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Business, Culture Edition Henley Coaching Culture


By: Patricia Bossons •  4 years ago •  

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it – this is roughly where I’ve got to after a coaching career built from being a business psychologist a number of years ago, to building a coaching Centre at a Business School qualification programmes around the world. You learn a lot from working as a coach, across different cultural divides. But for me, I’ve learnt so much more by working with groups of people who want a qualification as a coach from a huge variety of cultures. This is often within the same group, with each individual being familiar with their own version of coaching, being willing to explore it and develop it further with others on the same programme.

I want to share with you some of my experiences from running coaching programmes in Singapore, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Germany, New Zealand and, of course, in my native UK – where many different nationalities also come to us.

The bottom line is that the basic models and principles of what we know as coaching in the West do work in different cultures. For example, I’ve never worked with a group who couldn’t appreciate the ‘magic’ of the GROW model when experiencing it for the first time. But there is absolutely no point trying to impose a Western belief set onto different cultural beliefs. The fascinating part has always been to try to understand where the flow is, and how to go with it, whilst concurrently developing the essence of what we would call ‘coaching skills’.

Here are some of the biggest issues we have seen from delivering the Henley Certificate in Coaching to different cultures over the last 12 years.

 Firstly, there is the issue of wanting to ‘solve the problem’, seen as the primary responsibility of the coach. This is prevalent in many trainee coaches anyway – we’ve all been guilty of falling into that trap! As a definition of coaching, though, it seems to be particularly prevalent in Far Eastern cultures, such as Chinese or Singaporean.

 Next would likely be the issue around ‘face’ – saving face, respecting hierarchy, age, status – again found in the Far East, in the Middle East and Africa, which means that a younger, or more junior, person can find it difficult to be accepted as a coach by an older, more senior person – no matter how well qualified they are to work as a coach.

 This last point is then exacerbated by the gender issue, which plays a very big part in whether a potential coaching relationship is possible (or not) in many cultures. This again can be frustrating for Western coaches working in multi-national companies when a potential coachee is from a different culture to themselves.

These broad-brush issues come up for discussion time and again, with a very clear conclusion that it is necessary to accommodate local values and cultural norms, even if coaching is being looked at as the potential instrument of speeding up a corporate globalisation programme.

A coach needs to be fully equipped with the mind-set, coaching skill-set and an understanding of how it is different from mentoring, consultancy, counselling, etc. Only then can the deeper layers of how to coach across a particular culture become part of the delight of the work, rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

How it works at Henley

In some ways, Henley Business School, now part of Reading University in the UK, (previously Henley Management College), has been involved in coaching across cultures since its inception in 1944. It was set up as ‘The Administrative Staff College’, to repatriate servicemen and officers after the end of the second world war. A ‘Henley’ version was set up in many Commonwealth countries around the world (including Australia and New Zealand), as well as various arrangements being set up with a number of non-Commonwealth countries. The number of Henley International Partners, as we now call them, has reduced from 27 to 9 over recent years, but the cross-cultural flow of executive education, post-experience, post-graduate students is as strong as ever.

A coaching approach to personal development has always been at the heart of Henley’s work. The big challenge for Business Schools is always the transfer of learning back into the delegate’s real world. What seem like great insights on a residential programme can be brought into sharp relief when faced with the tasks of everyday working life and organisational objectives. Coaching is probably the most effective way of enabling someone to reflect, think through and internalise new learning and insights. These can then become part of a new approach or perspective, rather than additional activities that need conscious effort to fit into established work patterns. This kind of reflective support and challenge work is effective across cultures, without exception, working one-to- one, or with teams.

In the 2016 Henley Corporate Learning Survey, 439 corporate responses were received from 47 countries. 62% of respondents were non-HR executives, and 38% were HR executives. The survey asked questions about an organisations’ strategy and spending on learning and development. A key finding shows not only that coaching is the preferred learning format for both High Potentials, Senior and Executive Management, but that this has slightly increased over the previous year’s results. This also represents over 50% of respondents with regards to High Potentials and over 60% of respondents in the case of Senior and Executive Management. It is interesting that in these ‘VUCA’ times for leadership (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) the use of coaching is increasing, particularly in the most sensitive areas of the workforce, and that this trend is not just in Western cultures, but is global.

So, what do we need to be aware of in coaching across cultures?

The above makes cross-cultural coaching sound pretty straight forward, in a one-size- fits-all kind of way. The one thing we have found, however, is that you take this approach at your peril – coaching may be reported as the most popular development intervention, but the piece that is missing is the definition and understanding of ‘coaching’.

Our cross-cultural coaching experience at Henley is drawn from two main perspectives. One is from the delivery of coaching to individuals and teams, in different countries as part of programmes being delivered in these countries. The other is from the delivery of our Coaching qualification programmes, which in some ways has been even more informative.

Developing coaches in cross-cultural environments

The reason I say that we have learnt most from running development programmes for coaches, rather than from individual coaching, is because of the opportunity to explore the experiences of a number of coaches at once.

This means that at the same time as a model of coaching is being presented and practiced, culturally diverse students on the course reflect on their different perspectives in real time with each other. The tutors facilitate the reflective process and coaching supervision in small groups, enabling deeper individual reflection.

The Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change runs two main programmes; an MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change and the Professional Certificate in Coaching. We have run our Professional Certificate programme in all the countries listed earlier in this piece. In South Africa, for example, where Henley has had a campus for 23 years, we have run the Certificate programme 7 times, over the last 5 years.

From the cross-cultural perspective, this is often one of the richest programmes, as in any group of between 15 and 20 participants we will have Blacks, from various tribal backgrounds, Coloureds, Indians, Chinese, and a variety of Whites – Afrikaans, English, French, Portuguese. And although these are all educated people, ‘Westernised’ from a corporate perspective, the cross-cultural differences are absolutely just under the surface. They also have one uniting factor – they all see themselves as South Africans, with a strong desire to help build their country, help it overcome the troubles of the past, and to use coaching as a way to help organisations and individuals build bridges between the different cultural divides.

Interestingly, and maybe because of the urgency of the cross-cultural challenges in that country, the cultural and racial issues embodied by individual programme participants are freely shared and offered up for discussion. It is through this process that some of the most real and most effective cross-cultural coaching development has happened – by actually working with what is in the room, and acknowledging individuals’ personal experiences. There is always an atmosphere of respect and admiration at the challenges faced, but never a suggestion that the process of coaching needs to over-ride the culture of the coachee. Choices and perspectives are then much easier to explore, and boundaries more willingly challenged, because the coachee feels acknowledged, respected and safe.

This, for me, is at the heart of cross-cultural coaching – to meet the coachee as an equal, and be prepared for a fascinating exploration of a different set of perspectives on the world. And then, see what can be achieved by building a relationship with another person to help them become more effective.


Patricia Bossons is the Director of the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change. She started the coaching activities at Henley in 2004, and is now Programme Director for the MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change, and the Certificate in Coaching. Patricia is a Chartered Psychologist by background, and works extensively in the Executive Education area of the Business School, both in the UK and Internationally.

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