Executive Coaches’ Gulag: AD 2025

Inside the Executive Coaches’ Gulag: AD 2025

Two older greying men pace their grim prison exercise yard, each solid inch of their stiff yellow pyjama suits emblazoned with every acronym known to coaching man. In their long moments of boredom, they sit in their solitary cells, shouting out an acronym or two into the void, in the hope that someone might hear them. Hoping that those now empty three-letter mantras would somehow resonate. Resonate. That was a word they used to use a lot, ad nauseam, in their former illustrious lives. Now the only resonation they hear is the clank of their metal slop-out buckets on the cold stone floor. 

 As they walk, they break into desultory conversation – pursuing a well-trodden conversational lament as circular as their grooved perambulation, always clockwise, around the yard.  

 Brian: How has it ever come to this? I never thought it would come to this. 

Michael: Me neither. But don’t you remember? Damned Hungarian Government started all of this back in 2021, with their Charlatans’ Law banning all talking therapies, including coaching, unless the practitioner were trained through a state institution and licenced by government. 

Brian: Goddam Hungarian despots.  But back then we shook our heads in faux pity, never thinking for one minute the Charlatans Law would spread like bush fire across the whole coaching planet. 

Michael: First, they came for the Hungarians … 

Brian: It’s true, they did … but it is hardly their fault, what happened next. We provoked all the western authorities by drawing attention to our attempts at coaching self-regulation. Which we boasted applied globally, enforced through our high-sounding Global Code of Ethics. Such hubris.  

Michael: What fools we were. They took a look at our verbose ordinances and decided they didn’t even apply in own backyards, never mind on a planetary basis … they called our self-regulation the ‘Hypocrites Charter.’

Brian: They did. On top of which, once we were caught in the headlights, they started to add up just how much all of us were creaming off clients – not to mention how we were shilling gullible coaches through our training schools and supervision scams, which had become a major revenue stream.  

Michael: Yep. Then they did the math and decided that they wanted a piece of our $25 billion dollar global pie 

Brian: Not just a slice of the pie chart – they wanted to gobble up the whole damn thing … and that 2021 pandemic allowed governments to act with complete disregard for business opposition.  

Michael: Truth …the more we protested, the harder they came down on us 

Brian: We should never have stirred up the Chinese…

Michael: And those Russian coaching double agents blowing the whistle on us all. 

Brian: I remember as if it were yesterday. Painful. The whole coaching circus came tumbling down. They rounded up us thought leaders first 

Michael: Yep, bags over our heads… 

Brian: Then the perp walk out of our colleges, in front of all of our fee-paying students

Michael: The shame of it. 

Brian: Then the rendition, here, to this gulag in unmarked military planes … we could be anywhere. 

Michael: Hmm. And after they had corralled all of us thought leaders, they came for the business school professors. Wiped the smug smile off their faces. 

Brian: They sure did, having smelled our blood first. They did quite a number of the professors under violation of the rushed-through Global Anti Confirmative Bias Law, the GACBL. 

Michael: Then they took over the business schools’ chrome and glass buildings, installing apparatchiks who would do their pedagogic bidding. Allowing them to practice in a world where all that is to be known about coaching is now fixed – and therefore would never need researching again. 

Brian: Yep. Then they counted up the coaching books and found there were as many authors as coaches, and toxic plagiarism was evident across the piece. 

 Michael: So, they invaded the libraries and bulldozed the lot, shut down whole categories of e-books, banished off social media and even the dark web.   

Brian: And at the same time, they closely scrutinised our claims on LinkedIn for the number of hours of executive coaching we had done. How I lived to rue all that braggadocio.   

Michael: Me too. I claimed 10,000 hours which meant 416 days which felt not so bad … but then they factorised that quantum by the number of letters after our names; which pushed me to 5,000 days, or 13 years. 

Brian: 13 years. `Hmm. Same me. I wish we hadn’t copied each other’s claims so blindly. 

Michael: Mimetic isomorphism? 

Brian: Shush, for god’s sake. You know we’re not allowed jargon anymore. The philistines’ eyes and ears are everywhere. But yes, we were forever trying to match and outdo each other.   

