FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Academic, active researcher, chartered psychologist, coach and coaching supervisor, Tatiana Bachkirova has a packed professional life. Yet, 20 years ago she arrived in the UK, a shy teacher with very little English. She tells Liz Hall how she finally found her voice

Tatiana Bachkirova is one of the foremost academics and researchers in the coaching profession, unafraid to speak up for what she believes and to challenge where she feels challenge is due. But she hasn’t always been so outspoken.

Before she had cancer, for which she was given the all clear last autumn, her shyness had held her back:

“I am officially a cancer survivor. It was a milestone. Strangely enough, before it I was shy and nervous and hesitant about speaking out and speaking up and being out there, but after that, I lost the fears and thought it’s OK to say what is important for me. The nature of coaching is that you take the hard things and make them into something that could be helpful.”

Bachkirova, Reader in Coaching Psychology at Oxford Brookes University, in the UK, teaching and supervising on its MA and Doctoral programmes in Coaching and Mentoring, believes that the willingness to critique is inherent in the role of the academic. Yet, she believes that in current dialogues in the profession, the voices of academics are not being heard enough. This is one of the passions she is now happy to speak up about.

She is also passionate about supervision – her article on this for Coaching at Work (vol 6, issue 5) saw her win the runner-up prize in the Best Thought Leadership article category in 2013. Her book, Developmental Coaching: Working with the Self (OUP, 2011), which offers an in-depth psychological perspective, has been a source of great pride, partly because of her battle with cancer. “I wrote the book in nine months after the operation. It was like giving birth to a baby, a special one.

“For me, developmental coaching is very important; I had been thinking about it for a long time.

“I always saw coaching as an amazing opportunity. I know it started to develop people in business and in organisations, but I always saw this opportunity to develop and help people have this depth of understanding.

“I wanted to advocate the need for coaching to not only be business-oriented, but development-oriented…that is one of my passions. [Coaching offers] an opportunity for people to grow, [whether they have] a business or not. I have nothing against business, but often [it’s about] short-term needs – even for the organisation.

“If people develop, the organisation develops, [particularly if] the organisation is progressive.”

Bachkirova may once have been shy, but she never lacked courage, resilience and optimism.

Twenty years ago, and with very little English, she moved to the UK from Russia, leaving behind an established teaching career, so that her son, born with a congenital condition, could get the operations he needed. Initially she relied on her (then) husband, who spoke good English. Yet, despite her limited English, she also went for a job interview, teaching at the Bournemouth
and Poole College of Further Education, offering to work for free if needs be. Both moves paid off – her son’s treatment was a success and she was offered a job.

“[The employers] were terrified by my style, but strangely enough, they called me to ask if I would like to teach on the City & Guilds counselling skills course. After that I was invited to teach on the Diploma in Counselling programme and other psychology-based courses for another department.

“Giving two-hour psychology lectures was most exciting and gave me a huge boost.”

Soon she started working with clients and took a course in Advanced Transpersonal Psychotherapy in Sussex, also in the south of England.

However, even though she was busy with this teaching and with her counselling practice, she found herself thinking, “I can’t cope, I really need a full-time job.”

An opportunity arose at Oxford Brookes University in 1998 for a research fellow in lifelong learning. “I’d visited Oxford and I remember thinking that if I have a chance to live anywhere it would be Oxford as it’s exciting and the university atmosphere reminded me of my time at St Petersburg, which I loved.”

She joined Westminster Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes as a research fellow in lifelong learning, and ended up helping Elaine Cox set up the MA in Coaching and Mentoring.

They started developing it in 1999, got it validated in 2000 and had the first cohort in 2001.

Even at the beginning, Bahckirova says, “I was absolutely excited and the people who came to study on the first cohort, I was so much in admiration of them.

“For some time I’d been teaching undergraduates and I loved working with them, but working with masters students was pure pleasure. They were asking all the right questions and they wanted to look at it in depth.”

 

A big deal

Nearly 15 years on, the programmes are thriving and the International Centre for Coaching and Mentoring Studies has just been officially recognised as such. “This is a big deal for the university.”

Bachkirova is not only an academic and active researcher, she is also a chartered occupational psychologist, a coach and coaching supervisor, and was the first co-editor-in-chief of Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice. She continues to serve on the editorial boards of three academic journals, and has just joined Coaching at Work’s editorial advisory board.

She is also the author of Complete Handbook of Coaching with Elaine Cox and David Clutterbuck, while in 2011 she received an Achievement award in recognition of her distinguished contribution to coaching psychology from the British Psychological Society, Special Group in Coaching Psychology.

 

Lofty ideas

Bachkirova is known for her ability to explore interesting, abstract ideas: “Looking at the field as a whole I believe we are slow in terms of adapting new paradigms to our thinking and policies.
We often follow modernist cause-and-effect linear thinking that oversimplifies our practice. This is evident in some approaches to training, in accreditation systems, in evaluation of practice and some research.

“For example, believing that the success of coaching can be predicted by the use of specific scientifically validated methods or a certain set of competencies is a sign of reductive modernist thinking. It doesn’t take into account how much of coaching results depend on the client’s and coach’s attitudes and values, levels of development, expectations and beliefs. Not less influential are the factors of the context of coaching, such as organisational culture and power dynamics, but also many nuances of coaching process and relationship.

“If we see much more complexity in what we do, which is more characteristic of the postmodernist thinking, we would focus more on the joined meaning making in the coaching sessions rather than on the applications of prescriptive and mechanistic models. We would train the coach as a whole person rather than a ‘bag of tools’. We would stop inventing hierarchical competency models for establishing ‘master coaches’, which imply that there is only one way of doing a good job. Yes, some ‘good practice’ suggestions can be identified and can make a difference for beginners, but talented and experienced coaches break more rules than they follow.

