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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.

A further overlap of interests with KYM was an interest in testing the assumption that the only credible coaches for experienced professionals are …….. experienced professionals. This is an assumption that has hardened in the minds of prospective exec level coachees, the teams that are responsible for procuring coaching services in organisations, and perhaps in the mind of the coaches too. Peter Hawkins often quotes an audience member at an international seminar of some years ago. I cannot recall the exact phrase, but it was to the effect that ‘how could coaching be justified as a development tool as it was an overpriced intervention made available to the already over privileged?’. PH used to describe this as an epiphany after which he sought to increase the reach of coaching by exploring the value of team coaching. Along with others he has built team coaching into a practice that does potentially increase the reach of coaching although I am not sure how far outside of senior teams it is normally experienced.

I really like the idea of exposing more early career leaders to coaching in the primary belief that they will benefit from it and with a secondary wish that some might consider taking up coaching practice earlier on in their careers. Why not have current senior leaders being coached by people with a completely different perspective? Know You More has a programme called Level Up which is about providing coaching to 18-25-year olds and this has been picked up as part of the Developing the Young Workforce initiative in Scotland. KYM are also working with Common Purpose on a pilot to support the UK101 leadership programme. I look forward coaching to on these great initiatives and also to the day when some of those who benefit will decide to become coaches themselves. Perhaps as the population of early career coaches increases, the point will be reached where their merits will compete with those of the seasoned professional coaches on an equal footing. That will certainly offer a point of difference!

The strength and depth in the KYM coach community was influential in prompting my thinking about my own coaching practice and my capabilities in cross cultural coaching. The trust between the members in the KYM community means that there are very open discussions about coaching practice but also about business development. Although most of the KYM coaches are independent practitioners there is a willingness to share. Truly refreshing given the fact they might instead consider themselves as competitors for business.

Anyway, one of the coaches was looking to expand their activities into a new niche area and was asking for suggestions on the best course of action. There was a lot of great advice from the many perspectives of the group. I added my pennyworth which is a view that has developed over time. Namely, that I don’t favour pitching within a certain niche area. Instead I hold the view that I can coach anyone who wants to be coached by me, and I back myself in delivering on this belief. When I say this, I sense an arrogance that I don’t particularly like and a stance that is not easy to bring to life in any business development sense. Even so, it is what I believe so it is a view that I share!

As I reflect on my own evolution as a coach I look back on coaching people with job titles that range from cleaner to CEO, with labels ranging from student to senior leader, and with contexts varying from early careerist to early retirementist! A function of my evolution as a coach is how I have responded to these titles, labels, and contexts in my coaching. Years ago the label(s) ‘attached to’ a person would have influenced my coaching as I made assumptions about how I should approach them based on those labels (and my perception of the labels that applied to me too).

Now my fundamental coaching approach is the same for everyone. I coach the person as they present themselves in the moment of our coaching conversation. I am curious about how they are thinking and feeling as well as being curious about their impact on my own thoughts and feelings. I invite exploration of the similarity and difference in the way we are processing what is being shared. I encourage us both to make conscious the bias and preconceptions that we will both have, and to think and feel about how they may be influencing our ability to meet whatever challenge my coachee is facing. Sometime ago I would have thought that this was focussing on me and not my coachee. Now I know that my own feelings and thoughts that surface in response to my coachee are relevant to them. Sharing them is very much in the service of my coachee and their agenda.

While all the above is true I do find myself revisiting and testing its validity in different situations. Perhaps it’s the scientist in me? I think it is also a healthy disrespect for my own propaganda! I have a small part of me that quietly says ‘let’s review that in light of new evidence, shall we?’ in relation to any view that I hold as my own. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would review my assertion that ‘I can coach anyone who wants to be coached by me’ in situations where we, myself and my coachee, have experienced different cultural upbringing.

I have been lucky to coach a lot of people from widely different cultural backgrounds and once again I can track a change in my coaching practice over time. In the early days I had the assumption that a difference in cultural background was a difference that might present a challenge to the coaching relationship. I sometimes felt unsure of myself at the outset of the coaching sessions, a feeling that my lack of common experience would be a stumbling block. Looking back, I realise that I was concentrating unduly on myself in reviewing these concerns concurrently with coaching. I realised quickly that the very difference I was concerned about was a source of discovery for both of us.

I have learned so much from partnering with coachees from different cultures and for a short time had a concern that I was prioritising, in the background, my learning over the coaching itself. In one session I voiced this concern out loud. The reply made it clear that the process of reviewing and explaining the deeply held ideas and experiences that define an individual’s cultural experience was helpful indeed. I am now confident that the key aspects of my coaching practice described earlier are just as relevant to coaching cross culturally as when coaching someone with the same cultural background. That confidence is balanced by an appreciation that I am in the slightly uncomfortable space during our conversation. Some people call it the learning edge, the place where you draw on what you know to explore the uncertainty around you. What a great privilege it is to do this with another person in a coaching conversation.

What of the broader question of how the coaching profession stacks up in relation to measures of diversity, equality and inclusion? The Black Lives Matter campaign has encouraged so many to reflect on their personal, team and organisational thinking and action on DEI. An aspect of this dialogue in the coaching profession is captured in a recent special edition of Choice, the magazine of professional coaches (Vol 18, No 1) which focusses on diversity and inclusion.

While preparing for an informal conversation on DEI I found myself formulating my thinking in the form of questions. Perhaps it is the habit of a coach to do so? In this context though it was unsettling as the scale of the challenge loomed so large as to be intimidating. Each question spawned a dozen others until I found myself bewildered to the point of inertia. A wiser person than me reflected ‘given the scale and the complexity of the challenge, seeking a way in by trying to formulate the right question to research is unlikely to be fruitful. Much more effective would be to build up an evidence base from the experience of existing personal practice or from existing networks.’

Hearing this was like arriving at an oasis in the midst of a desert. It is aligned with an approach captured by the phrase ‘we are moving our understanding forward’ rather than the bury-the-head-in-the-sand approach of someone in the grip of that ‘I just don’t know what to do’ feeling. I realise that my reflections above do represent a ‘moving forward’ in my independent practice and in my work with other coaching organisations. The work with KYM to bring coaching to the early leaders is a significant commitment to diversity and inclusion and one that I had perhaps not thought of in this context.

I look forward to working with others to explore how coaching across cultures really does work. I look forward to sharing in the stories from both the coach and client perspective about how it does work. I am grateful to Eva for giving me the words that capture what I look forward to most of all: the exploration of how coaching can be an even more welcoming space for all. A part of that is about being prepared to explore and celebrate difference.