Brian and Michael exhale a collective sigh, as they lean on the chain fence of the thought leaders’ yard, gaze absently towards a more densely populated yard; the yard designated for junior thought-follower coaches, from whence occasional squeals of laughter ring out amid improvised games of basketball. 

Michael: Funny how the thought-followers are allowed to wear flowing gowns, isn’t it? 

Brian: Well, they are mainly women. And they were handed down lesser sentences than us … they claimed mitigation on the grounds that they were just obeying the orders laid down in their elder and betters’ competency grids. 

Michael: And in many ways they were simply doing that. Blindly following.  

Brian: Funny that we only have two women thought leaders in our wing and they are given special privileges? Like the Excessive Empathy Extraction programme? The EEE?

Michael: I know. I know. And they are let off the compulsory weekly salsa classes 

Brian: They are so humiliating, those salsa classes – where did the idea of that excruciating punishment come from anyway? 

Michael: Well, it all started when some enlightened thought leader said there were many parallels between salsa, at which he claimed to be an expert,  and coaching. So now we must practice it weekly, groin to groin. 

Brian: The weekly grind. Just to prove the analogy doesn’t work.They don’t half rub it in.

Michael: Making us rub together? It ain’t easy. 

Brian: Didn’t they use the same aversion therapy logic to deem that we have to suffer listening to free-form contemporary jazz through the corridor loud speakers 24 – 7? To prove that coaches need to know how to improvise?

 Michael: They did. Though you might look closer to home on that one?  Wasn’t it your business partner who drew the as-for-jazz, so-to-for-coaching read-across, in her book, ‘Blow your Coaching Trumpet’? 

Brian: Yes, it’s true. Fair cop. Stupid parallel processing.  

Michael: Did she ever withdraw the harassment charges, before you split? 

Brian: Never had the time – she scarpered quick and took a job in mental health nursing.

Michael: Well, it is brutal, what they are putting us through…but it may just be that their re-programming regime is working on us, drip by drip… 

Brian: You know, I think you may be right, reluctant though I am to admit it. I was awarded a Master of Correctional Competences by the warden last week, MCC. Felt good to be back among the prizes again – but of course I am not allowed to use the letters after my name. Not while inside anyway.  

Michael: Lucky you. And I was given a level one GROW award – Global Repudiation of Orthodox Wellness programmes. 

Brian: Well done – is that one of those twelve step things?

Michael: Yes!! And it feels so good to be back in the accreditation groove. 

Brian: What is your supervisor like? 

Michael: Awful — totally existential. 

Brian: Oh no – I have one of the Lacanian ones. Much more libidinous. 

Michael: Tell me more sometime. But hey, there goes the bell for lunch. That little Tibetan tinkle to goad us with echoes of a more symbolic life. 

Brian: Groan. This diet of conference nibbles and warm white wine is playing hell with my inners 

Michael: I know. But it’s the price we have to pay for years of freeloading at others expense.  

Brian: Feels like it is going to be a long afternoon. All alone, scratching my blog on the cell wall. 

Michael: Don’t get too doomy. It will serve well as your legacy, that blog will, for the next inmate to read and inwardly digest. He might even syndicate it for you. 

The Charlatan’s Law

The Charlatan’s Law
I was, to my great surprise, invited to the EMCC Global Conference last week, nestled  in on Zoom among over 500 eager beaming others. My main reason for being there was  to join a session on ‘Regulation,’ a choice which will come as no particular surprise to those that know me, as I have a number specific regulatory axes to sharpen with ‘professional’ bodies (or trade associations, as my wife Louise calls them.)

 In order to get into that juicy conversation, I was prepared to patiently sit on my hands through an opening presentation on ‘departures in regulation in Hungary,’ unfairly expecting to have to endure a glorious tale of awakening and inclusion by the Hungarian government of the coaches among them, affording them licence and legitimation on a hitherto unprecedented basis – perhaps just to show the rest of us?

How wrong could I have been? Far from learning of the permissive issuing of licences to operate on a universal scale, I heard instead of an opposite trajectory. I heard of a shocking State Directive entitled ‘The Charlatan’s Law.’  This law stated  that no-one other than those with state approved ‘talking therapy’ qualifications, gained though a recognised Hungarian university, could put any professional designation after their names save the state approved ones. Nor could they practice in any form, or run a coach training school under threat that they would inevitably be discovered. And the penalty for violating either of these injunctions against designation or practice? One year in prison. No grace period was permitted on the enacting of this law, and no discussion allowed.

