Perspectives on Cross Cultural Coaching

Drawn from WBECS Cross Cultural Pre-Summit Panel with Katherine Holt, Nobantu Mpotolu, Marilyn O’Hearne, moderated by Annemarie Provisero.

Marilyn O’Hearne: Cultural Intelligence is recognised by leaders around the world as being crucial in their work, and also for us as coaches. It starts with setting the agreement, one of the first steps in coaching. With some cultures, clients are ready to jump in while others need more time to get acquainted. Setting the agreement is one of the important “bookends” of a coaching session and engagement and can vary greatly culturally.

In our intercultural world, I like to use the approach of ACHE’: Awareness, Curiosity, Humility, and Empathy. This includes staying curious as coaches, being aware of our own culture and how that is impacting the lens with which we see the people that we are coaching and working with, and staying humble. 

Even while we’re aware of our culture, we don’t want to look at everything through our own cultural lens and believe that we’re right, and everyone else is wrong, which I’ve actually heard a client say.

Empathy is having some understanding of what it’s like for the other person. Putting this into action around direct communication, which is hugely different across cultures, I recommend coaches start with a conversation about, “This is my culture. Tell me about your culture. How do we want our culture to be as coach and client partners? How direct will we be with each other?”, et cetera. 

Katherine Holt: Especially for those who are coaching supervisors in the audience, or being supervised, sometimes I think of culture as an eighth eye, or a twelfth coaching competency. It’s a different way of thinking about the relationship and the system. It’s another thing to be aware of, in addition to the relationship between the coach and the coachee or the organisation, et cetera. 

I’m finding that working with a co-coach, as we’re doing in the virtual team coaching in Ethiopia, adds an extra set of lenses that we use to work with clients, the relationships, and the cultures. 

Nobantu Mpotulo: Adding to what Marilyn said, for me what’s important is that conversation about asking who you’re coaching, what their culture is. Not to assume what the culture is because you’ve looked at a certain race, or a certain tribe, because you can easily fall into stereotypes. 

And also what Marilyn alluded to, looking at awareness, curiosity, humility and empathy, that talks to me because that talks to Ubuntu, in the African context. 

Annemarie: Can you talk a little bit about how the cultural competencies relate and integrate with coaching competencies? 

Marilyn: I mentioned setting the agreement, to actually decide not just when will we meet, how will we meet to identify and move forward with your goals, but also what do we want our culture to look like? I say all of us are from different cultures, as Nobantu was talking about, it’s not just what tribe or what race, but our gender, our generation, where we were educated, how we were educated, et cetera.

Direct communication is another key competency for coaching, and again, it has a huge cultural variation, how indirect or direct. We’re somewhere along the continuum. It can include having an agreement about, “if I were to cross a line with you, if I were to say something that offended you, or didn’t land right with you, unintentionally, how would we address that?” 

Someone from a more indirect culture may not be able to tell me I had offended them, because that would seem rude. But they might say, “Well, I wouldn’t say anything. I would just be quiet.” It is important to have a way to handle this if it comes up. 

In coaching presence and establishing trust and intimacy, demonstrating unconditional positive regard is so important. Nobantu used “love” in her introduction. This includes seeing our clients, whoever they are and whatever culture they come from, as being creative, resourceful and whole, and someone that we really care about. 

It goes across all of the competencies. Even in listening, what we are we listening for and how. 

How soon do we get to the agreement? If someone’s coaching me, a direct communicator with a Western time orientation, I want to get to the agreement immediately. I want to make use of every minute of our time together. In some cultures it can take several sessions to get to what the agreement is. 

Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture :

Nobantu shared the idea of Ubuntu, “we are because of each other.” That is a collective cultural perspective. In some cultures it is more about the individual. It relates to Hofstede’s dimensions of culture. 

We can become more aware of where we are on the cultural spectrums: Direct, indirect; collective, individual, etc. Time orientation is another cultural consideration. For example, in Ethiopia when you say you start a meeting at a certain time, people may be starting to come into the room at that starting time, or even 15 minutes or so later. The time orientation difference may need to be factored into our scheduling. 

Importance of Continuing to check in

The three of us coach a lot globally. Nobantu had mentioned earlier about not assuming. For example, we think about people from Eastern cultures as being less direct. However, I was contracting with a Japanese organisation. I said, “I understand your culture is less direct than I normally am. Do you want me to adapt to your culture or show up with my usual directness?” 

And they said, “We’re hiring you because our leaders need to be used to direct communication, because we’re working internationally with direct Western leaders.” 

If I had just assumed that I should adjust based on their culture, they wouldn’t have received what they wanted. And if, on the other hand, I had not checked in and I had just shown up my direct Western self, and we hadn’t had any conversation about it, then they could’ve thought I was really rude and offensive. 

It is important to check in, not just at the beginning, but throughout, as Katherine mentioned. “How is it going? How are you doing? How is this working? “How does that land for you?” when sharing an intuition or a direct statement.

Checking our assumptions and bias and women stepping up more into leadership

I love the question of how do we manage our own bias, assumptions, stereotypes, because a lot of people talk about identifying what our bias, assumptions, prejudices or stereotypes are. But the next step, managing them, is sometimes forgotten. I actually invite coaches and leaders to first take a few deep breaths. That moves us from operating at the unconscious, where we are 98% of the time, to a more conscious state, by changing the blood flow in our brain to the neocortex. 

The next step is to consider the person that we’ll be working with, and do a self check. Based on their different cultural identities, their age, their ethnicity, what region they’re from, their gender, etc. what are the assumptions or biases I might be carrying about them? Is there anything that I want to shift around that? 

For example, Katherine just said she made up some things, and then did a self-check. One of my values is sharing power. Not all cultures or people share that value. In hierarchical cultures the people at the top have more power. I need to remember that’s my value, and it may not be the same as my client’s.

There’s a huge shift in gender and power in Ethiopia right now. They have the first female president in Africa. The prime minister appointed women to more than half of its cabinet. The Ethiopian women leaders we work with, as well as many women leaders around the world, are used to speaking and not necessarily being heard, their voices sometimes lost in a sea of male voices. And being one of the few, if not only, female leader in the room at meetings. How are we addressing this shift and its impact through our coaching?

Challenges and Joys wrap up

As things start to change, the system opens up more which makes change easier and you can really see the impact, which is one of the thrilling things that we live for as coaches. 

I want to say thank you for this opportunity, and to my fellow coaches Katherine and Nobantu for being on the panel together, for my local coaching partner, and for the NGO (nonprofit leaders that we’re partnering with globally.

You’ve heard the challenges and joys, there are both. Being able to have this amazing, deep, trusting partnership where people and organizations are making the changes they want to make is thrilling, and so worth any of the challenges that come up.

Marilyn O’Hearne, MA, and International Coach Federation Master Certified Coach is a globally experienced, culturally intelligent executive and leadership, team and mentor coach who has worked with leaders and coaches in more than 40 countries. As an innovative, visionary thought partner, Marilyn sees herself as a co-pilot by your side, partnering with you to precisely map out the journey ahead, identify and overcome potential obstacles, make sure everyone else is on board and arriving on time, and stay focused, on course as you further develop your team, your organization, and yourself.