China’s coaching market is becoming increasingly sophisticated and competitive, writes Wang Fangqing, in Shanghai


Professional coaching in China is starting to move into the mainstream, with the intervention increasingly welcomed into businesses, whether foreign or locally owned.

The Shanghai operation of the International Coach Federation (ICF) witnessed a surge in coaching activities within mainland China’s most important commercial centre last year. Most months, it invited an internationally recognised coach to give a speech to enthusiastic Chinese local audiences. Among these speakers were Leda Turai Petrauskiene, a Lithuanian master certified coach (MCC; by ICF credentialling), and Marilyn O’Hearne, also an MCC fellow, who hails from Kansas City in the US.

There is no MCC in mainland China so far, but it may not be long before a Chinese national becomes certified to this level. In the meantime, these MCCs have been offering a wide variety of topics to Chinese coaching audiences, from trends in coaching, to how to customise western coaching ideas for Chinese clients, and how to use coaching methods in parenting. According to ICF Shanghai, there will be more such events in 2017 due to “growing local demand”.

ICF Shanghai is not the only coaching body with busy schedules. Create Coach, which offers ICF certified coaching programmes and provides coaching services, is also increasing the number of its educational events.

“Compared to training, coaching is still a new idea to Chinese people. But it is spreading in China at a surprisingly fast pace,” Create Coach co-founder Tess He tells Coaching at Work, sitting on a terrace above her office in downtown Shanghai.

Create Coach was founded in 2013. The first year, most of He’s work was not finding clients, but telling people what coaching was and how it could help companies.

“Back then, people took coaching as a sort of training. But it changed quickly. From early last year, I got companies coming to me asking about coaching and asking for our services. Actually, we haven’t done much marketing since late 2015,” He says.

Despite China’s slowing economic growth, her business has been growing so fast that last year the company had to open a Beijing office to meet demand. “In Shanghai, we target both companies and individuals, but in Beijing, we started with individual clients,” she notes.

Among these customers, HR managers from big companies account for about 30% of business, says He.

“HR managers usually want to learn about coaching either because they want to introduce the service to their company leaders, or they want to change their career in the future,” He continues.

Indeed, HR managers, especially from multinationals’ Chinese operations, are eager to learn about coaching. In November, a group of HR managers from companies including Intel and Apple, gathered in Shanghai to listen to a presentation by a Shanghai-based German freelance coach Bettina Al-Sadik-Lowinski.

She talked about the challenges and opportunities for female executives in China, where about 38% of senior managers are women, compared with 20% in the US and 16% in Germany, according to the recruiting firm Hays.

Shelley Shen, HR director at Saint-Gobain PAM China, the China-based arm of the French pipes and fittings specialist, was in the audience and spoke to Coaching at Work.

“We have about 30% of female managers, who are an important asset for our company, therefore I want to understand what challenges they are facing, and how to help them thrive through coaching,” says Shen.

In 2016, she introduced a coaching system to 10 selected mid-level managers, including female managers. The coaching, which lasted about six months, was mainly about leadership development, emotional and stress management and team development.

“We observed positive behaviour change afterwards, and we got highly positive feedback from the managers, so we will run the programme again in 2017,” says Shen, adding she already has more applications from managers who wish to participate, than spaces.

Multinationals may be leading this coaching growth in China, but domestic companies are following closely. In recent years, state-owned companies have been urged to reform and to learn from western companies to change sometimes obsolete ways of running their companies. Now, some of them [have] started to use coaches, according to Create Coach’s He.

“Among our clients, many are big companies from traditional industries like banking and energy, and they are seriously challenged by young, dynamic, internet-based companies, which often adopt a western-style management,” she says.

These clients include China’s largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and China’s major auto-manufacturer, SAIC Motor Corporation.

Larger Chinese companies are using coaching partly because they are finding traditional staff management can work poorly with millennials.

