A lack of visible cultural diversity within the coaching profession is not something new to me, nor perhaps will it be new to many of you reading this. Back in my early days of coaching and training delivery, when attending major coaching events, conferences and lectures, I often found myself wondering where the people were that we had trained over the years; those of different nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. I knew that they existed, at least within our community, because I’d met them, trained them, and watched them excitedly re-enter the world as qualified transformational coaches. And yet while they were, and indeed still are, visible and engaged in our community spaces, they weren’t present at any of the key coaching conferences or events.
I’d often look around the room at one of these events and note I was the only face of colour there, and while it struck me as odd at the time, and I’d have conversations or musings about it with my peers, it often remained just that – a musing – with little action pushing it into the realm of actively ‘doing’ something to create a change.
I emphasise ‘visible’, as what my current journey along the path to influence a greater degree of diversity and inclusion within the coaching profession has laid bare, is that coaches from different cultural backgrounds most definitely exist. I’ve spoken to a number of them in my quest for greater understanding around how I, as the leader of one of the largest UK coaching schools, and in turn we, as an organisation, can influence, challenge and ultimately change this current status quo. Because the truth is, they’re not visible in many of the established spaces and I wanted to know what was behind this and what we might do to change it.
As I’ve grown and developed new roles within Animas, that initial musing and pondering has become a much bigger question. A fervent curiosity has taken me from wondering where these coaches are, to asking: ‘How do I get them here?’
Here, I share the journey that I’m currently on around this vitally important and topical issue, starting with the catalyst that set the wheels in motion, sharing what I’ve learned so far, and my reflections and takeaways from the different touchpoints around the part we can all play in making positive strides towards a more diverse and inclusive profession that, by its very nature, holds people, change and growth at its core.
Black lives matter: the catalyst for action
On 25 May 2020, the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked a global cry for justice – and a message that enough was enough. This wasn’t the first time a black man or woman had been killed by police in the US. But it really seemed to hit home this time. It felt like the final straw. With the world already in a heightened state of anxiety, unrest and fear in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of this tragic event could be seen rippling throughout the world.
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As part of this, I saw a significant shift of the #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM) movement. My very first thought was a question: ‘What is happening in the world that we need to have a statement like #BLM, that it needs to be said and isn’t just recognised as an accepted truth?’ My question sparked indepth thinking around how I could make a difference and how specifically I could support the movement from my space – coaching – and as the leader of a coaching school.
For a while, we went back and forth about the statement we might make as an organisation. I recall lots of talk and deliberation beforehand, for fear of sounding like we were jumping on the bandwagon; a fear that came from observation of other organisations making statements that felt like statements for statements’ sake, with no real sharing around how they were going to actively get involved in influencing the issue of diversity in our profession. We didn’t want to be seen in a similar light: a coaching organisation that appeared willing to talk the talk, but not take the necessary action to walk it.
There was also an uncertainty around what we might do, or how we might go about it, as the topic felt so big, with many connecting parts. While #BLM and racial diversity were the prevalent issues, this was about diversity and inclusion, which isn’t limited to colour or culture – it’s about basic humanity. With this bigger picture in mind, there was also a fear of getting it wrong, saying the wrong thing and upsetting people. But then, once I began to really talk about it, I realised that as long as we spoke from our own experience, with a desire to understand, support and create positive change, we couldn’t go far wrong.
So we made our statement, both publicly and internally. A statement that not only outlined our position on the matter, but what we planned to do, and what we wanted to achieve. Diversity would become a core part of our thought leadership mission and we would dedicate time, energy and resources to having the conversations that had until now merely been passing thoughts, or self-reflections. Our social media posts, emails and videos were met with joy and excitement for what we might create as we called on the community to join us to make a positive difference in the world and in the coaching community itself; not just our community, but that of the wider profession.
Taking action: conversations, thoughts and reflections
A large part of my role as centre director at Animas is to actively challenge, influence and shape the coaching profession through collaboration with other impactful thought leaders. Our re-emergent focus on diversity brought with it a renewed clarity around the core threads of my thought leadership work, with diversity and inclusion at the centre of it all.
