive education and adult learning are often seen as formal processes requiring participation in corporate retreats filled with “team building” exercises and instructor-led seminars.  Conversely, executive coaching is often used as a direct intervention with a coach performing the role of catalyst helping an executive mitigate some shortcoming impeding his or her success in a current role or to prepare him or her for more responsibility or a promotion.  Here, we explore the intersection of executive coaching and adult learning that leads to individual transformation.

What is Executive Coaching?

            The International Coach Federation (ICF), the largest professional association representing coaches worldwide, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”.  According the ICF a competent coach will possess the following Core Competencies:

  • Setting the Foundation

¨      Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards

¨      Establishing the Coaching Agreement

  • Co-Creating the Relationship

¨      Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client

¨      Coaching Presence

  • Communicating Effectively

¨      Active Listening

¨      Powerful Questioning

¨      Direct Communication

  • Facilitating Learning and Results

¨      Creating Awareness

¨      Designing Actions

¨      Planning And Goal Setting

¨      Managing Progress and Accountability

Coaching shares many similarities to mentoring.   As we see, most of the primary tasks of mentors, “engender trust, see the student’s movement, give the student a voice, introduce conflict, understand, emphasize positive movement and keep one eye on the relationship” (Daloz, 1999, pp.122-124) are found among the ICF’s Core Competencies. One can see how these same skills would be important to success in counseling and consulting as well. Indeed, coaching draws much of its empirical base and practice from the field of psychotherapy (Judge & Cowell, 1997).

Within the coaching profession, there are many concentrations. Life, leadership, relationship, career and executive coaching are some of the more popular areas of specialization. The executive coach is often seen as a change agent within a business, corporate or other organizational environment.  While there is no single definition or best way to practice executive coaching (Stern, 2004) suggests the executive coach is the “organizational consultant who can provide the coaching to help carry the weary executive through the constantly changing and harsh environment faced by business leaders of the 21st century” (p.161).  A good description of executive coaching is “an experiential, individualized, leadership development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short and long-term organizational goals.  It is conducted through one-on-one interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives, and based on mutual trust and respect.  The organization, an executive, and the executive coach work in partnership to achieve maximum learning and impact.” (Ennis et al., 2003, p.20).

Within the corporate environment many coaches coach for skills, performance, development or the executive’s agenda (Gray, 2006).  According to Gray, skills coaching is directed at helping the client learn “basic concepts, strategies, methods, behaviours, attitudes and perspectives, for business success” (p.478). It is not intended to nor does it often produce long-term change (Fitzgerald & Berger, 2002).  Performance coaching seeks to help the executive become better at performing in her or her current role.  The goal of development coaching is to prepare the client for movement into another role.

Coaching for the executive agenda often encompasses a broad range of issues. The executive may be contemplating a merger or an acquisition, his organization may be experiencing rapid growth or contraction or her company may be impacted by major regulatory changes and need to respond.  Since the executive coach may play many roles, it is important to understand the theoretical underpinnings from which the coach operates. One of the major epistemologies of coaching is found in adult learning theory, more specifically transformative learning (Gray, 2006).

Kilberg (1996) suggested “executive coaching is defined as a helping relationship formed between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant who uses a wide variety of behavioral techniques and methods to help the client achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction and, consequently, to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within a formally defined coaching agreement” (p.142).

In many instances, the terms coach and teacher can almost be used interchangeably.  Certainly, there are many intersections and overlaps of the two roles.  According to Jarvis, Holford and Griffin (1998), teachers may play several roles. Some of these roles are:

  • Provide information on certain topics
  • Serve as a resource for the individual
  • Assist learners to assess their needs and competencies
  • Locate resources or secure new information
  • Set up learning experiences
  • Work with learners as a sounding board for ideas
  • Help learners to develop a positive attitude towards learning and self-directed

Certainly coaches do these things too.  However, the executive coach is typically expected to help his client achieve something beyond simple skill development.  Often, she’s expected to help lead her client through some significant change, growth or “transformation”.  Adult learning theory, specifically transformational learning theory, offers great insight into the processes and approaches coaches might use to help their clients make significant change (Gray, 2006).

What is transformative learning?

             Popularized by two major theorists of adult learning, Jack Mezirow and Paulo Freire, the terms transformational learning or transformative learning have become somewhat diluted by some academicians and researchers, according to Mezirow contemporaries Stephen Brookfield (2005) and Robert Kegan (Mezirow, 2004).  Brookfield (Mezirow, 2004) points out Mezirow has been consistent in “asserting that a transformation is a transformation in perspective, in a frame of reference, in a personal paradigm, and in a habit of mind together with its resulting points of view” (p.139).  Elkins (2003) suggests transformative learning is facilitated by a cognitive process wherein our responses to our experiences are brought into our awareness through reflection and are evaluated.