“Young Chinese are more self-asserting, and they like to be in a more equal, free-style work environment. China’s traditional top-down style management often leads to a high turnover rate, which is very bad for a company’s virtuous growth,” says He.

In such an environment, it may be no surprise that competition in China’s coaching market is already hot. Aside from a handful of coaching service providers, including Create Coach, there are also individual coaches, such as Al-Sadik-Lowinski, who is a professional certified coach (PCC).

Her clients are mostly expat senior managers at multinationals in China. And she notes that when she has been invited to coach a Chinese executive, it has usually been because the individual is facing challenges
working in a multinational team: “For example, how to manage a relationship with foreign colleagues who are probably based in different countries? How to manage a relationship with foreign bosses? Language here is no longer the issue, but the mindset,” she says.

Now with more Chinese companies expanding globally, Al-Sadik-Lowinski sees such intercultural challenges becoming more prevalent and this, in turn, will bring opportunities for coaching services.

But for companies, how should they choose the right coach?

“Chinese local coaches are catching up very quickly, although coaching is still a relatively new idea in the country. I have personally seen many high quality local coaches, but I have also heard some complaints,” she says.

Saint-Gobain’s Shen agrees. Shen, who herself is being trained for ICF’s associate certified coach (ACC) qualification, has developed an interview method to weed out the coaches she deems “unsuitable”.

“Some coaches used to be consultants, and naturally they like to give solutions. But coaching is not about telling people what to do, but inspiring them to find solutions and make changes on their own,” she says.

Another “undesirable” type, Shen says, is the untrained mentor. She says such coaches like to influence a client with their own values to lure him or her to make a decision that probably is not entirely based on independent thinking.

“This is even more dangerous because this kind of coaching is hard to be detected during interviews. I have to check with our managers during the session to see if there is such a problem,” says Shen.

She also suggests that HR managers in companies wishing to use coaching should learn about coaching even if it is not for their own personal career development. “Coaching isn’t a cheap investment for any company. The market is not mature yet so coaching quality varies. We need to be knowledgeable enough to get the best quality for what we pay,” she told Coaching at Work.


FACT FILE: Coaching in China

In 2015, over 53,000 professional coaches were practising globally, 3,700 of which were in Asia, according to the 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study published with PwC. Each coach in Asia had an average of 9.8 active clients paying US$232 an hour, according to the study. Most Chinese respondents (53%) identified as external coaches, 4% as internal and 15% a mix of both, while 28% identified as managers and leaders using coaching skills. Almost half (45%), saw coaching as a profession. Another study by Chinese firm Coaching Surveys, noted that in China coaching was used mostly by high-tech firms and the healthcare industry, 73% being multinationals.



The China operation of Saint-Gobain Pam (SGPAM), which is headquartered in Shanghai, started using coaching way back in 2008. Unlike some other companies who prefer to have their headquarters plan coaching for each regional operation, SGPAM gives its China operation full authority to run its own coaching programmes.

Shelley Shen, HR director at SGPAM China, is in charge of the coaching programme for her country division. Initially, coaching only served senior executives, but in 2016 Shen started a programme for mid-level managers too.

A recent six-month session was about change management, as a department had to take on more responsibilities and work with different partners due to internal structural changes. The coaching was very successful, with obvious improvement regarding emotional control, teamwork and cross-department communication, she recalls.

“People are used to their comfort zone and are reluctant to change. But in the current fast-changing market, a company has to adjust more often than before to meet all kinds of challenges. We think it’s important for our managers to prepare well for sudden changes,” Shen says.

Shen also developed criteria to choose the right coach, looking beyond certification. During interviews, Shen usually would invite coaches to ask her questions: “Coaching is about asking the right questions to inspire the coachee to think deep, so I need to see if the candidate is capable of asking powerful questions,” Shen says.

Also taken into account is the coach’s background. “We are a foreign manufacturer in China, so it’s natural that our executives would prefer their coach to share similar experiences with them,” Shen says. For example, a coach who used to be a senior manager at a multinational manufacturer in China would be much preferred.

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