As you might imagine, alarm bells rang throughout the coaching and therapeutic communities in Hungary, who were forced into all sorts of defensive manoeuvres to tackle this draconian move, some of which have proven marginally successful.

I am not writing here to go any further into this case study, compassionately though I feel for our Hungarian comrades . Amid all the sharp intakes of breath evoked by this saga, I was left hypothesising how it might be if, by some mighty global swing of a regulatory axe, all talking therapy were forbidden across the entire planet until they could prove their efficacy.  The problem of charlatans proliferating through the pandemic and through digitisation would be dealt with in a heartbeat, as would the problematic task of deciding who is worthy and who is not. ‘Professional bodies’ and their parasitic adjunct colleges would exist no longer, unless they were rebuilt from the ground up on the soundest of theoretical bases, and taught and assessed by those who could be trusted to do the same, unencumbered by commercial imperatives. Underground coaching resistance cells might form, tunnels dug, pamphlets stuck under doors, secretive one-on-ones in public toilet blocks …

The possibilities continue to intrigue me.  I day-dream of LinkedIn coaching communities being subject to such scorched-earth treatment. Whole categories of practice stripped bare of most of their content, obliterated at a stroke. All post-nominals strung after their name now gone. Only birth names visible, now that the professionalising tide has gone out, with many left shivering-cold and exposed, leaving only those with legitimate doctoral and masters designations, and other stringent practice requirements standing proudly on the beach, while others retreat, cowering with fear. 

Where would prospective clients turn from now on, if indeed they were inclined to turn anywhere at all? Would clients themselves be imprisoned for being so perverse as to be prepared to pay for help?  How would coaches explain this draconian turn to themselves and to their families, with all work gone and all those years of investment in training courses and supervisions proven utterly worthless? What if family and friends said to these beleaguered souls, ‘I told you, I told you .. I saw this coming along but you wouldn’t listen.’

Might world governments set up gulag prisons for transgressive executive coaches, where they would be required to stamp number plates rather than CPD certificates?  Would these sorry souls be stopped from tapping out professional acronyms to each other on the prison pipework? Might families smuggle in the URLs of self-improvement Youtube sites, or even microchipped competency frameworks?  Would we find, in the face of all this, that the culture of the prisoners association slumps from aspirations towards community actualisation to the bottom end of the hierarchy of needs in about three days flat, as they each scramble to gain purchase on the last scrap of  stale crust?
Time to stop, but this sad volte-passe has exercised me mightly, not least in reminding me how fragile the whole stage-set of coaching practice is. Oh, and I met a celebrity coach who is a self-proclaimed millionaire. 

Professor Reinhart Stetler 07 06 2021

The coach as a fellow human companion

I know we are really looking forward to our virtual session with Reinhart. His name has been on our lips on and off for the past few years – it will be marvellous to have him among us to disabuse us – probably – of all we thought we knew.

Reinhart has asked me to share ahead of time this paper of his … intriguingly entitled, ‘the coach as fellow human companion.’

Dr Christine Eastman 17 06 2021 – Literature as a way into leadership insight

We are delighted to be welcoming Christine back among us again to plunder the rich seams of North American literature. This time around we will be working with the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthone . Please find attached three things. One a copy of the whole novel, generously gifted by Christine. An excerpt that we will be working with from that novel. and an explanatory piece taking us through the exercise we will be running through on the day. Please, please do the homework – it will massively enrich our session.

Dr Peggy Marshall – Cross-Cultural coaching

So many thanks to Peggy for getting up early from her Californian slumbers to take us through two schools of thought regarding the importance of national or regional culture in crafting our coaching approach. She then left us to do battle between the two schools – that is to say it hardly matters to it matters hugely. Please find below copies of the Global Mindset Survey and Peggy’s Slideshow.

Summiting – the coaching heights – an audio

Summiting, The Celebrity Coaches’ Way: A Letter from America. 

