Darren Robson is an award-winning coach, mentor, entrepreneur, social innovator and honorary lifetime member of the Association for Coaching. Not bad for a boy from a council estate with no interest in school. He tells Liz Hall about small steps and life-changing moments

Darren Robson is a director on the global board of the Association for Coaching (AC), chief fire-starter and storyteller at charity MOE Foundation and founder of the “hugely successful” coaching practice, DRArete, coaching CEOs, entrepreneurs and top teams from leading companies, such as TalkTalk, Channel 4, Network Rail, Save the Children and Warner Brothers. He considers himself a very lucky man. “It has given me a wonderful lifestyle.”

A little luck and lots of hard work have certainly played an important part in Robson’s life, but it wasn’t always like that. In fact, his beginnings were hardly auspicious. He grew up on a tough council estate in Kent (England) with very little money and even less interest in school. But the one thing he did have was drive:
“I wanted financial freedom and not to be reliant on anybody else.”

So he started work, doing a paper and a milk round, washing cars and bulk-buying trainers to make a small profit on them:
“I loved making money.”

He also loved sports. As a teenager, he was a county level runner and footballer and also fought for Kent and once for England in judo. However, he didn’t focus any of his potential on education. “I’m ENTP. I’m off the scale when it comes to the N, so I’m very, very bad at detail. I would be in the classroom forming ideas, but [the teachers] saw someone who was distracted and distracting. I love entertaining!”

He got his first break when he landed an apprenticeship with the CEGB. “Nobody in my family had been to university and this apprenticeship was the best thing that happened to me. It took me away from the estate at 16, and I started realising there was a big world out there and that I’d made a bit of a mistake education-wise.”

He carried on with his money-making schemes – running barbeques in a pub, working seven days a week and always saving his money. He went from passes to distinctions through City & Guilds. It was then he started to think he could go to university. He devoured books on personal development, including: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, The Road Less Travelled and Marianne Williamson’s A Woman’s Worth. “I was thinking, this is amazing. I took A-levels, but I got slightly arrogant and failed, so I repeated them. I got a C in Business Studies and an F in Commerce at GCSE. I laugh when I look at them now [given his success in the business arena].”

He took voluntary redundancy from the CEGB and went to see a careers coach: “It was one of the worst experiences of my life. She said, ‘I don’t really know what you can do’. She was the worst coach I have ever had. I thought, I am going to find a way.”

He combined his redundancy payout with his savings and travelled and worked around Australia and Indonesia for
14 months, reading books like The Celestine Prophecy and “meeting lots of kooky people and thinking, ‘this is really interesting – there is a bigger life for me’.”

In 1996, while in Indonesia, he was playing football and crashed heads with the goalkeeper. The accident changed his plans and he flew back to the UK. It turned out to be another big break. “I wondered, what the hell am I going to do? So I started enquiring about university. Greenwich, London, had a course on engineering and business management with applied behavioural science so I signed up and bought my first house.”

Unsurprisingly, he carried on working while studying at Greenwich – as a postman, dustman, a data entry clerk and then in recruitment, which he loved because he was helping people.

Robson was awarded both a First from Greenwich and also Best Performing Student: “It was incredible.”

He was then given a grant to study Innovative Manufacturing at Cranfield University. He found he enjoyed using systemic thinking on group projects and so he began to consider consulting as a career.

But just weeks into writing his thesis, on 10 July 2000: “I got the call that changed my life and my family forever.”

He was urged to rush home and was greeted by a paramedic who told him his mother had died suddenly. “I was desperate. My mum was everything to me and it was my dream to buy her a big house… .”

Back at Cranfield, not wanting to let his mum down, Robson wrote his thesis on digital customer relationship management (eCRM) in just 14 days. “I had a real drive to make her proud, and I had a huge amount of support from friends and from Cranfield. But I had to
let go of my dream of studying for a PhD in unearthing the entrepreneurial DNA, in order to go to work.”

