Facing up to the diversity challenge in executive coaching

Team Coaching Resposnsibility

A recent Sunday Times headline ran:

“Q: How do you end up with AI that’s white and male?

A: Let Google design it”

The article went on to explore the dangers of designing AI systems that carry the biases of their creators, when those creators are insufficiently diverse. Classic cases include the AI sentencing system that wrongly classified black (persons of colour) defendants as likely repeat offenders, compared to whites.

AI is already starting to make inroads into the world of coaching, through coachbots. True AIs are only a short way behind. If coaches are going to be working alongside AI more and more, how can we have confidence and ensure that these algorithmic assistants do not come with built-in racist, genderist or other biases that will affect who and how we coach?

It’s not just an academic question. We already have the seeds for prejudiced interactions built into the structure of the coaching profession. While there is a reasonable balance of gender at all levels of professional coaching, on just about every other significant variable of diversity – from race and culture to the autistic spectrum – coaches are overwhelmingly white and middle class. There are, of course, thousands of coaches around the world, who don’t meet that description. But when we observe from the perspective of voice – who is listened to and has influence on the development of the profession and the technology that goes with it – the diversity diminishes rapidly.

The recent WBECS initiative to create a coaching capability in Ethiopia last year was one of the few truly innovative initiatives to address the diversity issue. Riza Kadilar, President of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, has publicly announced his own and the council’s commitment to promoting greater diversity in the profession.

Having greater numbers of coaches will undoubtedly help – but only to a point. Corporations across the world still struggle with breaking the glass ceiling that prevents women and disadvantaged racial groups from getting to the top. Coaching has much the same problem – high status in the profession is a white preserve. The good news is that it is no longer a male preserve. Indeed, if you discount the pioneer generation, the influencers at senior levels in the profession are more female than male.

What’s lacking is a chorus of influential voices from cultures other than Anglo-Saxon. In some cases, the barrier is mainly one of language. France has a rich history in this field, for example. In other cases, the problem is a hubris that assumes that the Anglo-Saxon perspective of coaching is the only one. A few months ago, I was given an insight into some of what this myopic approach causes us to miss. A coach in supervision explained how his Chinese client would not arrive with an issue. Instead they would talk around what was on the client’s mind until the issue emerged. And by that point the solution was also clear. The Anglo-Saxon model, typified in simplistic terms in GROW, starts with identifying the issue and working towards a solution – and this often misses much of the context that might provide a better solution. Both perspectives have validity, but the assumption of automatic superiority of the stereotypical Anglo-Saxon approach is an impediment to mindful, genuinely client-centred coaching.

Artificial intelligence can either support much greater diversity of practice and voice in coaching; or it can exacerbate the existing cultural dominance. If we – the professions, individual coaches, educators, corporate buyers of coaching and other stakeholders – do nothing, then the second of these scenarios will occur. And that would be everyone’s loss.

One of the key steps we can collectively take in preventing that second scenario and promoting the first is to invest in the development and visibility of experienced coaches from outside the Anglo-Saxon world. For example:

  • Educators can ensure that curriculum development includes advisors from multiple cultures
  • Internal coaching and mentoring programmes within corporates can engage with user groups to design initiatives that are genuinely multi-cultural
  • In designing new research projects, academic-practitioner partnerships can extend beyond “the usual suspects” to include contributors from, say, developing economies.
  • When writing books on coaching, co-authors from other cultures can provide valuable different perspectives.

Within the past year or so, there has been a significant and welcome shift in thinking amongst leading coaching influencers that raises hope we may at last be taking this issue seriously. More and more respected voices in the field are saying we must tackle the issue, even though how we do so is still largely unclear.

Hence this open letter to all of the coaching professional bodies and a straightforward challenge. How are we going to work together as a profession and with our stakeholders to create a truly inclusive world of coaching?

Is your organisation ready for internally sourced team coaching?

Teams are the cellular structures that make the corporate body work. Without teams, it would be next to impossible to organise large, complex tasks. Yet teams rarely perform as well as they might. This may be because they are too big (the optimum size of no more than eight goes back to our ancient ancestors, who learned that they could only keep seven others in sight and coordination when hunting). It may be because they do not have the resources or skills that they need to do the job. But most of all, it is because a team is a complex, adaptive system, in which a failure of any part of the system has a disproportionate impact on the system as a whole.

Our research over 25 years into how teams function and what it means to be a high performing team identifies six critical areas that affect team performance:

  • Purpose and motivation – what the team is there for and whether this energises them
  • External systems – how they relate to stakeholders
  • Relationships – covering issues such as psychological safety
  • Internal systems – how they coordinate and make decisions
  • Learning – how they keep pace with change
  • Leadership – how the functions of leadership are addressed and/or distributed

The interdependence between these areas means that everything affects everything else. For example, a lack of clear purpose may make it more difficult to obtain resources from key stakeholders, leading to conflict about what the team does. This in turn leads to sub-optimal processes, confusion about what new knowledge or expertise the team needs and a culture that blames the team leader for everything. Of course, a lack of clear purpose may also be the result of poor leadership – and so the wheel turns!

Working with uncertainty and complexity should be the territory of coaching. Yet, the world of coaching has been relatively slow to adapt from a one-to-one perspective to a team coaching perspective. It takes a much greater level of skill to coach teams. Moreover, much of what is sold as team coaching is not coaching at all (more facilitation or team building) and coaching the individuals within a team is not the same as coaching the team as an entity in its own right. Indeed, it is possible to improve the individual performance of team members while reducing the overall performance of the team!

