Jackee Holder is an executive coach, supervisor, trainer, author, interfaith minister and committed tree hugger. She is also one of the few black women coaching executives in the UK. Liz Hall finds out more
By Liz Hall
Jackee Holder cuts a striking figure on the coaching scene – she’s tall, fascinating and yes, she’s black. One of the first black coaches in the UK, Holder remains a minority in mainstream coaching.
However, she’s striking, too, because of her presence. There’s a spaciousness, thoughtfulness, curiosity and open-ness, a sense of vitality in the face of my questioning that as interviewer and, I imagine for her clients, is very inviting.
Holder wears many hats – she’s an executive coach on the NHS Leadership Academy’s preferred supplier list (notoriously hard to get on to) and with the Royal College of Nursing; a coach supervisor, including with the Coaching Supervision Academy (CSA) and The Performance Coach; a coach trainer who’s run accredited coach training programmes, including for the National Bank Of Abu Dhabi, and a prolific author of books, including: Soul Purpose and 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well. But for her, it’s more about: Who you are is how you coach.
Who Holder is includes someone who loves learning and seeks input from many sources, who spends much of her time journaling, writing and reflecting, for whom spirituality is key; someone who seeks out nourishment, peace and quiet, and ways to recharge and just be. She loves being in nature, with trees, in particular. Authenticity, congruence and making the effort to develop personally are very important for her – and it shows.
“Understanding of self is key. I really love the coaching profession; it’s where I found my home in my work. We’re very good at getting qualified and doing the courses, yet I’m surprised at how fearful and resistant some coaches are about doing inner work.
“Emotional intelligence is so important. I often see a disparity between who someone is, in and outside of a coaching session. I’m really interested and curious about that. That authenticity and being able to really show up and see people is something I really walk with. It’s the presence of the coach and the energetic vibration that for me opens the door for the deepest, most transformational coaching.”
Diversity or inclusion
Holder says that nowhere does she see the issues of diversity and inclusion more played out than in coaching.
“While the industry is representative in terms of gender, it is severely lacking in terms of the representation of race and other elements of diversity. The coaching industry I’ve signed up to does not, on the whole, reflect society, organisations and communities that we serve.
“There is still huge ground to cover in terms of tackling unconscious bias and diversity issues in the coaching profession. This is about ways in which we can raise the bar of what I see as an amazing profession.”
One factor that hinders inclusion is the high cost of entering and remaining within the profession, as she so rightly points out. “This means only particular sectors of society can get access to becoming trained and accredited as coaches.”
When I share how Coaching at Work is committed to diversity and inclusion, but how it’s often white, middle-class, older male coaches who put themselves forward and who are already known on the conference circuit, she says: “It’s important to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones, to look through a different lens and see beyond familiar faces and places, exposing ourselves to different groups of people. If you don’t go into different arenas, you won’t see those (alternative) people.”
African-Caribbean, born and raised in the UK, Holder is no stranger to racial inequality. “My life journey and history have meant that the issues of diversity and inclusion have never been far away from my consciousness.”
Experiences include dealings with racism at college, where she was told by one person in authority: “ ‘Why don’t you go and get pregnant like all other black girls do?’ I was 17 years of age and it had a profound effect on me. I ended up not sitting my law exams, but it gave me another perspective.”
At this time, self-doubt and a fierce inner critic related to early trauma were rearing their heads.
“I survived a major trauma as a child, which caused me to experience serious self-doubt and daily battles with a fierce inner critic throughout childhood and adult life. But the double-sided sword of this experience also propelled me to want to make a difference, to be innovative, to invest time in my creative expression and to take risks. It also embedded in me the qualities of empathy and compassion and a willingness to speak out and challenge.
“I’ve had to work on the impact of shame of those earlier experiences and I am someone who lives with vulnerability and welcomes the work of Brené Brown on bringing vulnerability out of the shadows. I don’t feel many organisations do vulnerability well and yet it is by letting go of the mask that we really can make a difference.”
Despite this self-doubt, the behaviour she encountered at college motivated Holder to go on to university “to prove them wrong”.
With parents from Barbados, born and raised in the UK, attending a girls’ grammar school, being the first in her family to go to university, reading government and politics, being a pioneer from an early age, working at 16 with broadcaster Janet Street-Porter, for example, she’s had many influences, but over the years, she’s become accustomed to people making assumptions about what she does and doesn’t know.
“I’ve always had to inhabit those in-between spaces, be willing to recognise that people make assumptions about me. Bonnie Greer [a black American-English playwright and critic] talks about being a voyeur, about how she gets to sit in and observe people who often don’t see her and the insight that gives her. She dances between different sectors and I see myself as very similar.”
And these multiple perspectives are good fodder for coaching.
“There’s loads to learn across different disciplines that can be re-positioned in much of the work we do as coaches.”
She’s certainly had an eclectic background. Previous jobs have included retail, waitressing, children’s adventure playground worker, youth worker and being a tea lady in an insurance company one summer.
When she became a youth worker after university, she says, “I broke my poor parents’ hearts by not getting a traditional job. There I was with my jeans and rucksack going off to work, no briefcase. For my immigrant parents, I wasn’t flying the flag in the visible way they wanted.”
She continues, though, to put herself into all sorts of situations: “For two years running, when I’ve submitted my CPD log for the CSA, they’ve been surprised at how many courses beyond traditional coaching I’d done. Things to do with mindfulness, wellbeing, even photography of trees.
