A passionate journey

Interview with the founder of the i-coach academy, describing his coaching philosophy which was developed in his native South Africa
Liz Hall

The was seconded seeds of Professor Mike van Oudtshoorn’s passion for psychology and coaching were sown when he was just 16. The South African Olympic athlete to work with underprivileged kids at a school in Cape Town, yet he was unable to pass on any of his skills. “Here I was, this young white privileged kid working with these troubled kids, trying to teach them about running but they didn’t want to learn. What I learnt was that it was not about skills but about something else.”   Van Oudtshoorn was hooked. It was the start of a lifelong interest in studying what makes people tick and what makes them learn. His interest in psychology was so great that he gained a diploma in industrial psychology from the School of Accounting before even finishing school. And although he accepted a bursary to become an actuary with Mutual Life Assurance in South Africa, he “hated every minute of it” and never practised, gaining a B.Comms in Industrial Psychology and Business Economy at the same time as he graduated as an actuary. Van Oudtshoorn is a man of strong opinions, formed during a colourful and varied life. He is also a man of many passions: these include existentialism  he is a “closet existentialist psychotherapist;” mastering aikido, and the 12-string guitar  although his second wife says he is tone deaf.  In 1962, he was offered an athletics scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This led to his second exposure to coaching. “People were only interested in your performance  at any cost. I stayed for six months and then came home.”  “I learnt that there is one aspect of coaching that is content-based, about teaching how to perform in a certain way. This approach is not always aligned with how the person works. I’m still sceptical about performance coaching.” These experiences set him on a journey  one that has seen him achieve many things, including founding the i-coach academy, becoming a widely respected coach and organisational psychologist, and shaking up the business world with his approach to assessment centres and adult development. He is known in certain circles as “the man who demystified assessment centres.” One of his claims to fame is having acted in the early 1970s as what could grandly be termed as a ‘personal coach’ to black South African activist Steve Biko, who died in 1977 at the age of 30 at the hands of the security police. While working for South Africa’s largest retailer, Edgars Stores, as group personnel manager, he was seconded to consult Biko, who was under house arrest. The secondment to East London, South Africa, was as a result of his boss’s support of the South African change process and van Oudtshoorn’s dissertation on “the development of potential across cultural groups,” which the South African government refused to publish. He met his first wife at this time, who was working with the white South African Daily Dispatch newspaper editor, Donald Woods. It is one of van Oudtshoorn’s biggest regrets that he didn’t have the coaching skills then that he does now: “If I had known then what I know now, I could have made a difference. Biko was so focused on making things happen but he was never free. I’d have tried to talk to Biko about how to get his message out.”   In fact, he mainly used to shoot the breeze with Biko rather than coach him: “We used to talk about issues and he advised me to get out of South Africa. He told me I would never be accepted by blacks or whites, so with a young baby and a wife, I came to England in 1973.” From 1973 to 1989, van Oudtshoorn got heavily involved in assessment: “I have a hatred of assessment being done to people. I think it is such a disempowering process.” Van Oudtshoorn developed the interviewing-to-criteria approach from assessment centre methodology and with Andrew Mayo and Graham Robinson, buddies at ICL, he developed the SIAC (Self-insight approach to Assessment Centres). He worked with high-street retailer M&S for 15 years on developing its assessment centres and believes that along with that of AT&T, this was one of the best processes around. He became disillusioned, however, with the fact that people got all this great feedback then nothing happened. Throughout the 1980s, van Oudtshoorn worked with Roger Harrison, author of Consultant’s Journey: A Professional and Personal Odyssey, examining what it is about organisational values that makes this occur. He became interested in .nding out whether the issues were to do with individuals  for example, their attitudes to risk. This spurred him on to take a Masters in Existential Counselling and Therapy at Antioch University, which he says has had a big effect on the i-coach academy’s approach to coaching. van Oudtshoorn says, “Most senior people have no performance problems but existential issues.” He later moved to the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, California. He had a major transformative moment when he was asked by a student doing a doctorate in human and organisational development to be his mentor.  “I thought he chose me because of my particular expertise. The student was a senior manager for a North Alaskan oil drilling organisation. It’s so cold there that they have to strip the oil out of the ground, so imagine how tough the person was! I asked him what his topic was and he said: “The Journey to becoming a Shaman.”  