Team coaching has two main aims:

  • To enable the team to understand its own systems and learn how to manage these more effectively
  • To help the team develop a coaching culture that supports it in raising performance (what we do now), capability (our ability to perform in future) and capacity (how we do more with less)

To date, almost all team coaching is delivered by externally resourced coaches, with varying levels of competence. I know of only a handful of organisations that have developed internal team coaching resources. The result is that this extremely valuable resource is limited to teams at or near the apex of organisations, when it is needed at all levels. New teams and project teams, for example, can hit the ground running, if they have effective team coaching. Average or good teams can become exceptional, if they learn how to leverage what they do well and apply it to areas of relative weakness.

The challenge for organisations in all sectors is that, as the environment in which they operate becomes more uncertain and more complex, teams at all levels need the ability to respond both faster and more effectively. So, a top-focused strategy is like keeping the head warm while the body freezes.

Given that team coaching, when done well, is highly demanding in time (a reasonable average is about six hours of preparation and/or individual coaching for every hour of collective coaching) and therefore an expensive intervention, the advantages of having an internal capability are obvious. But how do you persuade your experienced internal one-to-one coaches to take on this more demanding role?

One of the great selling points is the learning that internal team coaches gain from this level of coaching, that they can apply in their own teams. Leaders, who are also team coaches, learn to take a different perspective on their leadership role. With very few exceptions, almost all the functions of leadership can be distributed within the team, leaving the leader free to concentrate on the most value-creating aspects of his or her role.

In selecting your internal coaches, it helps to:

  • Start with your most experienced coaches
  • Look for a genuine coaching mindset – people who have outgrown simplistic approaches like GROW. (Applying simplistic approaches to complex situations is asking for disaster!)
  • Look for people, who exhibit a combination of personal resilience and systems awareness. Or, to put it another way, people who are at a relatively advanced level of socio-emotional and cognitive maturity
  • If needed, widen your net to include people with the qualities of maturity, who have not been trained as coaches – they will often be able to acquire a coaching mindset relatively easily
  • Look for people, who are genuinely keen to invest in their own development. Training in team coaching requires at least nine classroom days, plus reflection and reading, plus supervision – a good 100 hours of personal investment – although you can get started after an initial three-day module

In choosing how to develop your internal team coaches, consider the following:

  • How truly systemic is the approach? (Does it relate to simple, linear systems or to complex adaptive systems?)
  • How applicable is the approach to teams at all levels? (Team coaching for executives may not be the same as for teams at other levels.)
  • What is the evidence base for this approach? (Some of the most popularised approaches have little or no valid research underpinning.)
  • Is the approach mainly deficit based i.e. focused on working out what is wrong with the team and trying to fix it? (Approaches that place as much or greater emphasis on strengths are more likely to gain traction with teams in the workplace.)

During the training:

  • Ensure that they have sufficient teams to practise on. It makes sense to choose teams, which are important to the business (so the coach understands the importance of the team’s success) and which are open to help. Typically, these teams will have a relatively high level of psychological safety already – throwing beginner team coaches into a team in high conflict is likely to dent their confidence badly!
  • Expect them to work in pairs, to provide support and feedback. This generally has a positive effect on both the quality of the team coaching and on their willingness to experiment.
  • Have supervision available and make sure the supervisors are qualified for this role. In a recent study[1], Alison Hodge and I found that very few supervisors of team coaches had both training in supervision and extensive experience of working with teams

Once you have an internal team coaching resource, it needs maintenance and continuous development. When you bring in an external team coach to work with a very senior team, insist they pair with an internal team coach, rather than bring in another outsider. The benefit of this is that both coaches learn from each other – the internal coach acquiring new tools and techniques; the external learning more about the organisation. Establish a peer network, where they can share experiences and use each other as sounding boards. Hold an annual review with the team coaches together, to explore how the organisation can make best use of them.

If you are concerned that your internal team coaches will not be as good as externals, rest assured. There is no credible evidence that external coaches – for individuals or for teams – are automatically better than internals. Indeed, internals are likely to be better supervised and have the advantage of understanding the organisation and its mores.[2]

Your internal team coaches have one other, important role. They are the front line of an organisation’s efforts to create coaching cultures in teams. They fulfil this role not just through formal team coaching, but by the role model they provide and the many informal conversations they have with other managers across the organisation.

In summary, building a cohort of internal team coaches is a wise investment that will pay increasing dividends as organisations become even more dependent on the performance of their teams.

Four perspectives of reflective self-awareness


One of the simplest methods of developing greater self-awareness is to allocate time regularly to revisit recent experiences and seek insights from them. A simple structure for this is the quartet of questions:

  • How do I feel about the way that I think?
  • How do I feel about the way that I feel?
  • How do I think about the way that I feel?
  • How do I think about the way that I think?

    You can ask these in any order and typically you will find that insights from one perspective will lead you into another. When thinking about how you think, for example, you may recognise that the assumptions you make in assessing a situation are influenced by values that aren’t immediately obvious. When you think about how you feel, you may realise that you can choose the emotions you connect with an event. When you feel about how you feel, you may recognise that being sad about a loss can make you appreciate the memories more fully. When you feel about how you think, you may learn that your subconscious thoughts are at odds with the person you aspire to be.

Regularly reflecting in this way is an important component in becoming wiser, more self-compassionate and more accepting of others. For leaders trying to cope with increasing complexity and uncertainty, it is an essential skill. For coaches, who aspire to helping leaders become wiser, it is even more essential!