Katherine Chowdry has always championed coaching in her roles at British Transport Police. Through restructure, a sideways move, budget restrictions and her conversion to Islam, her passion did not waver, and now her efforts are bearing fruit. Liz Hall reports

When British Transport Police (BTP)’s HR department was restructured and relocated from London in 2010 and internal coaching champion Katherine Chowdry’s role made redundant, it seemed the organisation’s coaching initiative was in its death throes.

A coaching strategy had been launched in BTP in 2009, which saw external coach consultants Linbert Spencer OBE and Lois Leeming team up with BTP’s Chowdry to train internal coaches, with the idea that coaching would then ripple out through the organisation. However, budget restrictions and lack of an in-house team meant it was difficult to keep up the momentum.

“We were left with people who were passionate about coaching but who’d become demotivated,” says Chowdry, now career development and talent management advisor, and coaching lead in the 5,000-strong BTP.

The HR restructure then seemed to be the final straw. Chowdry was on maternity leave, and when she returned to work there were no HR or L&D roles available so she joined the Justice Department as a witness and case officer, a role completely new to her.

It was to be another five years before she was able to move back into people development, as the first advisor within the newly established career development department. The department was created in response to concerns highlighted in an employee survey around insufficient career development, opportunities and transparencies around promotion processes particularly for police officers. Soon four others joined her, two in London as well and the others in Glasgow and Birmingham.

Chowdry’s passion for coaching was very much still alive. A working mother of three and a convert to Islam, she’d benefitted from having a coach to establish an effective work-life balance and embrace her new identity, and was passionate about others enjoying the benefits of coaching too. However, despite her commitment, there was still no budget at BTP for a large-scale coaching initiative, and she faced some seriously demotivated internal coaches.

“Although there was some coaching going on, there were quite a lot of disheartened coaches who felt they’d been made promises about how coaching was going to be used within the organisation and how they were going to be supported and it just hadn’t happened so I had a bit of a job getting these people back on side.

“[When I came back], fortunately some of these coaches knew me and I’d showed my passion, but others didn’t and didn’t have that trust. I was really wary; if it we didn’t get it right this time, we’d lose these 10-15 coaches.”

Chowdry was undeterred. Her request to be the lead on coaching paid off, and in 2015 the Coaching Centre of Expertise was also launched. Three years on, Chowdry’s passion and commitment to coaching and mentoring, and the support of colleagues, have borne fruit. So, too, her creativity, including around achieving much with scant resources.

“There’s no money – everything we’re doing is on a zero budget!” she says.

One of the first things the Coaching Centre did was to put in place an official process and guidance for internal coaches, including a code of ethics, resources such as guidance on contracting, a reflective log and a process for referrals for counselling.

Coaching and mentoring is now accessible to all staff, and has been embedded in many development programmes. BTP currently has 28 qualified internal coaches, trained through the BTP Leadership Academy, which facilitates the coach training accredited by Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

“CMI accreditation gives us the capacity to build a coaching culture, we save a lot of money and it gives us a lot of flexibility as to when we put on courses.”

A further 32 coaches are being trained in London and Liverpool, also to CMI Level 5, and there’s a waiting list for the next two programmes in September in London and Birmingham. September will also see the launch of a Level 7 CMI-accredited coaching qualification.

There are numerous other initiatives underway or in place, including BTP’s ‘Expresso Coaching’ events that offer staff the chance to sample coaching, and which are boosting demand.


Discovering coaching

The first time Chowdry got a taste for the world of coaching was in 2008 when working for the BTP as an employee development manager and attended a two-day CIPD career development coaching training programme.

A year later she was facilitating the Step Up career development programme with Spencer and Leeming, for BTP officers and staff.

In addition to secondment and work shadowing opportunities, participants were offered coaching around development goals.

Chowdry was also a participant, and recalls, “I was coached by Lois – my first experience of being coached, which was great and really sparked my interest. And I just felt I naturally fitted into that style of conversation with people.”

Evaluation of the programme showed that coaching was the strongest element in terms of the effectiveness of people development.

Because at this time the organisation was footing a hefty bill for external coaching, Chowdry started working with Spencer to devise the Coaching Cascade programme, which included reaching out to previous Step Up participants who could be trained so they could then train others internally.

When Chowdry came back, as part of the new coaching offer, she set up six-monthly CPD sessions for internal coaches. Spencer ran the first CPD event, which helped turn things around: “This was a good selling point, and it helped to change coaches’ attitudes,” says Chowdry.


One of the key challenges in embedding coaching in BTP, says Chowdry, is a lack of understanding of what it is, and a tendency to seek out mentoring.

“Historically we have operated within a Command & Control and hierarchical environment. We are trying to move away from this and adopt a more transformational style of leadership that lends itself to coaching.

“People still don’t understand the difference between coaching and mentoring, and they’re very much swayed towards mentoring. We need to educate them.”