He left Cranfield and landed a job at Deloitte Consulting as an analyst. “It was incredible. I went from wearing a blue boiler suit to working in Deloitte, my chest out, thinking, I’ve made it.”

He learnt first-hand the value of constructive criticism when a senior partner said he thought Robson was confident and smart, but came across as too arrogant.
“I remember how all the blood sucked out of me. It was the worst feedback I could ever get. I’d hate to believe I was arrogant, which I was projecting, although I was deeply insecure, in truth.”

He suggested Robson go away and think about how to change his attitude, which he did that weekend, coming across Ian McDermott’s NLP training course. Deloitte agreed to fund it in 2002.

“I was suddenly around people in a similar space. I thought: this is my home. Ian was my guru, although by the end of the 20 days I was mimicking him on stage – and Ian is a great friend to the AC! But I’d discovered coaching and thought, this is the thing I’ve been looking for.”

He bought the book Co-Active Coaching, “fell in love” with the Co-Active model and signed up for its first programme in Manchester in 2003.

“That is where my coaching journey began. I very quickly got connected with AC CEO Katherine Tulpa, which is where my journey with the AC began. I met wonderful people like Katherine, Alex Szabo, Stephen Palmer, Gladeana McMahon and Amanda Bouch.

“I had never before come across a bunch of people who don’t judge you, but challenge you… I love that straightforwardness of coaching. But for me, it’s more than that. Yes, it is a set of skills, capabilities and behaviours, but there is a deeper sense to it, around beliefs, values, your identity as a person and what it can contribute. There is a spirituality to it, a deeper connection to the potential
you have as a human being and the potential your clients have. I love that it believes in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself.

“I loved working with Katherine and Alex. I loved being around people I admired who were leaders in this emerging field, and who I was in awe of…I couldn’t believe
I was part of this gang who want to make a difference.

“We shift mind-sets. I want to give that gift to other people.”

The AC

Robson feels very privileged to have been involved with the AC for 12 years, as part of the original UK council and as a global director – it now has a presence in 55 countries and 18,000 people in the community. He has been responsible for all the strategic partnerships it has formed and has also played a part in the AC being involved in the Global Coaching & Mentoring Alliance (GCMA).

He has won various awards, including from the AC for impacting coaching (2007), Coaching at Work, World Business & Executive Coach Summit, Global HR Excellence Awards and the World Coaching Congress as a global thought leader in business and professional coaching.

Other initiatives have included: Street Coach, with one of his heroes, Tony Philips – the pair ran the 2004 London Marathon while coaching people and raising money for children’s charities.

He also took a group of young people from Kids Company to Devon on a week’s leadership programme, and last March he got the opportunity to do a TEDx talk: “a real privilege”.

He was director of innovation at Penna, helping 70 coaches build their practice.

He has a leadership role in many businesses and community-led organisations through DRAete, his own very successful leadership consultancy and coaching practice www.darrenrobson.com

He also runs Leadership Excellence, a new initiative launched in 2014 to support HR and commercial leaders to gain pragmatic insights from their peers www.leader-excellence.com

But what he’s really proud of, he says, is MOE.


“When our mum (he is the eldest of four) died in 2000, an idea we had when we were young, of helping kids like us, came back to us.”
The siblings pledged to do just that.

“I grew up in a matriarchal family and women were really strong. My mum was always listening to people. At her funeral, we said that we would set up a legacy in her honour.”

Thus was born the charity MOE (Ministry of Entrepreneurship) Foundation. Since its launch in 2012, it has gifted more than £600,000 in development to some 220 less privileged young people in the UK, Guernsey, India and Tanzania, and has a target of gifting £1million by the end of 2015.

“The fact that I’ve kept that promise to my mum has to be the biggest achievement, beyond my two daughters, so far. It’s incredible that it was formed from a crazy little idea to get to where we want – to literally game change young people’s lives.”

The MOE Foundation’s goal is to defeat the conditions that create a poverty mind-set in society by stimulating conscious, purposeful entrepreneurial spirit in current and future global generations.

