Student Grant

After an unpromising start Anthony Grant explains how he turned his life around to become an academic and run a coaching practice. He has firm ideas on how to make coaching work in organisations and for individuals. 
Liz Hall

A chance visit to Australia set Anthony Grant on an unexpected path into academia. And for the forefather of coaching psychology, the learning has not stopped since.

Viewed by many as the forefather of coaching psychology, Anthony Grant has come a long way from being “the loser” who left school at 15 with no qualifications. Today, Grant is respected globally both as a coaching practitioner and academic. He set up the world’s first Coaching Psychology Unit at the School of Psychology, University of Sydney, in January 2000 and was instrumental in establishing master’s programmes in applied science (psychology of coaching) and organisational coaching. Yet he didn’t go into tertiary education until he was 39. He quickly made up for lost time, though, being awarded a first-class honours degree at Sydney and winning the university medal for outstanding academic performance. Grant then won a scholarship to study at Macquarie University’s highly progressive psychology department, choosing coaching psychology as the theme for his master’s. His doctoral thesis, Towards a Psychology of Coaching: The Impact of Coaching on Meta-cognition, Mental Health and Goal Attainment, is one of the few to explicitly examine coaching psychology.

Seeds Sown

Grant was brought up in London in a stimulating and colourful home environment, one in which discussions on the meaning of life were commonplace. His mother, Eva, a former model and a famous glamour photographer in the 1950s and ’60s, was Greek Orthodox and his father is Jewish of Russian descent. Both rejected their religious backgrounds, embracing the integrative philosophical and psychological perspectives of the likes of Ken Wilber’s forerunners Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff. Seeds sown at this stage would germinate later on but for the young Grant “it was good if you wanted to get enlightened but painful and a pain in the ass when you’re 12 and there’s no white bread or frozen veg in the house”. Neither was such an upbringing conducive to Grant embracing the rigidity of the education system of the time. “Gurdjieff was big on the idea that we are asleep most of the time. When I went to the local grammar school and there was this guy teaching all about Egypt and I knew he hadn’t been out of England, it all struck me as very pedestrian. “Maybe if I hadn’t been exposed to these ideas I would have paid attention, but I didn’t go to school for a term when I was 14. Eventually people noticed and I left, digging graves, fixing sewers, laying railway tracks, selling door to door, fixing telephones and eventually becoming a carpenter.”

Drastic changes

Grant lived on the streets for a while, becoming a political activist and “floating around having a good time” with lots of other people in their late teens. He says he learnt a lot from that time, finally stopping “mucking around” when he was 29. “I sat down with my friend Chris and we counted all our friends who had died from accidents, overdoses and so on, and got to 20. I made some drastic changes.” For the next 16 to 18 years, Grant explored a range of personal development programmes and types of counselling and psychotherapies. “Much of this was fascinating, but there was also a lot of rubbish being talked and many people did not have the critical thinking skills to separate the hype from the substance  or maybe they were just wishful thinkers,” he says. Grant also saw the results of “unethical” personal development and motivational seminars. “I’d seen people give up solid careers and go heavily into debt to buy musical instruments to chase their dream of being a rock star, because some ‘guru’ at a weekend motivational seminar had persuaded them that the only thing holding them back from living their ideal life was their self-limiting beliefs  when in fact what was holding them back from being the next U2 was simply a gross lack of musical talent!” He says he also saw people who ran such seminars, who had started out genuinely trying to help others, become seduced by praise and enthusiasm and become arrogant, manipulative, destructive narcissists. In 1988, Grant came to a “bifurcation point”, a splitting of ways. He was earning £400 a week as a carpenter, had a yellow MG, a van, a leather jacket and everything was “cool and groovy”. Then he looked at all his belongings and realised none of it had made him who he thought it would. A friend sent him a postcard urging him to meet him in Bangkok to head for Australia. “I asked my dad whether I should stay or go. My Doctor Martens had worn out – should I buy a new pair or go to Australia? Dad said why not go?  “Often it’s the little things we do that make a difference. My dad says everything makes sense in retrospect. If you look back you can see how life has evolved, see the patterns  and I had to admit the bugger was right.”

The next level

Grant found the egalitarianism of Australia so liberating that he decided to stay. In 1992 he found that he was eligible to attend university, so he chose Sydney because of its tradition of rigorous and critical thinking, and psychology because he was interested in the nature of meaning and how people thought and behaved. He wanted to work in the personal development area but wished to avoid the problems he had seen with the motivational seminar gurus. Grant believes that to be a good teacher, it is important to keep on practising, so in addition to his academic work he has coached many of Australia’s leading executives and CEOs. He has also carried out a wide body of research. Although he says he has since run better-designed outcome studies, Grant is particularly proud of the first life coaching study he ran, as it was the first published outcome research of the impact of life coaching in the world. He is also proud of the outcome research he has conducted with Suzy Green and Gordon Spence, doctoral students of his. “Both of them have taken research on the effectiveness of coaching to the next level, and I am proud to have been part of their learning journey,” Grant says. He is also pleased to have been involved in founding two peer-reviewed journals on coaching, The International Journal of Evidence-based Coaching and Mentoring and The International Coaching Psychology Review. “I found the papers I was writing and submitting to the psychological journals of the time were often being reviewed by people who did not know anything about coaching,” he says. “I was lucky to have met people like Elaine Cox [director of coaching and mentoring at Oxford Brookes University] and Stephen Palmer [director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University], who felt the same way, and who were prepared to put effort into developing new journals. Both Elaine and Stephen deserve a lot of credit for their leadership in developing these journals.”

