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Leadership insights

Is it time to be meaningfully more human in the age of AI?

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Top Tip - What good looks like in Digital Leadership?

Before Confluence, the Conference of the UK Chapter of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) which happened in early November 2023, I wrote a blog titled Disruption Everywhere. This blog captured initial thoughts on the disruption hitting the coaching industry. The blog was a build-up to a session during Confluence with Tatiana Bachkirova and Jonathan Passmore, which many people enjoyed for its insights. Many of the other sessions provided great takeaways as well.

Coaching is in a space of change, and we can feel how coaches are passionate about their role and their positive impact on their clients. However, this passion is met with a level of nervousness about sourcing clients to make a living and about the long-term sustainability of the profession.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is making the headlines right now. AI is attracting investments from Venture Capitalists, OpenAI and its ChatGPT are presented like a new wonder, and a plethora of coaching tools is emerging as "powered by AI". There is even AIMY(TM) from Coachhub as an early incarnation of an entirely virtual coach. Is this a good or a bad thing? It is difficult to say at this point, and Jonathan Passmore reminded us that the profession's evolution using digital technology is inevitable. Resisting it is rather pointless and a sure way of getting obsolescent. How, what of it, or how much of it we should embrace is what should be in question. Coaches have a role and much agency in this choice.

In digital, convenience has been a significant factor in changing how we live and work. Do you remember how you used to research information before the Internet and the search engines? How did you access this information on the move before the Smartphone? Or how did you shop on the high street before the convenience came to your doorstep with delivery services? Digital technology has changed our habits and is now stepping into the coaching profession.

An early manifestation of convenience is the fast rise of the coaching platforms. They offer a high level of convenience to businesses, handling much of the logistics of organising sessions, offering easy coach-coachee matching and presenting data on how it is all progressing. How can individual coaches compete with such set-ups?

Some of you may ask, should coaching be about convenience? After all, if we make it too convenient or simple, what is the genuine commitment people make towards their development? We return to it repeatedly: coaching is about meaningful reflection and engagement that starts from exploring people's challenges, the coaching agenda, and contracting the relationship. Is it still meaningful if made too easy? Is coaching at risk of becoming shallower? Coachees and organisations investing money and time in coaching should care about ensuring meaningfulness. And as coaches, we should care about upholding meaningfulness.

Tatiana Bachkirova invited us to reconnect to the essence of our role as coaches: "What are we here for?". This question is profound and equally valid for coaches, coachees engaging in a coaching relationship and organisations procuring coaching for their people. It is about creating a meaningful space for reflection. How can meaning co-exist with technology? Are there aspects that technology could facilitate so the coaching time maximises, adding value and realising what we are really here for as coaches? When does technology help? When does technology hinder and set only a shallow relationship?

In support of my coaching work, facilitating change in organisations, I have studied much of the Toyota Production System (TPS). Toyota developed TPS when Japan was rebuilding after the Second World War. TPS was a revolution in the automotive industry, propelling and maintaining Toyota as #1 automotive manufacturer for many decades. One pillar of TPS is "Jidoka", which has been translated to Autonomation, or automation with a human touch. The idea was that despite progress in automation with robotic machines, robots were not left to their own. Human technicians would maintain a critical perspective on the quality produced or how to improve the work and the products. It may surprise many that assembly of cars is still a relatively labour-intensive activity. Body welding and painting are highly robotised, but building cars after that is relatively manual. Workers offer more adaptability and a critical perspective on improvements and quality. Success is striking a balance between automating simple work and leveraging human flexibility and intelligence to improve. Even Elon Musk, who aimed for very high levels of robotic automation, had to backtrack and lean on more human touch in the production of cars.

Fast-forward to nowadays, and AI are the robotic machines from the automotive industry brought into knowledge work. Many will be scared about substituting knowledge workers with AI, and as mentioned above, there are already trials for AI coaches. There are platforms, apps, and tools that will claim to drip-feed information and create habits. But are any of them opening meaningful relationships? In the Systemic Series that the UK ICF Chapter ran in Q4, Alain Cardon helped us explore the paradoxes of coaching and led us to this fantastic thought: The best coaching moments are when there is silence, from the coach and the coachee, because silence is when meaningful reflection is happening. I struggle to think how anything other than human coaching can create such moments. As coachees and organisations buying coaching, those are the meaningful moments you should be caring about. As coaches, it is our agency to create such moments at the heart of our raison-d'etre.

With this in mind, I would invite all actors in the field of coaching, the buying side and coaching side, to look at "Jidoka" ways of embracing technology. Technology should not be about substituting the human relationship of coaching. Quite the opposite, we should look to automate the menial parts that do not add much value to maximise the quality of more profound and meaningful reflections that coaching enables.

If this challenger tip speaks to you, and you want to know more, don't hesitate to get in touch.

Philippe Guenet


Change and Performance Coach in Business

Director of Thought Leadership in UK ICF


Ready to take Change action?

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