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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Interview with John Whitmore
Article Type: Interview From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 17, Issue 7
Interview by Ruth Young
Sir John Whitmore is Executive Chairman of Performance Consultants. He is a pre-eminent thinker in leadership and organizational change and works globally with leading multinational corporations to establish coaching management cultures and leadership programs. He has written five books on sports, leadership and coaching, of which Coaching for Performance, his best-known title has sold 500,000 copies in 17 languages.
The fourth edition of Coaching for Performance has recently published. What would you say have been the major changes since the first edition?
I have added two areas to this new edition. One covers more advanced coaching, which is the deeper levels of coaching dealing with issues around meaning and purpose because I think that business people sometimes come up against a wall when they have been working very hard for a long time and they begin to wonder why am I doing all of this? Particularly when there is an economic downturn, I think people ask questions about what they are doing in their lives. And so in terms of advanced coaching that we call transpersonal coaching, there are additional techniques and I have covered that fairly fully in the new edition. The other component is, I have included two or three additional sections in the book on leadership, because coaching is becoming much more embedded as a management style in organizations and the principles of good leaders are the principles of good coaches and so there is much a less of a division between leadership and coaching than there used to be. I have also modernized some of the stories and brought things up to date and the book is about 50 pages longer than the original.
You have touched on the relevance of coaching, particularly at the present time. But why do you think coaching has experienced such a massive growth in popularity over the last 25 years?
There is an inevitability about it, and what we are actually seeing is an evolutionary shift from hierarchy to self-responsibility. For centuries we have lived under a hierarchical system and the business world copied that model and it was initially perfectly acceptable but people want something different now. I think people are waking up to saying, “I want to be myself, not just to be somebody who does what somebody else tells me to do”. So what we are seeing, and this is right across the world because my book is translated into 17 languages, is this movement from hierarchy to self-responsibility. We have seen some very blatant examples in front of us today, the corporate world or the banking world made all their mistakes and are shown to be people who have limitations and our politicians are doing the same. Authority has really lost its respect and it is not surprising, this has been a trend and recent events are just expected events when there is that sort of wave sweeping through society. It will never go back to hierarchy, it is an evolutionary process and people will be more self-driven in the future, there will always be some hierarchies of course but there is going to be a very big change in society and coaching really has grown up to serve that shift. One of the principle products of coaching is self-responsibility, and it has emerged to meet this need.
In the book you touch on the difficulties of the “manager as coach” role. What do you think is the best way of encouraging a reluctant manager to engage with coaching?
I think it is very difficult for a manager to be “a coach” as such. If one of their team members has a difficulty and then they take them aside and give them a coaching session, I do not think that works, because the difficulty in that situation is that people are fairly reluctant to present their weaknesses to their managers, because the manager is also responsible for hiring and firing them. What I have been very focused on and what I advocate very strongly is that the management style of an organization changes to all managers and all supervisors using a management style based on the principles of coaching, so they are not actually coaching as such but they are managing in a coaching style. That involves far less training and we are not training people in organizations to be coaches, we are training them to manage along the principles on which coaching is based, which is high-awareness and high-responsibility. A very important part of it is the relationships in an organization and that is really very much what the book is about, which is embedding this coaching style within the organization rather than having it as an additional skill which some managers have.
Can you think of any organizations that are really managing to embrace this coaching style of management?
The one that is best known is a Brazilian company called Semco and Richard Semler the CEO started this change process about 30 years ago and they have achieved what we would call a coaching culture. The reason I mention this particular organization is because Richard Semler has written books and given lectures on the organization and a lot of business leaders are familiar with his work. I know Richard and he took one of my books very early on and sent me a note saying, “ I now understand what I’ve been doing, I have been coaching but I did not realize that was the word that described it!”. There are smaller organizations who also adopt this style, because smaller organizations are more flexible and can change quicker. One example is Nando’s chicken restaurants, they have very much adopted a coaching culture and I think people who go into their restaurants notice it in the good relationships they have, because it is very difficult to have good relationships with your customers if you are a rigidly hierarchical organization because people are always being careful and obedient. However if people are treated well then they treat their customers well and I think that’s a reputation Nando’s has. That is one example and there are many others, IKEA for example we have worked with all of their store managers in the UK and some in Scandinavia have been through this process and they are incorporating it in the way they manage their people.
Organizations seem to be gradually waking up to the importance of corporate social responsibility. Do you think there is a danger it can sometimes be a hollow PR gesture?
It is very often in the beginning but people talk about things before they do them and I think what happens is when it starts as a PR exercise it means that the organization has to have a department that deals with CSR and they have to do some research, and then they produce some statistics and that is alarming and the company actually continues to move in that direction. So, I do not denigrate organizations that do start off using CSR as a PR because it is a start and we should not denigrate them for that because it is better than nothing.
Organizations are increasingly concerned with return on investment from development programs yet it is quite difficult to prove the success of coaching in those types of terms. How can coaches or the HR function overcome this hurdle?
It is difficult because the number-crunchers are looking for immediate short-term benefits and there are certain circumstances like sales, for example where if you managed them in a coaching way or even put them through a coaching program you would see an effect. But when you do work with the head office you do not see immediate financial results because there are so many other factors affecting the financial results that you will not get an immediate jump, so we are trying to measure something where we do not really have the criteria, it is harder to measure these types of things and where it will show up is in the long-term.