The VW emissions scandal in Germany has had far-reaching consequences. Could coaching have made a difference to the vehicle manufacturer’s culture?

By Alister Scott and Neil Scotton


At the recent launch of the book, Coaching in Times of Crisis and Transformation, we opened our section on Legacy Thinking by posing a question:

What is the difference between ‘What do you want?’ (the standard opening in various forms for coaching conversations and visioning exercises), and ‘How do you want to be remembered?’?

Dr Ho Law’s hand went up straight away: “It brings others into it,” he said. Exactly.

We reflected on how former VW boss Martin Winterkorn may end up being remembered. Not for the years of hard work, sacrifice, many right decisions and complex negotiations that undoubtedly made his career, that’s for sure.

The emissions scandal is costing VW billions. By association, it is damaging many other organisations and indeed the wider German economy and reputation. Could coaching have made a difference to the vehicle manufacturer’s culture?

VW’s initial response, that it was caused by a few rogue engineers, stretches credulity – the process of building a product as complex as a car doesn’t work like that.


Imagine this

So we’ve explored the theme, ‘Imagine there were coaches working with these people’, with Declan Woods in the UK, global head of Standards and Accreditation for the Association for Coaching (AC) and Shawna Corden in the US, a member of the Ethics Community of Practice committee’s Ethics Code Review team, which recently updated the ICF’s influential Code of Ethics.

Some big themes emerged:

There’s a growing lack of trust in big organisations; Shawna recounted a conversation with a friend who owns a VW diesel. How did her friend feel? “They are all doing it, aren’t they?”

Car makers can now join the wide range of organisations across sectors discredited in some way for the methods by which they sell, operate, treat people, pay taxes (or not) and report to the public. Many employ coaches and are developing coaching cultures and internal coaching. And people are trusting these organisations less and less.

Examples came up of ‘cultures of fear’; places where “if you care about your future, you don’t tell the boss the real story”. There were examples of careers damaged by whistleblowing. Such cultural issues can be a particular challenge for internal coaches.

A simple truth emerged that if a leader makes us feel ‘on edge’, chances are others feel it, too, and the truth will not be spoken to them. And that has big consequences. How do you feel about naming this in client work?


Actions : Consequences

We are increasingly separated from the consequence of our actions. Shawna was moved by a story we shared from a client who spoke of their shock on a trip to the developing world: many adverts promoted cosmetics with skin whitening additives (what message does that give/reinforce about skin colour?) and waterways were clogged with nappies, sanitary products and packaging – products that local refuse methods cannot handle.

It is unlikely that a coach and client in a shiny head office would have any idea of what impact ‘rising sales in developing markets’ may be having or indeed if there is any sense of responsibility beyond point of sale.

Similarly, how many coaches and clients know or care about what happens in the supply chain? Figures are up, the client is happy, it’s all good, right?

And where exactly does responsibility lie anyway – with client, coach, client’s boss, further up, or somewhere else altogether? What is the difference between illegal and unethical? And whose ethics have precedence?

These things are complicated. But should we ignore exploring them in our work?

Shawna spoke of the dangers of “rationalising” bad practices. This is where we hear, ‘It’s only a little thing, it won’t be for long, everyone else is doing it, it’s the lesser of two evils….’

It is, frankly, easy to get complicit, and as long as the harm is not in front of us, well, out of sight is out of mind.


What’s your agenda?

What really is the client’s agenda? The unquestionable answer in the profession seems to be: whatever the client says in response to the question, “What do you want from this session /coaching?”

But frankly, for a leader, that’s too simplistic. As VW, and all those involved in scandals, have discovered, the reputation of the organisation and the welfare of all those in the business, supplying the business and on the receiving end of the business, is their agenda. As humans, those around us and who come after us are our agenda.

As the case of Martin Winterkorn makes clear, the client’s own career is their agenda. Shawna cites The Headline Test: What would be the response if this appears in the papers tomorrow?

The professional bodies’ codes of conduct make clear that we have responsibilities if there are illegal activities or potential to harm others.

Questions, of course, arise around ‘what is evidence?’ Would the coach know? And ‘potential to harm’ can be very subjective. Clear contracting is important.

Declan referred to the AC’s Executive Coach Accreditation. Specific competencies mentioned in this include:

  • Is aware of key stakeholders (internal and external) within the organisational system
  • Takes a systemic approach to coaching the client, encompassing the complexities of multiple stakeholders, different perspectives and conflicting priorities.


These are powerful principles. Perhaps it’s time to turn our questions on ourselves. When people look back in 20, 30 or 50 years’ time, and see what was going on in the world, and the options we had, and the decisions we did and didn’t take, what do we want them to say about us?

And perhaps Declan’s words are most appropriate to end on:

“Coaches should be courageous enough to provide some challenge and grit in the oyster. If the coach is aware of something not being right they should be prepared to dare to raise it, to challenge it directly, rather than to ignore it, sweep it under the table or put it in the ‘too difficult box’…. If there’s insufficient challenge, there’s insufficient change … if there’s insufficient change, what’s the point of coaching?”


Dr Alister Scott and Neil Scotton at The One Leadership Project help clients make big change happen. Their chapter on ‘Legacy Thinking’ appears in Coaching in Times of Crisis and Transformation (2015), published by Kogan Page and available from all good booksellers.

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