He discussed this with a colleague  Systems Theory expert Will McWhinney  who said: “It’s his journey, not yours.” “This has driven everything we do. Coaching is not about content, although it is very much about context. From that day on, I would never consult to a company again. I would always work in coach mode.” In 2001 after a move back to the UK, he founded the i-coach academy. There are now academies in London, New York and South Africa which offer masters and doctorate quali.cations in coaching, continued professional development including supervision, coaching and consulting services. Its education programmes are accredited through the National Centre for Work Based Learning Partnerships at Middlesex University. The i-coach academy’s faculty includes existentialist Professor Ernesto Spinelli; director of accreditation David Lane; Bruce Peltier, author of The Psychology of Executive Coaching, and managing director Caroline Horner, who has gained the world’s first doctorate in professional coaching. Van Oudtshoorn notes that depth and humility are absolutely critical to the process: “The coach must have a depth and repertoire that allows them to make the client feel secure. They will not panic with the client. The other thing is that they should be completely humble, otherwise they won’t be able to give the client the space needed.” He defines learning as: “Construction and/or re-construction though negotiations of relevant, viable and personal meaning  construction being what children do and deconstruction and re-construction what adults do.” And he defines coaching as “a one-to-one reflective conversation for the purpose of the above. Coaching is not passive. There should be friction, although not in a confrontational sense.” He is a firm believer in coaches having their own models and in not imposing a list of qualities. He does not embrace a single model for coaching: “I believe there are multiple approaches to coaching and that coaches should be able to identify what their signature presence is and be able to make explicit what they do.” He thinks there are too many “egos” in the coaching arena: “The coaching world is full of old blokes playing out their fantasies of what they want to do with their lives.” His vision for the future is one in which all the professional bodies work closely together and in which there is much cross-collaboration on original research. Van Oudtshoorn asserts organisations need more help in selecting and appraising coaches. The i-coach academy recently met with many large companies to discuss setting up a selection consortium (Coaching at Work, issue 2). “The HR people there said they felt like coaching was the Wild West and there had been a gold strike and everyone was rushing at it to grab a slice of the action. They said they felt like they were in a shark-infested pool and that they were being pestered pretty much every day by people offering coaching.  To remedy this overwhelmed feeling, his suggestion is, “I would run a Masters for those who select coaching, looking at topics such as the different types of coaching, the importance of understanding learning styles and deconstruction and re-construction. Many coaches can take control but can’t let go of it.” He advocates a focused approach. “Another critical factor is that organisations have many individual coaches working with people but the information is not going back to the company. I think many people are getting coaching they don’t need if the issues leading to coaching are addressed internally.   “We believe in creating a loop from the coach to the company, through supervision. But what’s wrong is that supervision cannot be done by those supplying the coaching if they are doing it for commercial reasons or by internal people due to issues of confidentiality.”   He suggests that there is work to be done in matching coach and client: “My research shows that executives choose someone who fits rather than someone who stretches them, but learning requires friction.” Van Oudtshoorn’s future plans include a hazy desire to “make some contribution in the broader sense,” although he has no tolerance of politics. He plans to complete two books, one about people he has been exposed to in his career who he believes espouse the principles of learning found within Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, and the other the professional coach’s equivalent of Harrison’s Consultant’s Journey, which Harrison and others have urged him to write. Whatever else van Oudtshoorn does next, it will involve learning and mastery. The words “love of learning” are written at his very core. Curriculum vitae Professor Mike van Oudtshoorn Born in South Africa Education PhD, Brunel University, Human Learning (July 1992); EdD, Professional Development Foundation (UK) and Clayton University (US), Organisation Psychology (July 1991); MA, Antioch University, Counselling Psychology (June 1989); B.Comms, UNISA (South Africa), Psychology/Economics (September 1968); Diploma, School of Accounting (South Africa) (1968), Industrial Psychology Career summary 2002-present: academic dean, i-coach Academy 2002-beginning of 2006: chair of International Centre for the Study of Coaching at Middlesex University, which he created 1994-present: founder of practice for the research, development and application of individual development methods in an organisational context at the Centre for Organisation & Individual Learning 1991-1994: founding partner at The Saker Lynd Partnership (UK and US) 1973-1991: MD and owner of Van Oudtshoorn Associates (UK). He developed the Self Insight approach to Assessment Centres and other programmes grounded in Assessment Centre Methodology. Sold subsidiary companies to employees in 1988 in order to move on to new interests in Organisation Culture and Adult Learning 1965-73: group personnel manager at Edgars Stores (South Africa) Academia 2003-present: professor extraordinaire, University of Stellenbosch (South Africa) 2002-present: visiting professor at Middlesex University 1997-2000: visiting professor at Napier University Business School 1992-94: adjunct faculty, Human & Organisation Development Programme, the Fielding Institute (US) 1991: adjunct faculty, California School of Professional Psychology (US)

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