“So, more postmodernist thinking is about acknowledging complexity, uncertainty and power dynamics in coaching engagements and appreciating diversity and dialogue. That is what needs to be added to the modernist orientation on rationality, efficiency and predictability. I believe that part of the universities’ roles is to challenge the way we think about our practice.”

The same goes for research, she says. She is insistent on the importance of research in building up an evidence base for coaching and mentoring, and “letting the public know that we’re in a worthwhile field.”

She enjoys being part of students’ journeys as they begin to appreciate the importance of research: “You can see people understand it more and more, even if they’re already experienced coaches with a successful practice, and they start to ask bigger questions about contributing to the profession as the next step in their development process. And it is a pure pleasure to work with them. With the doctorates and even the masters, you can see some amazing pieces of research.”

 

Developing new things

“Because of my background, I was always very interested in serious psychological issues and had some interesting discussions with Eric Parsloe (founder of OCM) about the harm psychology might do. These awoke a fighting spirit in me, and I joined the BACP for some work and… people encouraged me in different ways.”

She developed guidelines for supervision in coaching psychology, for example.

Before coming to the UK, she’d read organisational psychology at St Petersburg and carried out her PhD on “a slightly unusual topic”: the trainability of pilots as she’d taught at the Institute of Civil Aviation and researched areas, such as psychological selection.

This background in counselling and organisational psychology has stood her in good stead in coaching, too. She says, “[in terms of counselling] the main strength of coaching is to listen, and to ask good questions to create good results, while the organisational psychology offers [some of the] theoretical background.”

Bachkirova is kept busy with the various strands of her professional life. There are currently 11 doctoral students and eight masters students to supervise, for example. And last summer she launched a new course on supervision skills for highly experienced coaches.

“[Running] experiential workshops is great fun as a way to connect. And I like high-level abstract thinking, but it’s an ongoing challenge to bring it down to what people can do in the room. It becomes very exciting refining the thinking… And I like developing new things.”

Oxford Brookes University’s International Conference on Coaching Supervision (on 11 July this year) is in its fifth year. It was first held after Bachkirova published a book on coaching supervision Coaching and Mentoring Supervision: Theory and Practice with Peter Jackson and David Clutterbuck to offer a forum where people could discuss ideas. For years, it has been the only coaching supervision conference, but the International Coach Federation is now holding one this July in Vancouver, British Columbia: “This is a very good development.”

Bachkirova also teaches on the Oxford Brookes MA in Coaching and Mentoring in Hong Kong, in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong. She is also a Visiting Professor at Moscow’s National Research University: Higher School of Economics.

 

Influencing the field

What has it been like to be back working in Russia?

“I don’t use Russian at work so it has been challenging, but I have now been three times so it is coming back to me. And I love the Motherland. I like Russian people – they’re talented and interesting. Lots of Russia has too many problems [though], so there is always some sadness in being there. And revisiting everything is strange – the Russian soulmates of joy and sadness.”

What about working in Hong Kong? “The people are lovely but it’s not easy in terms of coaching. It’s going very slowly.

“Generally, there is an expectation of being taught and given advice, rather than coached.”

In addition to teaching, Bachkirova is in demand to speak all over the world.When we talked, she was off to New Zealand to deliver a keynote and two workshops for the University of Waikato, the first coaching conference in the country. She was planning to speak about the postmodernist influence on coaching and how we can develop a more balanced perspective.

Bachkirova recently returned from delivering a keynote at the 5th International Congress on Coaching Psychology in San Diego in the US on 3-4 February, where there were challenging discussions, which included academics in the conversations.

She is concerned about what she sees as a drift between universities and professional bodies.

“I don’t want that to happen and when I talk to professional bodies, they don’t want that to happen either. It’s not good for any sides. We want to influence the field.”

Members of the Coaching at Work-led Accreditation Forum, which has now shifted in terms of purpose and name (see news,
page 7)
recently decided the forum needed to widen its dialogue, and is inviting academics, such as Bachkirova, to join its discussions.

Apart from the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, professional coaching bodies don’t seem to have any research strands at their conferences, which she thinks is a shame for the profession.

Oxford Brookes’ own research conference, at which its own students present their research, is becoming popular, too, with people from outside the university, including from outside of the UK.

With so much on, it does seem as if Bachkirova has lots of energy, which she confirms.

“I keep a maintenance programme to keep my brain working reasonably well. I play table tennis competitively in the local league and I love my yoga very much – it’s a great help. I love cycling and walking and my passion is philosophy – I belong to the Oxford Philosophical Society.

“I also do quite a lot of travelling and I enjoy it, but I want to create more time to explore the world.”

In New Zealand, she will be taking 10 days off from work for the first time in a long time, to explore the region.

 

What next?

“I am now working on a very important book for the field, on research and process in different coaching contexts – the SAGE Complete Handbook of Coaching. We’ve got lots of good people involved, including Gordon Spence and David Drake.

“I am also working on some of my own papers. Another little passion of mine is [the theme of] self-deception. If we’re working on our own self-deception, we have a good developmental opportunity.” n

 

T Bachkirova, Developmental Coaching: Working with the Self, Open University Press, 2011

Hear Bachkirova speak about self-deception in coaching: http://www.coaching-at-work.com/2015/03/01/podcasts/

Bachkirova will deliver a workshop on 100 reasons to dislike supervision at the Coaching at Work conference on 1 July, 2015