Positive psychology

Grant thinks we need more evidence-based studies of the impact of coaching. “Researchers should focus on using validated measures of well-being and goal attainment as outcome measures, rather than the ‘happy sheet’ feel-good surveys of people’s own commercial coaching practice that too often pass for research,” he says. He adds that coaching in the workplace is here to stay but urges organisations to embrace coaching “with a sceptical optimism”. “Some organisations think coaching is a panacea for ‘organisational flu’, but it’s simply a method of development. It’s inappropriate for managers to do deep developmental work with line reports and often you’re dealing with workers who are under-resourced. Organisations are recognising that they need to work with people in a different way, but the issue is: should managers be coaches? A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” He says obviously all managers can improve their communication skills “but to call it coaching is not appropriate”. “If it’s being rolled out large-scale, the organisation is better off calling it a communication programme. Some of the problems we’re seeing are because people don’t know what coaching is.” Grant adds that the whole area of positive psychology has great potential to help people lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives in a very practical way. “I think that is what drives the majority of people in coaching,” he says. “I am interested in coaching as a social movement. “Coaching is a socially acceptable form of therapy. It’s amazing to have come to a place in contemporary western society where personal development has become an acceptable part of daily working life.”

My practice: enjoying the journey

Even though I spend a lot of my week teaching, conducting and writing up research, and designing and implementing coaching programmes for organisations, I have always had an active coaching practice, which I think is important. Most of my coaching is developmental rather than performance or skills coaching. The core of my practice is a solution-focused, cognitive behavioural approach that has evolved over time into what I have termed an “integrated goal-focused model” of coaching. Surprisingly, the role of goals in the coaching conversation is not well understood by many coaches. All human behaviour is goal-directed. Any behaviour that is not goal-directed must by definition be random and meaningless. As soon as one holds a meaning or intent one has a goal.  Goals are simply “mental representations of desired states or outcomes”. We may not be consciously aware of our goals and the role of the coach is to help the client articulate their implicit and unspoken goals, align them with their values if appropriate and develop simple action plans that move them towards their goal. I do this primarily by listening and probing for solutions and then moving the client into talking about solutions. From my perspective, each coaching session should finish with a written action plan. “If it ain’t written, it ain’t coaching!” is the catchphrase I use  and the client must write the action plan themselves.

In many ways a good coach is like a guide who takes a client on a journey towards a goal. The role of the coach is to help the client get to their destination safely, on time and at a pace that the client can manage. Sometimes the coach walks beside them, and has a chat along the way; sometimes the coach walks in front to show them the way; and sometimes the coach walks behind them to give them a kick up the backside because they’ve not done their homework. But at no time does the coach carry them  the client does their own walking. Helping a client to reach their destination sometimes requires that the coach be quite directive, and sometimes non-directive. The skill of the coach comes in knowing when to point out the way, how firmly to point it out, and when to let the client figure it out for themselves. The maxim that you “ask, don’t tell” is solid. It’s knowing what to ask and how to ask it that marks out the experienced coach from the novice.  We are all learning. We all make mistakes. We all can improve. We should enjoy the journey and share our learning openly with others. That is the essence of all good coaching practice.

Further reading

  • A M Grant and J Cavanagh, Evidence-based Coaching Volume Two: Resources, 2007.
  • D Stober and A M Grant, Evidence-based Coaching Handbook, Wiley, 2006.
  • M Cavanagh, A M Grant and T Kemp, Evidence-based Coaching: Contributions from the Behavioural Sciences, volume 1, Australian Academic Press, 2005.
  • A M Grant and J Greene, Coach Yourself at Work, ABC Books, 2005.
  • J Greene and A M Grant, Solution-focused Coaching: Managing People in a Complex world, Momentum Press, 2003.
  • A M Grant and J Greene, Coach Yourself: Make Real
  • Change in Your Life, Momentum Press, 2003.

Anthony Grant: CV

2000-present: Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit, School of Psychology, University of Sydney 1997: Combined master’s/PhD programme at Macquarie University, Sydney
1993: Honours degree in psychology, University of Sydney
1992: University preparation programme, University of New South Wales
1988: Arrived in Australia and worked as a carpenter
1975: Completed carpentry training
1969: Sheene Grammar School, London
Academic awards
2002: University of Sydney (Faculty of Science) Excellence in Teaching Award
1997: O’Neil Prize in Psychology
1997: Dick Thomson Prize in Psychology
1997: Australian Psychological Society Prize
1996: Blanka Buring Prize
1995, 1996, 1997: Walter Reid memorial grant for academic performance

Professional activities

  • Co-editor and editorial board member of International Coaching Psychology Review
  • Editorial board member of International Journal of Evidence-based Coaching and Mentoring

Volume 2, Issue 5


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