The conversations began internally. We got clear on our mission, and how that feeds into the tackling of diversity issues. We set up all-team meetings around both diversity and inclusion, and created a space to dive into what diversity means for us as individuals, as a team and as an organisation that wants to make positive change. We have a very diverse team at Animas, with our staff hailing from different countries, continents, cultural and class backgrounds, and this created a beautifully rich conversation that led to some real food for thought around what diversity and inclusion meant for us as an organisation and what we might do to make an impact.
Externally, our podcast, ‘Coaching Uncaged’,1 became our main platform for exploratory discussion. We already had a podcast that we had used as a space for conversations with our alumni about their coaching journeys, but it hadn’t had much love in a while, so we decided to rebrand, relaunch and refocus our efforts to make it an educative platform for thought-provoking discussions that challenged perspectives, and ultimately, to explore the topics and issues that felt fundamentally important to bring to light.
To date, we have explored a varied range of topics, from creativity in coaching, to psychodynamic approaches, from the power of narrative, to the issue of accessibility for coaches of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds – in fact, a third of all our episodes at the time of writing have focused on diversity and inclusion in one form or another.
‘A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.’ – Sundar Pichai2
Our debut episode of the Coaching Uncaged podcast featured three coaches – a systemic executive coach, a master youth coach, and a creative executive coach – discussing cultural diversity – or the lack thereof – within the coaching industry. All three were from different cultural backgrounds, with different lived experiences, and each had differing opinions on what we might do and how we might be part of the wider community. But what connected these coaches was a shared agreement on the absence of visibility for coaches of colour at coaching conferences and events. It became a vibrant conversation and learning space all at once.
There was real excitement for me around this initial exploratory discussion. It was an opportunity to bring together people with whom I had explored this question privately, but now we were doing it out loud, for others to hear and contemplate for themselves. It was also the first step in taking action and becoming that catalyst for thought and dialogue around diversity and inclusion. I also wondered who would listen and how it would land. I reflected on this first conversation with a real sense of pride. Pride that we stepped up and did something, that we allowed our voice to be heard, and in doing so, facilitated the space for others to reflect upon their own experiences, to find their place within the debate. There was also the feeling of connection as other coaches reached out to us to share and join the conversation. It really felt like the ball had started rolling.
I came away with renewed confidence that it is possible to step into the unknown with like-minded people and create something wonderful, even if it’s rough around the edges. It’s about having the conversation and holding the space for others to offer their lived experiences and ideas – that is where the real value lies.
This was just the beginning of unravelling a thread that I’d continue to pull on, and indeed am still tugging at now. It quickly led me to sharing spaces, opinions and discussions with yet more impactful and impassioned coaches, each one opening up a new world, a fresh perspective, and it connected me to a wider network of the coaches whose whereabouts in the coaching spaces I’d spent time pondering. Each guest brought a new topic, a fresh outlook, and a completely unique lived experience and offering to the space.
My conversation with creative coach, trainer and author Jackee Holder was eye-opening. I knew she was someone who had real lived experience of the challenge, being both black and female, but more than that, she had a clear and obvious passion and desire to connect others, to call out what she saw as injustice and to make a difference. My learning here was that connection is key; not only connecting with who you are speaking to directly, but fostering the connections that grow from that. Jackee had a wealth of knowledge and information that she was more than willing to share, and was generous with sharing her connections, letting us know who else to speak with on this subject.
One such coach who came from said connection was coach, author, speaker and leadership trainer Jenny Garrett, who is also the founder of the first diverse executive coaching directory3 and has recently been awarded an OBE for services to entrepreneurship and women in business. Jenny had not only thought about and experienced the challenges, but had decided to do something about them. Here was someone who had found a way to answer the challenge faced by the organisations she worked for of being unable to find other BAME coaches, so she made it easier for them. In doing so, she demonstrated that in fact there are many diverse executive coaches here in the UK, and she created a space specifically for them.
My discussion with coach, chairperson for multiple organisations, and founder of Full Colour leadership specialists,4 Srabani Sen, touched on organisational leadership approaches to diversity and inclusion. This episode really felt like we got into the organisational politics of the issue. Srabani demonstrated a depth of understanding of the challenges that organisations are under as they battle with the work of inclusion, which offered invaluable insights for me, as leader of a coaching organisation. Once again, Srabani came with a real wealth of lived experience.