At MOE, his official job title is chief fire-starter and storyteller, a title given to him by some of the people he has helped. These include MOE’s first apprentice, Natalia Talkowska, who now has two businesses and flies all over the world to speed-draw at conferences. It also includes a young man who, at MOE’s first conference, turned to one of the women and said: “The last time I met a woman like you, I was stealing her handbag.”

“Now he’s set up a social venture to help kids get out of gangs.
Those are the stories I’m proud of,” says Robson.

MOE initiatives include MOE certified coach training gifted by Carol Wilson and James Wright (with Culture at Work – formerly Performance Coach Training) which gifts its coach training programme. More than 200 coaches have been trained this way. Other initiatives include Dream Factory Entrepreneur Accelerator and Digital Learning.

Through digital learning technology the organisation intends to positively support 1 million people globally by 2020.

This year, MOE plans to do something in education too.

“I think the learning from coaching needs to go into the educational establishment, so how can we partner, help and champion other people, rather than replicating?

He cites Nick Williams who, in his book The Work We Were Born to Do, says by the time we are 21 we’ve received 220,000 negative comments and 25,000 positive.

“For all of the difficulty I went through, my mum taught me some core lessons: love yourself, see the beauty in life and be optimistic. Unbeknown to her, she was teaching me core psychological principles we know work. If we can bring them into education through coaching and impact kids’ minds, we can shift the world.”


“Lots of silent and invisible people are my heroes: the VAs who run the AC, and all our AC volunteers who gift their time. My mum and nans were immensely important. Samantha Collins, who got me into the AC, Katherine Tulpa, Alex Szabo, Gladeana McMahon and Stephen Palmer: “I love that he is an agitator, passionate, smart as hell, cares so much and is great at creating fantastic organisations. He was there at the very beginning of the AC.”

Others include Tim Gallwey and Ian McDermott, but the person that stands out for him is Sir John Whitmore.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the questions and challenges from him. When I was on John’s Transpersonal Coaching programme in London in 2004 (with Hetty Einzig), we did a guided visualisation exercise and I had this vision of me hugging the world. John turned to me and said, ‘I can see you hugging the world’. We had a profound moment; he almost read my mind.”


On the GCMA, he says: “For me, the GCMA needs to grow up and be a voice. It should ask the big questions and ask the different communities what the answers are, then get the diverse communities together. It needs to be non-agenda based. We realised at the GCMA that (the different bodies) had more in common than not; our philosophy, our roots are from the same place. But the GCMA has to promote coaching more actively. It’s gone silent and it doesn’t have to be. It could be hugely potent, but we haven’t found the way.”


“I believe coaching should be self-regulated, because we’re adults and we know what is right. It’s global so having one body doesn’t make sense. I believe we have to ask the big questions and embrace our diversity.

“What I am passionate about is the people and the profession, about evolving the global mind-set and the human spirit to leave a lasting and positive legacy in the world. I genuinely believe we have the opportunity through coaching to get us as a tribe, as human beings, to grow up and mature.

“My vision is for every child born to learn about themselves, to grow up knowing they are loved, and can love themselves, to understand the coaching philosophy and approach. I’d love it to be ubiquitous, and for us to no longer even talk about coaching.”

What lies ahead?

A few months before we spoke, at the end of the AC’s conference in Budapest, Robson and his wife had a serious accident when their taxi crashed head on with another car. Robson was knocked unconscious and suffered double vision for seven weeks. He was amazed by how supportive AC colleagues Alex, Katherine and Declan Woods were to him – rushing to the hospital and staying all night.

“You never quite know what is round the corner; we both could have died. As my mum used to say: Don’t take life too seriously or you won’t get out of it alive.”

And what of the future? Robson concludes: “When you look at my story and where I’ve come from… it’s about tiny steps that add up over the course of your life. I’m 42 now. Let’s hope I have another 40 years at least.”



Darren is delivering a workshop on building a successful practice at the Coaching at Work annual conference on 1 July. Get some tips here: bit.ly/1zG2Xsc