“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”

Niels Bohr

Would you allow a breast feeding expert to coach you on growing your engineering business?

Or a pilot wellbeing coach to guide you through establishing a medical private practice?

You might.

It depends on the rest of their background and the experience that they may have gained which may be applicable to you. And in that lies great relevance.

A niche is a small space in which you find comfort. In coaching circles, the ‘niching’ debate is a very thought-provoking. To niche oneself means that you are immediately eliminating the majority of the market as your client base. You are also ‘boxing’ yourself in a specific sector, implying that you are potentially incapable in other areas.

There are those who believe that you have to niche in order to be successful, and those who maintain that generalists are far more in demand.

5 Elements of a Niche

One develops comfort from a sense of knowing what you’re talking about. And confidence is breed from being competent. Identifying your niche means that you believe yourself to be proficient in a specific sphere. An expert has the right to explore all aspects of their area of interest. Nicholas Butler worded it perfectly when he said: “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less”.

It is only when you feel comfortable that you stretch yourself and delve into numerous avenues of your coachee’s situation. When you don’t know, even though you may be feeling perfectly as ease, you don’t know what you may be omitting or approving of. You also don’t know what may have a detrimental consequence for your coachee. From losing money to embarking on a partnership which ends in pain, the knock-on effect of ignorance is inexhaustible. Even though it is not the coach’s place to make decisions for their clients, they still hold a safe space in which their client is able to express themselves and work through issues. By maintaining a safe space, you accept a professional responsibility to do the best you can within that situation, and to ensure the best outcome for your client. How can this be done if you are underqualified or underexperienced or incapable?

The term ‘niche’ is most commonly used in marketing, and the reason for this is that anything that is sold will only of value to a certain sect or sects of the population. The principle that a shop buys from a wholesaler and retails the goods to the public works. The generalist supermarket also works. However, it must be acknowledged that even the large supermarkets started off selling one domain of goods, their niche – such as groceries – and then they expanded their offering to the same market, once they had captured their attention and ascertained their loyalty.

Markets Compared

Non-niching is shooting a dart in the dark and hoping that you hit something. It is the act of lowering a net into the ocean and hoping that something of significance is caught. Having said that, there are many highly successful fishermen who have created their success through lowering numerous nets into various parts of the sea. There will always be those who are more comfortable and feel more competent working across general spheres.

The simplest analogy is that of a doctor: The General Physician knows a bit about your whole body, and is able to make diagnosis and is skilled and curing numerous ailments. They are also trained experts in referring cases to specialists doctors. Not just because a particular part of the body is ill, rather because the illness or concern in that part of the body is serious enough to require a more in-depth knowledge to heal it.

So too does the general coach have an expertise in a broad range of areas, with a limited depth of each area. When the coachee requires something more intense or specific, the generalist coach needs to have the talent of spotting this and referring to an expert.

Coaching is a unique profession in that it spans across every field in which humanity is trying to cope, improve, change or perform. The first documented use of the word ‘coach’ originates in the small Hungarian town of Kocs in the 1550’s. The term referred to a wheel drawn carriage drawn by horses. The German Viennese referred to this as a Kotche, which through various countries and times, eventually became known as a coach. In the academic world, the term was first used in the 1860’s to describe a tutor carrying a student in Oxford university.

The term reached popularity through sporting circles, until Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1837 while establishing the transcendental movement, made his famous speech called The American Scholar. In this, he spoke of two mental states:

The lower state in which a person is unable to identify himself in any way other than by his occupation or routine actions; and

The higher state in which old ideas are rejected and a person is able to think for himself and “become a ‘man thinking’ rather than a victim of societal influence.

This concept revolutionised the concept of human psychology, and in turn coaching, as suddenly there were defined states of mind to which people could reach, and someone could assist them in achieving this.

Three forces of psychology laid the foundation to coaching. The 1900’s saw psychologist interpreting psychotherapy and enabling managers to use scientific theories to enhance work performance. The movement of Behaviourism analysed factors that spurred and stunted human performance; and by the mid 50’s Maslow and Rogers where transforming our thoughts with their humanistic approach. It was also during this time that the Gestalt therapy and Cognitive psychology gained momentum. Between Freud’s interpretations, the Behavioural psychology movement, and finally the humanistic approach taking an interest in both personal and phenomenological experiences, the three strands of psychology forming the substance of coaching were born.

Target Practice

The term ‘Executive Coaching’ was unheard of, and any form of coaching done at a senior level was termed ‘counselling’. Gallwey’s 1970 book called The Inner Game of Tennis created a drastic shift in moving coaching from the sports arena into the boardroom. The greatest significance of this book was that although Gallwey was a tennis coach, his book was a breakthrough in using psychology to improve personal performance. And business people loved it!

A coach’s main purpose is to draw brilliance from their coachee. Something that already exists within someone that needs to be awoken and impassioned. Like the horse and cart that moves from one place to another, the person driving the process must want to progress and must perceive some benefit in moving themselves. And most importantly, when they arrive at their destination, they must have gained both from the journey as well as from the realisation of their goal. The movement of the carriage is reflected in parallel with the coach: he or she establishes a relationship which carries, protects, enables, encourages, and empowers and individual to drive themselves forward in their chosen direction.

Various Birds

With roots in psychology, coaching is an accountable profession through which two parties engage for a specific purpose. The niched coach is one who never stops discovering in his arena. He or she continually challenges, inquires and builds knowledge and experiences so that their coaches gain the maximum worth from their time together. The are consciously competent in that they know how much they know, and what they can do with their repertoire.

The un-niched coach may well be competent, yet they will never be fully consciously competent as they will never know how much they really know. The realm of being a generalist, by definition, means knowing a little about a lot. This may satisfy broad range issues or general states of being, yet it will never truly touch the heart of a matter. For that, the generalist must refer to a specialist. A niched coach who knows that they know that they know something intricately.

An un-niched coach may feel moment of satisfaction and have a sense of accomplishment, but it is the niched coach who can talk directly to their coaches; engage with them on their level; and know that they will receive value from your work. It is acknowledged that when you niche your market is smaller, your offering reduced and your potential client base lesser, yet one must always remember that even McDonald’s first menu offered hot dogs and not hamburgers, until their niche was found.

References:

Peter Bluckert, (2005) “The foundations of a psychological approach to executive coaching”, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 37 Issue: 4, pp.171-178, https://doi.org/10.1108/00197850510602060→

W. Timothy Gallwey (1997) The Inner Game of Tennis. Random House

Mike Morrison (29/11/2010) History of Coaching – A True Insight into Coaching→

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson→