Chapter 17. Narrating Executive Development: Using "Writing as Inquiry" to Enrich the Coaching Dialogue

Daniel Doherty

Daniel Doherty holds a PhD in applications of “autoethnography in management” awarded by the University of Bristol, where he is Programme Director for an MSc in Strategic Management for practising professionals and managers. He also heads up the Critical Coaching Research Group at that same institution. Prior to returning to the academy in 2004, Daniel worked around the world for 30 years as an organization consultant and executive coach. 

This chapter differs from others in this book in that it addresses the popularization of a method, or practice, as much as it illustrates the migration of a specific piece of research into the popular domain. The context of the chapter is located in the world of executive coaching, and the practice concerned is that of “writing as inquiry.” This practice is of course widely applicable outside of the world of coaching, but this is where the popularization initially occurs in this instance; though a number of those  practitioner/researchers who have discovered the practice in this domain have proceeded to apply this practice in other spheres of inquiry in addition, such as leadership development. The “show” piece serves as a research artifact. It is an example of a real-life coaching client’s reflective journal in which he commits to record in the style of “writing as inquiry” his reflections on a recent coaching session, by way of retrospective sense-making of the same. This sense-making is then incorporated in the client’s portfolio to inform the next face-to-face coaching session. Hopefully the content speaks for itself with regard to the function it performs, illustrating the way in which half-formed reflections crystallize on paper.

The world of executive development has long been characterized by waves of fads and fashions. At some point in the late 1990s the practice of executive coaching—which has been in existence in many forms since management as a practice was legitimized and has been practiced by management consultants, though not often signified as “coaching”—came to prominence as the practice for managers to be seen to be consuming. The way that coaching practice showed up was in a pattern or regular one-on-one, face-to-face sessions where coach and clients worked in a self-contained environment, often left to determine between them the purpose and direction of their conversation. Contact the between coach and coachee during this period would be largely confined to these face to face sessions. There was little scope or encouragement for interaction between sessions except in exceptional cases. The major currency of coaching was verbal in nature, occurring in the moment between the coach and coachee, with occasional writing up of achievement of identified goals and objectives but with little other record or reflection on the nature of the issues under scrutiny being retained or reflected upon.

It was only when later in my career when I entered the world of management education to pursue a doctoral inquiry into consulting and coaching practice following an autoethnographic approach that it occurred to me that written reflection was almost entirely absent from coaching practice. As I proceeded further into my doctoral studies I was increasingly taken by the practice of “writing as inquiry” and its power to reveal that which lies beneath the personal surface, often lurking in dark and even forbidden corners. As someone who has kept a journal all my life, I was excited and attracted by what I was discovering through my reading into writing as inquiry. It occurred to me that herein might lie a way of tapping into the hitherto unexplored domain of the spaces between coaching session and the accompanying internal ruminations of a client.

What follows is a description of the process of writing as inquiry, together with some indication as to how it has been applied in this instance to the practical business of capturing reflections between coaching sessions and utilizing those reflections to enrich ensuing coaching encounters.

Personal Notes