McLean center gives coaching a boost

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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BELMONT - In the several decades since professional coaches began hiring themselves out to clients eager to improve some sphere of their existence - work, health, life itself - there has been little research into their fledgling occupation.

They are not regulated by any governmental body, nor are they required to get training. No one is even sure how many people are working in the profession.

Now the nation’s oldest research program in a psychiatric hospital is hoping to bring some credibility to the approach as a new way to change behavior.

This year, McLean Hospital in Belmont created the Institute of Coaching, which it considers the country’s first academic center on the subject. The institute will be awarding $100,000 in research grants each year, hoping to create a body of work that can help guide practitioners.

“Coaching is a growing field and a lot of people are just announcing themselves coaches,’’ said Dick Heller, a business coach from Newton who attended the institute’s annual conference in Boston this year. “I think it makes a great deal of sense that the institute is working to solidify the practice with a good base of research.’’

The founders of the new institute also hope that the research, and the connection to an Ivy League institution, can bring credibility to a profession that is sometimes not taken seriously.

Carol Kauffman, the institute’s founder and director, has been at McLean since 1978 as a psychologist and an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, and a few years ago was certified as a coach.

“I think being connected to an institution like McLean that is affiliated with Harvard really helped people get it, that this is actually a serious endeavor,’’ she said. “So this is very exciting.’’

Where traditional psychotherapy focuses on healing and tends to examine the past, coaching’s focus is on maximizing potential and looking to the future.

Business executives hire coaches to help them become superior leaders. People looking to get in shape or improve their athletic performance hire health and wellness coaches.

Those dissatisfied with their professional work hire career coaches. And people looking to improve their general satisfaction hire life coaches.

Coaching focuses on “the change process that revolves around the strengths and potential of a person,’’ Kauffman said. “And it’s not that therapy doesn’t. But that’s really in the background. Therapy is about healing, and coaching is about being your best now and in the future.’’

Although the International Coach Federation, which offers certification, counts roughly 15,700 members, there is no requirement that coaches belong to it. In 2006, the group conducted a survey that suggested about 30,000 coaches were practicing worldwide, said spokeswoman Amy Richardson.

Academic research about coaching is even newer. Journals devoted to research on coaching have only been around a few years; Kauffman is the editor-in-chief for one of them.

As a psychologist, Kauffman already had a practice helping athletes and other performers improve. But at a one-day coaching workshop she took in 2003 for continuing education credits for her psychology license, she won the chance for additional training in the emerging field, and that led to her certification.

McLean’s Institute of Coaching was launched with a $2 million gift from Ruth Ann Harnisch, a coach and philanthropist who heard Kauffman speak at a conference. Harnisch had previously created her own institute to award grants for the study of coaching, but was having difficulty finding researchers.

Harnisch’s donation covers mainly the grants the institute is awarding, and Kauffman and her colleagues are looking for other funding sources for the institute. For now, the McLean institute does not plan to certify coaches, since accreditation is already available elsewhere.

Kauffman and her colleagues originally planned to call the institute the Coaching and Positive Psychology Initiative. But they realized that although there were other academic centers devoted to positive psychology, there were none devoted to coaching.

Margaret Moore, founder and chief executive officer of Wellcoaches, a Wellesley-based business that provides health and fitness coaches to businesses and individuals, and also trains coaches, was looking for an academic center for coaching.

When she worked with Kauffman on a project, she suggested that McLean would be an ideal academic home for coaching.

Moore, who now shares the institute’s co-director title with business psychologist Susan David, said that particularly in health care coaching, doctors want scientific evidence about its benefits.

“The field wasn’t started by scientists or psychologists in this country,’’ Moore said. “It was started by practitioners.’’