Daniel Doherty 

April 2021

Peter Doig

While absent-mindedly browsing Linkedin recently – in my ongoing pursuit of examples of the credential claims made by coaches – I stumbled across an invite to a WBCS webinar entitled, ‘“Reimagine the Future of Coaching” … with four thought leaders’. Keen to learn some things – including as to how coaching might have been ‘imagined’ in the first place – I thought it might be worthwhile dropping by this piece of theatre; while at the same time checking out the credentials of these thought leaders on Linkedin. I felt sure, at the back of my mind, that I had heard of WBCS before – ‘World Executive Business Coaches Summit’ – but it was hard to locate it among the blizzard of coaching bodies and networks that clamour for attention in my ageing memory. This acronym triggered an association with the WBC – the World Boxing Council – whose forlorn job it is to unify the various boxing bodies. In mirroring the acronym of this older WBC, it might well be that the WBCS is subconsciously admitting to the impossibility of coaching ever unifying its constituent bodies either. While aspiring towards a summit. 

This audio podcast thing captures the whole Letter from America

Prince Harry conquers coaching – Dominic Green

Prince Harry is now chief impact officer for BetterUp, a Californian corporate consultancy whose ‘mission’ is to sell online life coaching with — in his words, — ‘innovation, impact and integrity’. Harry may not realise it, but he is the latest celebrity frontman for the rapidly growing, broadly unregulated and frequently dubious corporate ‘coaching’ industry. And you might not realise it, but Harry, Duke of Malibu is your future, because California’s today is America’s tomorrow and Britain’s next week.
BetterUp is one of a group of Californian companies on the growing, corporate edge of life coaching. Its competitors have names like Workbot, Hone and Clear Review and they all claim to have discovered the secret to improving motivation and productivity at every level of corporate life — using data modelling and artificial intelligence to target what BetterUp calls ‘hyperpersonalised coaching’ at every employee. Imagine Big Brother running the department of human resources in the voice of an especially insistent yoga instructor. Imagine a future in which your boss feels you’re not productive enough, so he sends you to online therapy to make you a better worker, and receives reports on your innermost emotions.
BetterUp was co-founded in 2013 by a 27-year-old Texan named Alexi Robichaux. At the time he was, he says, ‘bummed’ by his experiences as a Silicon Valley product manager and ‘soul-searching’ for a better way to do digital business: ‘I started to look for help and engaged in everything from executive coaching to life coaching to therapy to self-help books. I even walked across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.’ Robichaux says that his vision ‘crystallised’ on his pilgrimage: to ‘use technology to scale coaching and make the lives of millions of professionals better’.
BetterUp now calls itself the world’s largest coaching network. It has 270 full-time employees, and subcontracts the services of 2,000 coaches to more than 300 companies, including Nasa, Hilton, Chevron and Warner Media. In February, BetterUp’s market value was more than $1.7 billion. And that was before the wave of publicity and interest when Prince Harry joined the firm.
In early March, three weeks before Harry announced that he’d ‘personally found working with a BetterUp coach to be invaluable’, the company launched two new products, Identify AI and Coaching Clouds. Identify AI gathers data on every employee — ‘where each person is in their career, their mindsets and behaviours, learning preferences’ —and assesses their ‘readiness for coaching’. It then filters this information through a company’s ‘strategic priorities’ to identify ‘who the right people are to invest in, and the appropriate dosage and type of coaching needed to best meet their needs’.
‘I’m feeling intense pressure to find five friends.’
Coaching Clouds comprises three layers of hyperpersonalised coaching. The top layer, Executive Coaching, will keep you in the corner office. In Professional Clouds, coaches with ‘at least ten years of prior corporate coaching’ mentor ‘emerging leaders and high potential individual contributors’. The third format, Field Cloud, is aimed at ‘frontline employees’, cannon fodder like ‘customer service agents and retail associates’: call centre workers, for instance, who are coached to show more ‘empathy’.
Robichaux claims BetterUp’s data demonstrates that when employees are ‘offered learning programs tailored to their preferences, they put twice as much effort into learning and development, and experience a 180 per cent increase in job effectiveness’. He doesn’t say what happens to employees who refuse the offer or dislike the dosage, or lack the requisite ‘readiness’ to submit to cod-psychiatric management-speak.
