How important is it to connect lived experience to coaching?
By Jo Faragher on 23 February 2023
We know that discrimination against under-represented groups can operate below the radar: artificial intelligence algorithms are often biased against women, for example, or rigid working arrangements can exclude people with disabilities. Coaching is another activity that can fall into assumptions, with senior (often white and male) leaders guided towards executive coaching, and employees at other levels of the business exposed to more generic and less effective interventions. Equally, the diversity of coaches on offer to those who need them can be limited. The result is that we’re not always giving individuals from marginalised groups the access to high quality coaching, or where we are, they’re not getting the best out of it.
Salma Shah, founder of Mastering Your Power and author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching, is working towards making this happen. “I had coaching training more than 20 years ago but it didn’t speak to me directly as someone from a British Asian background,” she explains. “In the workplace there is lots of stuff going on around D&I but coaching pools still tend to be quite similar.” In 2020, Shah launched a programme where coaches learn how to recognise lived experience within their practice and the systems impacting someone in a minority group. “There is definitely work to be done around how coaching is marketed. Sometimes it’s offered as a performance issue, so of course people are unlikely to open up to it,” she adds. “Or people need to put their hands up for it, and under-represented groups often feel psychologically unsafe at work, so are less likely to do so.”
Most coaching initiatives within organisations do not set out with the intention to exclude, she adds, but often rely on pools of coaches that are similar to each other or reflect the majority in the business. “Coaching pools can be quite similar. So if you’ve got someone who’s the first in their generation to work in a professional role and stick them opposite someone with a different background, that won’t always work,” Shah explains. From a social mobility perspective, diversifying coaching pools and taking an approach that recognises others’ contexts and lived experiences can be transformative, she argues.
Tailored to me
Zahoor Ahmad, head of social mobility, inclusion and belonging at the Co-op, has been through Shah’s programme and praises how it “focuses on structural inequalities”. Like her, he had been through leadership programmes in a number of private and public sector roles but felt that “none of them ever spoke to me”. Ahmad is the son of immigrants who gained a scholarship to a public school and was always mindful of cultural expectations that he should pursue a certain career. “This type of coaching shows you some of the traditional models but contextualises them in a way that’s meaningful,” he says. “It really opened my eyes.” Too often, Ahmad argues, coaching can take a one-size-fits-all approach when thriving in a leadership role often means different things to different people. “There will be scenarios where 60% of most courses will help most people, but 40% of it is unique to their experience. The results are fantastic if you can extract that 40%.”
Jenny Garrett OBE, a coach who has also set up the Diverse Executive Coach Directory, says the key is to acknowledge difference on both sides. “If I’m coaching someone who’s different from me it’s worth acknowledging: I’m a Black woman and my lived experience might be different from your own,” she says. “You [the coachee] can bring your own lived experience into this too, there is space for that.” Creating an environment of safety and trust is crucial, she adds, and the coach should be happy to share their vulnerabilities and blind spots and reassure their client it’s OK to discuss race or any other aspect of difference. “People hold off sharing parts of themselves and as a result the coaching is not as effective. They may end up with solutions they know might not work with them,” she explains. Individuals seek diverse coaches for a couple of common reasons, Garrett explains. Sometimes senior leaders want to be challenged around their own perspective on D&I and are afraid of ‘saying the wrong thing’, so coaching can provide a safe space. Other times people want to share an issue they’ve encountered where their lived experience was dismissed, for example, and hear that the coach ‘gets it’ before moving forward.
Mark Laine-Toner, finance director, operations at courier firm Evri has also worked with Salma Shah because he wanted to “take leadership to another level, improve my understanding of diversity and inclusion and become a more inclusive leader”. He believes it gave him a better understanding of himself but also others’ backgrounds and how they got to where they are now. He is now developing coaches internally at Evri to look at how they deliver coaching with others’ lived experience in mind. “Everyone has a past and this shapes their future,” he adds. “If you don’t go through the systems in someone’s life, whether now or in their past, you can’t help them get to the level that’s possible for them. They may think they’ve tried everything, but there will be blockers they don’t know about that are part of their systems.”Like Garrett, Laine-Toner believes coaches and their clients should acknowledge difference and lean into any difficult conversations. “The coach is not there to provide answers and the more similar you are, there’s a risk they justify issues rather than help you to explore solutions.” As a finance director, he has challenged assumptions he sees everything as black and white, and has found his analytical skills have supported him to be a more effective coach. “I can ask the right questions and put things together really quickly, helping coachees to connect the dots,” he adds.
Carol Campayne, founder and executive director of The Diversity Practice, works with organisations to develop coaches who can work through an intersectional lens, with an approach she describes as “Borderless Coaching”. She uses an example of a client who was thinking about leaving his position in his organisation and needed to work through some difficult questions. “In coaching, the client brings their whole self, as does the coach. We play with the dynamics of difference. He is a gay man so we went back to his coming out. How would his experience with this help him navigate the decision?” she explains. A crucial element of this is that the coach can use themselves as an instrument of change, so she agrees that there needs to be a high level of self-awareness on that side. “Before we even start coaching we work on the full identity of the client. Coaches are also part of a system, who bring wilful blindness, stereotypes and assumptions from time to time, so we work to make them aware of that.” She adds that the matching process between coaches and clients should not shy away from difference: “There’s a missed opportunity in being coached by someone who is different to you and who has a perspective you just don’t have. This may surface some biases the client holds, but if the coach doesn’t go there, they miss the opportunity to make change happen in service of the client”
Jenny Garrett OBE concludes her advice with five key tips:
- Name your differences – talk about race and ethnicity
- Build trust and that will build safety
- Coaches need to lean into difficult conversations, not avoid them
- Educate yourself as a coach, don’t rely on your clients to educate you about their difference
- We must challenge ourselves as coaches: what are we reading? Can we bring in different sources of knowledge?
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