Each of these conversations moved me further from tunnel vision to the peripherals becoming wider and clearer. I went from ‘Where is everybody?’ to ‘They’re all here – so how do we create the conditions necessary for us all to feel able to contribute and be seen and heard in this one space? What are the conditions we need to create as a coaching community to enable everyone to feel able to show up, be heard, welcome, and above all, valued?’
The multiple facets of diversity
While the #BlackLivesMatter movement led us to explore diversity around culture, race and ethnicity, at no point have I, or indeed we as a coaching school, been under any illusion that this is what diversity means in its entirety. It is but part of the multifaceted nature of what we mean when we talk about diversity. Our exploration started around the cultural perspective, but as we move forward, we aim to increase our understanding of who else needs a voice or platform, but perhaps isn’t finding the space to be heard, or indeed feeling truly welcomed and valued in that space.
The question then becomes: What does true diversity look like? And how do we create a space wide enough to embrace all there is around inclusion and diversity?
Having pulled back the curtain on diversity and peeped behind it from a cultural perspective, there are layers upon layers of inclusion we can lean into, and plenty of crossovers among them too: gender, class, age, (dis)ability and sexuality, to name but a few. How many of us have not spoken up or come forward because we haven’t felt invited to the table? And even when we have, perhaps haven’t felt entirely welcomed in that space? So how do we create a space where everyone feels both welcomed and valued?
I am under no illusion as to the sheer size of this task, but with a recognition that we can tackle these areas one at a time, or endeavour to find the crossovers that pull them into the space together, there is no doubt in my mind that we can, and indeed will, work on giving each of them a platform to discuss the challenges of and obstacles to working as a coach, and a space to ask the questions that allow tangible change to take place.
The ultimate goal? To enable others to realise that they can also become a coach, that there is a space for them too, and to share that space with the rich variety of coaches who exist here in the UK and beyond.
What I’ve learned (and what I’d like you to take away from this)
At Animas, we are immensely proud of our diverse community, and yet we recognise that there is still much work to be done.
On reflection, I/we waited far too long before calling out the industry around representation, and I suspect we aren’t alone in this. Too many events or core organisations have a real lack of visible diversity within the UK, and while we spoke about this internally fairly often, we were slow to speak up or create something different, which on the one hand is sad, and perhaps even a little disappointing. However, recognising that we can’t always get it right, and that everything is a journey, on the other hand there’s now tangible excitement around the impact we are having and will continue to have. This excitement is compounded by the fact that, following the recent success of our social impact summit in September 2020, we are currently planning our inclusion summit for 2021; an event that will give an opportunity for many people of different classes, cultures, races, genders and creeds to come together in a safe space to share, experience, connect, learn and grow.
I find that with every conversation I have, I’m brimming with more ideas, insights and perspectives that I am then able to share with my community, and in turn, the wider world. And therein lies one of the biggest takeaways for me: it’s about speaking out; getting involved and not just sitting around talking about it, but doing something about it. Getting started can often be the toughest part, but it is incredibly rewarding and beneficial work that only serves to push the profession that we all love so much towards greater, more inclusive heights.
Another key takeaway: when you have a question, take it outside of yourself and your community to find the answers. My question has often been: where are the other coaches of colour, culture, class, creed, gender? And why are they not here? And if they aren’t here, where are they? In asking these questions of the wider world, I now have a more expansive view of the answers, which gives me a more informed place to work from in my efforts to contribute towards a more inclusive and diverse profession.
The bottom line? Embracing diversity and seeking it out creates a wealth of experience and allows the beauty of coaching to exist in the space. In seeking out that diversity, which isn’t just colour-bound, we open up the perspectives around our thinking in a far richer way than we could ever imagine.
Remember, we each have a part to play in this, and there are strides, great or small, that we can all take in making the profession that we know and love a more vibrant, inclusive space that benefits not just us as coaches and our clients, but the wider coaching industry as a whole. And so I ask: What might you do to make a difference?
2 Pichai S. Google diversity report 2016 [Online]. https://diversity.google (accessed November 2020).