BetterUp claims to give its clients a ‘validated, quantitative measure of the impact of our service’. But there is no external assessment, and the validation and quantitative measurement are as arbitrary as BetterUp’s sales pitch. For BetterUp, ‘meaning’ and ‘satisfaction’ lie in the directing of work towards a collective goal. But there can be no objective measure of how people feel about their jobs. Consider Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s dissatisfaction when she was temping in Britain, and how she felt about The Firm’s collective goals.
There is no federal oversight. Anyone can call themselves a ‘life coach’ or a ‘business coach’And who would dare to tell the boss that they think it’s intrusive of BetterUp to ‘isolate’ the ‘psychological factors’ that determine ‘whether, short of a medical emergency, an employee chooses to come to work’, or that it’s manipulative to use an algorithm to detect individual failures in nutrition and sleep? Who’d dare suggest that it can be irrelevant whether a worker is insufficiently keen on ‘diversity and inclusion’? Or even that BetterUp is a sinister waste of time?
Laszlo Bock, who worked on Google’s attempt at data-driven HR, calls the promise of data-driven efficiency ‘Silicon Valley fairy dust’. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of Business, believes that there is ‘virtually nothing — indeed, nothing I can think of — at the level of the individual employee that clearly drives revenue and so forth. There are far too many steps in the chain’.
Business coaching and life coaching are the modern faces of what the Boomers called the Human Potential Movement. The HPM’s godfather was Abraham Maslow, who devised the now-ubiquitous hierarchy of needs, a triangle with the physiological basics at the bottom and ‘self-actualisation’ at the top. The goal of therapy was no longer Sigmund Freud’s modest aim of reconciling the patient to ‘ordinary unhappiness’; it was unleashing everyone’s innate genius.
Not surprisingly, the HPM took off in 1960s California. Incubated at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, it became the counter-culture’s way of doing self-help: the long, strange trip of encounter groups, Gestalt therapy, Zen, holotropic breathwork and Transcendental Meditation.
As the Boomers aged, the seekers and swingers in the hot springs at Esalen mutated into the spiritual businessmen of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, Werner Erhard, a car salesman influenced by Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, launched Erhard Seminars Training in San Francisco. EST was a therapeutic bootcamp: no wristwatches, no bathroom breaks, no talking until spoken to. The goal was to force rapid enlightenment about personal potential through ‘ruthless compassion’. Erhard is still alive and highly litigious, so you’ll have to look online to read how he beat accusations of incest, bullying and tax evasion. In 1984, he launched a less ruthless version of EST, the Forum. Its successor, Landmark, is still going. You may be familiar with the glassy-eyed zeal of graduates of its three-day psychotic break, the Landmark Forum. They sound not unlike Prince Harry when he gushes about ‘peak performance’, ‘transforming pain into purpose’ and unlocking ‘potential and opportunity that we never knew we had inside of us’.
There is no federal oversight of America’s coaching industry. Anyone can call themselves a ‘life coach’ or a ‘business coach’. BetterUp says that its coaches are ‘ICF–certified experts or licensed therapists’. The ICF is the International Coaching Federation. Its founder, Thomas J. Leonard, worked at EST in the 1980s. He also founded the International Association of Coaching, which sells ICF-accredited courses, and CoachVille, which sells add-on training and coaches the coaches at its Center for Coaching Mastery.
The ICF is not a neutral self-regulator like the American Bar Association. It is part of the coaching economy. Apart from selling accreditation, the ICF runs a Coaching in Organisations programme for businesses, and a Thought Leadership Institute that ‘facilitates interaction between innovators, technologists, venture capitalists, press and influencers’. It also sells tickets to ICF Converge, its annual seminar for coaches.
The modern coaching industry is to Sigmund Freud what Ronald McDonald is to Auguste Escoffier. Workers are sliced and diced into profiles through digital astrology. Corporations love this because it promises to raise productivity and reduce healthcare costs. Insurers love it for the same reasons.
It’s almost painful to think that Prince Harry believes his enlistment as a corporate mascot will have a positive impact on mental health in the boardrooms and call centres of America, when the only impact of him serving as the credulous face of a dodgy and shoddily regulated industry will be to embarrass his family once again.

Dominic Green