Perhaps the definition most relevant to executive coaching comes from Mezirow (2000) where he states, “Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.” (p.58).

Mezirow (2000) identified four conditions for transformation:  “the presence of the other, reflective discourse, a mentoring community, and opportunities for committed action” (p.112). The presence of the other provides a contrast through which one compares his or her beliefs, thoughts and ideas.  Reflective discourse is “the process in which we actively dialogue with others to better understand the meaning of an experience” (p.114).  A mentoring community refers to the social learning aspects of transformation and opportunities for committed action refers to the ability of the individual to act upon the “evolving commitments” (p.117).

According to Kegan (1994), when people develop the ability to reflect upon something they were previously unaware of or took for granted and make conscious decisions about it, they have the opportunity to become transformed.  Kegan distinguishes between informational learning or new knowledge added in a form that currently exists in our minds and transformational learning, knowledge that actually changes our perceptions and interpretations of the world. Transformative learning occurs when someone changes “not just the way he behaves, not just the way he feels, but the way he knows—not just what he knows but the way he knows” (p.17).  Kegan believes transformation can take place when someone moves from Subject to Object.

According to Kegan, things that are Subject to us are a part of our selves. They are beliefs that form the frameworks and lenses through which we see the world.  We are often unaware of them. We take them for granted.  We assume they are true.  “We don’t have things that are Subject; things that are Subject have us” (Fitzgerald and Berger, 2002, p.30).  Things that are Object “can be seen and considered, questioned, shaped and acted on” (Fitzgerald and Berger, 2002, p.30).  Object isn’t how we see, it is what we see. Therefore, it can be analyzed, evaluated, retained or discarded.  Our worldview becomes more complex as we move from Subject to Object. We are more aware, more conscious and can be more responsible.  Indeed, one of the great ongoing developmental tasks of life is the moving from Subject to Object.

Transformations frequently follow the following phases, according to Mezirow (2000),   (p.22):

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • A critical assessment of assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.

The most significant transformations occur when we are able to analyze our own frameworks.  Exploring and challenging one’s own assumption about one’s self, society and one’s reality can often lead to a transformation (Mezirow, 1996).  Self-awareness is a critical component of this framework analysis.  We cannot analyze until we know. Knowledge is essential.

Cranton (2006) discusses three kinds of knowledge; technical, communicative and emancipatory. Technical knowledge is about cause and effect.  Acquiring it does not often lead to a transformative experience.  In the technical knowledge domain the coach or educator often performs the role of subject matter expert.  Communicative knowledge is “concerned with how we see ourselves and the social world that shapes us” (p.106).  The facilitator of communicative knowledge is in a co-development relationship with the learner.  Emancipatory knowledge is created when people “critically question their habits of mind in order to become open to alternatives” (p.106).  Emancipatory knowledge frees the learner from constraints, leads to awareness, reflection and development. The coach or educator working with students of emancipatory knowledge acts as a provocateur. The coach helps the learner become aware of limiting beliefs and to address discrepancies between their expressed values and their behaviors (Cranton, 2006).  From the social learning perspective of theorists like Albert Bandura and Julian Rotter, transformational learning requires an experience, and a critical reflection upon that experience followed by a developmental opportunity (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). Certainly coaches can be instrumental facilitators of this experience.

Coaching and transformational learning

            Coaching’s links to counseling and psychology have been well documented.  Indeed, much of the profession’s body of knowledge, techniques and competencies are rooted in psychotherapy.  Some variation of many of the ICF’s Core Competencies highlighted above can be found among the skills utilized by counselors, social workers, psychologists and other professionals working in psychotherapy and individual change.  More recently, many have highlighted the coaching profession’s ties to adult learning, more specifically, transformational or transformative learning (Brookfield, 1998; Elkins, 2003; Gray, 2006; Griffiths, 2005).

Griffiths (2005) suggests combining coaching and transformative learning to create a new, synthesized model for growth.  Facilitated through traditional coaching processes like “active listening, powerful questioning, problem solving, self-regulation and observation” (p.62), the student/coachees’ readiness would determine their development plan and goals.  Organizational transformation might be facilitated by creating competency models including such transformational learning theory components like critical, objective and reflective thinking, collaboration and consensus building about individual reflections into leadership development and individualized coaching plans. (Elkins, 2003).

Brown and Posner (2001) connect learning to leading.  They suggest transformational learning theory can be used to “assess, strengthen, and create leadership development programs that develop transformational leaders” (p. 279).  They suggest learning to apply adult learning principles and fostering transformative learning is one of the attributes of an evolved leader. Daloz (1999) and others support this idea suggesting that mentoring becomes a responsibility of leadership.

