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Barry Curnow & Professor David Gray

Keynote: Liminality, fragmentation and the trauma of career transition into coaching

Session on Wednesday, Jun 14th, 13:30
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Professional identity is an instance of social identity, an individual’s self-concept in relation to his or her membership of social groups and is just one of the multiple social identities that individuals hold. Identity construction is often characterized by confusion and conflict, particularly when, as in coaching, people move from previous careers. Identity research, then, may be more fruitful if it emphasizes the dynamic aspects of on-going struggles around creating a sense of self and providing temporary answers to questions such as ‘who am I’ or ‘what do I stand for?’ It follows, therefore, that identities change as people change roles, jobs, organizations or professions. Dramatic events such as career changes may entail people being between two identity constructions, that is, in a liminal space, a condition of sitting on a boundary, literally the threshold (the limen). The research reported here comprised one phase of a large-scale, global study of coaching identity, which elicited the return of 911 questionnaires. From those respondents who indicated a willingness to be interviewed, 28 were selected for the qualitative stage (reported here) and were chosen to represent global coverage. The study sought to answer the following research questions:

• How is a professional identity (or multiple identities) created and maintained amongst coaches?
• In making their career transition, what continuities and tensions do coaches experience between their old identities and their new emerging sense of self?

The study found that coaching typifies many late-modern forms of employment with people undertaking multiple (portfolio) occupations. This itself is one potential cause of liminality as individuals struggle to create a unified sense of identity. The self-reflective nature of coaching practice is one factor that assists coaches in making successful transitions. However, some spend long periods ‘betwixt and between’ former careers and their new identities as a coach, a position that generates for some a sense of psychological discomfort and challenge.


Professor David Gray (BSc (Econ), MA(Ed), MSc, Cert Ed., PhD, FRSA) is Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at the University of Greenwich (UK). His research interests, and publication record, include research methods, management learning
(particularly coaching and mentoring), professional identity, action learning, reflective learning, management learning in SMEs and the factors that contribute to SME success. He has published books (Doing Research in the Real World, 2014, 3rd edition) and articles on research methods, organisational learning, and coaching and mentoring. David has led a number of EU-funded research programmes including one examining the impact of coaching on the resilience of unemployed managers in their job-searching behaviours and another on how action learning can sustain unemployed managers in starting their own business. He has recently completed a global survey into the professional identity of coaches (reported here at the conference).

Barry Curnow is Director of Professional Business Engagement at the University of Greenwich Business School in the UK and was Head of the Department of Human Resources and Organisational Behaviour 2009-14. He is Principal Investigator of the Pathways to Professional Identity Research funded by the University conducted with David Gray, Mark Saunders and Catherine Farrant. He is a Group Analyst and Psychotherapist, Certified Management Consultant and seasoned Executive Coach with international experience of leading, coaching, counselling and mentoring professional service firms and their clients in the arts and crafts of client relationship management and deep change. He was Visiting Professor of Management Consulting at Cass Business School, City University, London (2001-2010) and at Durham University Business School (2003-7). Barry is a Past President of the UK Institute of Personnel Management (now CIPD), Past President of the UK Institute of Management Consultants and past Chairman of the International Council of Management Consulting Institutes. Barry was previously Chairman and Chief Executive of MSL Group International Executive Selection and Assessment Consultancy, Managing Director of Hay Management Consultants in London and Hong Kong, and Worldwide Partner and Director The Hay Group. He is the joint consulting editor of the International Handbook of Management Consultancy (Kogan Page 2001/3).