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Difference

A number of quite different conversations and reflections converged over the last couple of weeks. They have caused alternating periods of clarity and consternation for me! There have been conversations about how a coach goes about finding their niche; thinking about how coaching, and the desire to become a coach, plays out in minority groups within the majority culture; my own reflections on whether I have an activist within; and distilling the essence of what makes cross-cultural coaching achievable and of value to both coach and coachee. Finally, and related to the last of these points, how does the coaching community stand up to scrutiny when it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion?

Not sure where to start really, so will apply fingers to keyboard and see where that takes first me and then you! Perhaps by the end we can share more clarity than consternation?!

I have had two major passions in my professional life, chemistry and coaching. While my professional engagement with chemistry is now a few years behind me, the fascination and delight in the subject remains undimmed. What is significant to this writing is not so much the subject but the frustration I had (this would have started around the late 1980s) that most students gave chemistry up at the earliest opportunity. It was a real problem back then in terms of the flow of talent into the chemical industries, and an important contributor to the world economy.

Back then I am not sure that I tried to rationalise what was going on behind this antipathy to a particular subject. Only looking back do I realise that to a significant extent it was a response to a cultural conditioning leading to a strong, often unconscious, bias. As with all things, the study of chemistry gathered a collection of labels to describe it. These were applied by students, their parents, and some of their teachers too. Labels are fine provided that they are challenged and over time the ones applying to chemistry were taken for granted, assumed to be fact. Chemistry was for boys; it was for geeks and boffins; it was difficult; it was boring; it didn’t offer attractive career opportunities; and it was poorly paid. The story of the study of chemistry, and by extrapolation the practice of chemistry, was told in narratives constructed around these labels.

I remember jumping at the opportunity to do something active to provide evidence that challenged the prevailing opinions and role modelling that contested these preconceptions (at least the ones that I wasn’t genetically wired into!). It was a fun time and one that I look back on with great affection. Part of that fun was coming together with like-minded people within and between organisations who shared the same commitment and who collectively were able to alter the culture around chemistry.

Did I feel like an activist at the time? No, but to a degree I was. I did what I could personally, and through collective action, to address a set of assumptions formed on the back of unchallenged received opinion leading eventually to unconscious bias dictating behaviour and decision making. This was ‘only’ relating to a particular subject but does any of that sound familiar in relation to some wider behaviours across society today? What I am confident about is that I did make a difference, however small it was.

A consequence of this experience was that I joined a University Chemistry Department in a teaching position. This allowed me to share my passion with under- and postgraduate students who even while being committed to study chemistry still needed their enthusiasm to be fired! Unbeknown to me, this was a transition to a facilitative approach to education and leadership leading me inexorably towards that second passion, the use of my coaching approach to support personal and professional development of others.

My experience of using a coaching style in educating students and in leadership of the educational agenda led to a strongly held belief in the value of coaching to people at the early stage of their leadership careers. My view was that coaching should be working with junior leaders as well as (not instead of) senior and executive leaders. I worked exceptionally hard to deliver in a manner that was consistent with these beliefs in my academic and professional services leadership positions in Higher Education, and later in the National Institute for Health Research.

Come the time for setting up my independent coaching practice I was already a fervent believer in broadening the reach of coaching. I might even have been a little over-zealous in my conversations with some organisational clients who were on board with the ideal but had no understanding, at the time, of how to make it real. I think I also confused people, including myself, with my perception of my coaching niche in my early months of independent practice too (more on that later). Perhaps I was something of a mis-directed activist?!

During those times I did come up with a way of working that would increase the reach of coaching which I still apply today. I call it ‘Thinking about your Thinking (TAYT)’. TAYT involves three strands which collectively broaden the reach of coaching. First is the development of self-coaching skills in larger audience settings. Second is sharing peer to peer coaching skills with small, often work based groups. Third is through my own 1-2-1 or team coaching practice in which I try and offer my services across the leadership experience spectrum in a manner that is still viable for my own business.

Building TAYT was a great period of development for me but working in isolation was never going to have a big impact on growing the reach of coaching! At that point my path crossed with Know You More (KYM), an organisation who captured their intent in the early days in the phrase ‘to supercharge coaching, to supercharge coaches’. KYM were building a community of experienced coaches (as they are still doing today) who are also united in their values around the importance of the societal impact of coaching.

KYM’s enabler to supercharging coaching is technology based with an ever-present awareness that technology is there to enhance the nature of the human relationship central to successful coaching. As KYM coach community we found ourselves at the vanguard of using digital coaching and we also found the methodology effective and liberating. Now coaches could realistically connect with anyone. Furthermore, it was possible to do so with reduced overheads passed on in lower costs making it realistic to offer coaching to a broader community of leaders and potential leaders. This was a genuine and meaningful expansion of the reach of coaching.

That expansion has accelerated given that COVID19 has mandated the use of virtual connection for the majority of coaching work. KYM is no longer distinctive on the basis of its digital coaching alone. That has never been its USP though. KYM is a much more about its combination of having a practical end-to-end coaching solution to offer organisational clients, alongside its commitment to ensuring the quality of the relationship between KYM coaches and their coachees. KYM has also been committed to the importance of the sense of community among its coaches, something that I am delighted to contribute to in the role of Coaching Operations Director.