“I love trees. It became apparent in 1999 when I published Soul Purpose. I was sitting in my local library and I happened to take a break. Behind me was a book on the meaning of surnames. A year before, I’d sat by a tree which had a plaque labelling it an Elder tree, and which talked about the myths around that. And now in this book, it described how the name Holder was given to people who lived near elder trees. This sparked an ongoing enquiry into trees, meanings, legends, myths.
“I began to ‘hang out’ with trees. I then went through a dark night of the soul, and running became my daily meditation. I would run at 5am and then sit under a tree to write my journal. One particular tree I named Sanctuary; it was my place of refuge, of asking questions, of quiet.
“I’m always curious with my clients of where they find sanctuary and ‘top up’. If it’s not trees, what does it for you?”
Holder is writing a memoir, The Girl Who Loved Trees, bringing in myths and legends, and prompting people to ask those questions about restorative practices.
For her, supervision is a very important restorative practice: “You can go into supervision, fall apart, put yourself back together
and be resourceful.”
Holder writes almost every day, getting up early to do so.
“Reflective writing is at the heart of my identity as a coach….it’s a form of a spiritual practice that underpins who I am as a coach and supports holistically how I show up as a coach.”
She sees journaling and reflective writing as great tools for self-development and self-knowledge, and would like to see them become a recognised form of CPD.
Investing in one’s own personal development in a way that is mindful and conscious is vital for growing the industry and standards, she says.
“Reflective practice makes a difference to how you show up in the world, how other people relate and connect with you, the quality of the rapport you establish, the trust in your coaching, which creates the right kind of environment for challenge and stretching. And really working with your client at the edge. It also impacts on how alive we are in our lives.
“I’m really struck by the level of disengagement and lack of aliveness in some of the organisations I work in, that people feel, and I think we have to become the captains of our own ships – we have the potential to take charge.”
Getting into coaching
Her journey from youth worker, to project worker, to trainer and facilitator, to one-on-one guidance, was a natural progression into coaching and coach training.
She came face to face with coaching in the mid-1980s, when she was assigned Rose, a non-managerial supervisor, a coaching-style role supporting youth workers’ personal and professional development.
“Rose asked me a question that caused me to stop in my tracks, get silent and think about what was being asked of me. It was a pivotal moment, a breaking open, and I task Rose with setting something alive in my young spirit.”
With a “raw, unleashed confidence”, she headed off to work with young offenders. After she found the “discrimination in the justice system too much to bear”, she went to work for the charity, Coram, as a key worker to young people leaving care.
She then landed a post as a middle manager in a local authority, organising innovative and ground-breaking training and development for women. However, not feeling ready for a senior post she was headhunted for, she decided instead to launch as a freelance trainer.
Her first major contract was with BBC Television where for three years she co-ordinated a mentoring project matching local young black students with BBC newsreaders, producers and directors.
“This work was transformation before my eyes. These students were given real-life opportunities in an industry rife with challenges around diversity and inclusion.”
She’s still in close contact with students from this project, three of whom are godparents to her daughter and have high-profile media roles.
After receiving coaching from the likes of Laura Berman Fortgang, an early coach pioneer from the days of Thomas Leonard, she
realised coaching best described what she did.
An ordained interfaith minister, spirituality is important to Holder, in the widest sense:
“Organisational life consists of human beings in the workplace who are having spiritual experiences. For me, coaching has a spiritual aspect because it’s really about seeing the essence of who the person is and their purpose, who we’re being…it’s often where the real work happens, stripping away the stuff that gets in the way and getting to what really matters.”
She gives the example of how she was recently working with one client on a transition they were going through. As they were describing their emotions, she felt compelled to share a poem she’d recently read, When Great Trees Fall, by Maya Angelou.
“The words of the poem described precisely what they were going through. It created an atmosphere of quiet reflection, contemplation, acknowledgement and acceptance of the journey, where they were, who they were being and their experience.”
With a client whose partner had died, her work as a minister around ritual informed the coaching.“We arrived at a place where she created a ritual, bringing friends together to celebrate his life.”
Unsurprisingly, sometimes she invites clients to write. “I love luggage tags – I bring them into the session. If you hand someone a piece of A4, it reminds them of work, if you hand them a luggage tag and say ‘write about your day so far’, it simulates the child within: it’s inviting, creative. I’m always looking at different ways to get ourselves out of our heads and create space to be more free-flowing with our expression.
“I’ve noticed in my coaching and training that if I hold back from doing an exercise, I keep things safe and constricted. If I’m willing to take a risk, my clients are, too. Leaders want to be refreshed and stretched. They want to go beyond what they normally think about.
Lots of them are high-performing with plenty of knowledge. Exploring how to move from doing to being brings something much more substantial and significant to who we are as leader, coach supervisor, trainer.”
Holder is somewhat averse to labels. “There’s a part of me that wants to let go of the title ‘coach’. I feel I’m an artist who happens to be a coach and that coaching can become a part of who I am without always needing a role associated with it. So it becomes a natural part of being, and being in communication and in relationship. That whether you’re a bus driver, nanny, or coach, coaching becomes part of your make-up. That we don’t necessarily need separate spaces where coaching exists as something special. I’m very interested in how we can create a society where coaching becomes more accessible.”
With another of her books, Be Your Own Best Life Coach, “I wanted to take some of the really good material we have access to as coaches and make it accessible to the average manager, staff member, Joe Public.”
Holder also shares material through voluntary work, such as with the Brahma Kumaris’ Spirit of Coaching initiative, doing workshops.
One thing’s for sure, for all her love of peace and quiet, Holder doesn’t stand still for long. And as for her parents, yes, they did become very proud of her.
Join Jackee Holder at a Coaching at Work masterclass on reflective practice in 2016. Date to be announced.