Helping clients become better at reflective thinking is one of the most important aspects of the coach’s role.  Summarizing, integrating, reframing are communication skills considered important skills, according to the ICF.  Coaches need to be critically reflective in order to help clients create awareness that can lead to transformation (Brookfield, 1998).  Indeed, according to Mezirow (1998), transformative learning cannot occur without critical reflection. Ducharme (2004, Peltier, 2001, Sherin & Caiger, 2004) and others reinforce the importance of reflective thinking through advocating a cognitive-behavioral approach to executive coaching.  In cognitive-behavioral therapies like Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy, the therapist focuses upon helping the client create awareness then encourage the client to evaluate and possibly reconsider the emotions the client associates with their life circumstances (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007).

Gray (2006) makes a strong argument that coaches serve as educators.  He compares Mezirow’s comments about the educator’s role to that of a coach:

“Education [coaching] for competence involves cultivating the learner’s [coachee’s] ability to negotiate meanings and purposes instead of passively accepting the social realities defined by others” (p.489).

Coaches facilitate reflective action by “helping their clients overcome situational, knowledge or emotional constraints (p.489).  Emotional constraints are often presented in the schemes or frameworks through which we view our lives and the world. These frames of reference determine, to a great extent, form our worldview.  Cranton (2006) defined these points of view as “clusters of meaning schemes”.  They are habitual, rules for interpreting experiences.  They often impede our ability to see things objectively.  Sometimes referred to as “habits of mind” these predispositions or interpretations are components of these frameworks.  Much of the work of the executive coach is designed to help the client identify and deconstruct these schemes.

Gray (Gray, 2006) suggested the term Meaning Structures to define these frameworks.  Meaning Structures provide rules for interpreting.  He broke Meaning Structures into two components, Meaning Perspectives and Meaning Schemes.  Meaning Perspectives form sociolinguistic, psychological or epistemic “codes”.  Meaning Schemes are defined by concepts, beliefs, judgments and feelings.

A personal reflection is a critique of our assumptions.  Teaching clients how to engage in behavioral self-monitoring through awareness created by self-reflection is an important task of executive coaching (Stober & Grant, 2006).  Reflections might be about content, process or premise.  Reflection is often triggered when life hands us contradictions to meaning structures.  According to Mezirow (1994), reflection occurs during problem solving.  In order to break down the barriers to self-awareness these frameworks create, the coach or educator might lead the client through a process of critical reflection.  Mezirow (1994) identified phases of a critical reflection process. These are:  Epistemic, Sociolinguistic, Psychological, Moral ethical, Philosophical, Aesthetic.  Distortions in meaning can occur in these stages.  The role of the coach/educator may be to help the client/learner become aware of these distortions.

Typically, the coach/educator will help the client develop a learning plan.
Effective development plans should include some basic elements, according to (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011). These are the content of the problems or challenge, the process of the problem solving and an underlying premise. Ideally, the coach/educator and the client/learner will collaboratively construct a development plan which identifies a process which attempts to mitigate the client’s deficiencies against competencies.  Competencies are requisite abilities or qualities important to creating successful goal attainment.

Cognitive, humanistic and adult education theorists suggest the individual is the most important component when building competencies. Individual may not know what competencies he or she needs.  The role of the coach/educator is to expose the learner to role models.  The elegance of the competency model isn’t critical, according to Knowles, et al. What is important is the learners understanding of how acquisition of specific skills and abilities will improve their lives. This helps put the learning experiences into context.  “It (personal competency model) converts course-takers and seminar participants into competency developers.” (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011, p. 124).

Coaching is said to work because it facilitates action learning (Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl, 1998). “Clients take action and learn, which leads to more action based upon what they learned, which leads to more learning, etc.”(p.79). Sustained over time, action learning through coaching leads to transformational change.  Along with collaborative inquiry, Mezirow (2000) supports action learning as method to support transformational learning.

Many executives enter coaching to address a specific challenge or need. They’ve been promoted and feel ill-equipped for their new role or their progress is being impeded by a lack of skill or behaviors deemed inappropriate by their organization.  In these instances, it is common for both client and coach to view the coaching work as task-oriented and situational.  Major theorists and the research suggest more meaningful and enduring change might be achieved by approaching the work as a transformational learning opportunity rather than a routine, linear coaching assignment.

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3 thoughts on “Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching in the Workplace”

  1. This type of coaching is crucial for today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. Leading today or being a leading senior executive is different than it used to be. Too many senior executives believe than can lead the same way they did 10 years ago and I think they are very wrong and those companies will not be successful or at least the chances of those companies becoming successful has narrowed greatly.

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