One step to address this has been to combine coaching and mentoring within the application form to receive the service.

“We found that because overall there’s a lack of understanding about what coaching is, when people want support, they automatically ask for a mentor, because that’s what they understand. Now even if they’ve asked for a mentor, we might think coaching would be better and so we have a ’phone call with them. This is increasing the demand for coaching.”

Another step has been to incorporate coaching and mentoring into all BTP’s leadership programmes, including for those new to management. Coaching input is now included in all career development workshops, and coaching and mentoring are now built into the popular team build days.

The twice yearly Expresso Coaching events, launched in 2016, are also helping. These take place in locations including London, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Participants receive a one-hour sample coaching session, with the option to have a further six sessions, not necessarily with the same coach.

Evaluation showed that participants subsequently had a better understanding of what coaching is, and their session helped them clarify goals and identify potential solutions to challenges. All said they would recommend coaching and 75% wanted further sessions.

“Evaluation has also shown that these events give our coaches opportunities to practise and develop their skills, and build their confidence. There are times when the demand for coaching doesn’t match the number of coaches and unfortunately not everyone will be coaching, nor have the time for it. We now have a number of senior people coaching, including a chief superintendent and a chief inspector so those people might not necessarily have the time to commit to six sessions and these events are great for them.”


Other initiatives

BTP forms part of the Police Coaching and Mentoring Enterprise, which has different players and enables online sharing of ideas. Other alliances include the department’s work with London First around development for BTP senior leaders, mostly mentoring, and it’s exploring working alongside City of London police to roll out cross-force mentoring. It works too with the College of Policing, which has a coaching programme. It’s also working closely with the wellbeing team to ensure coaching is formally available.

“We’re looking at how coaching can support those who’ve been on long-term sickness when they need to come back and integrate into an environment where things might have changed and they might have lost their confidence.

“There are avenues where people are referred for counselling but once that has come to an end, people might still want support, so we’re aiming to get coaching officially into that return-to-work structure as one of the options.”

It also intends to form links with the Professional Standards Department, perhaps offering coaching to support officers who’ve been through a conduct investigation. And it’s looking at rolling out a ‘Maternity Buddy Scheme’, using coaching to support pregnant women and those returning to work after maternity leave.


Changing direction

Prior to joining BTP, Chowdry was a line manager at John Lewis Partnership, studying fashion management. Halfway through the part-time four-year course, she had an epiphany.

“I realised I didn’t want to work in fashion and retail. What was interesting was the L&D, HR, OD side of things, which was part of that course content. I didn’t want to not get the degree, so I stuck with it and pulled out what I could. When it came to my dissertation, I did my best to tailor it as much to the world of people development as possible. I looked at employee branding and culture and how that attracts staff and links into retention levels. I got a 2:1, so I was pleased.

“It was really hard to make that transition into the world of HR though; it took me about three years. When I had my interview with BTP, they asked why I wanted to work there after all that time in retail. The dissertation helped.”

The shift had a lot to do with an inner change – in 2006, Chowdry converted to the Muslim faith.

“My priorities shifted, and clothes, shopping and fashion weren’t as important to me as before; there was a real shift.”

Although she was reticent to tell her parents until she was sure what she wanted, they were very supportive. “My mum said they didn’t give me a religion so I could choose. My parents were my biggest inspiration. My mum was a careers advisor, then an HR manager and my dad was a teacher so everything I do now goes along those lines.”

Conversion has brought its challenges: “Because I wear a headscarf, I’m visibly displaying my beliefs. There’s that conflict because I don’t want to be judged on that but at the same time, I’m telling people that’s my story. People will make judgements.

“The most challenging thing was when I was in John Lewis, going from one day not wearing the headscarf to the next day coming in with it, and the attitudes and judgements from people around that.”

However, when she joined BTP “it was almost like starting afresh for me, so it’s always been part of who I am and part of my identity”.

One challenge of being a Muslim in the workplace are the restrictions around socialising in certain settings.

“I have to find other ways to build networks. I think that if I’ve achieved stuff, I take it as a compliment; it’s through my work, not through the circles I’m socialising with.”

She says she always gets a really positive reception from people who are already Muslim: “They’re really fascinated and want to hear my story.

“In my experience, the key thing is communicating and creating an environment where people feel comfortable to ask questions about beliefs. We can’t be expected to know about everybody and everybody’s needs.”


Diversity at BTP

BTP does take diversity very seriously, in fact, it was the first police force to recruit female officers.

Chowdry is passionate about ensuring that coaching is accessible to all and is working hard to break down stereotypes of Muslim working women. She believes coaching can play a strong part in serving the diversity and inclusion agenda in general, and the team has already taken a number of steps to ensure it does so.

Applicants for receiving coaching or becoming a coach are invited to provide diversity information so
that diversity make-up can be monitored, and any appropriate positive action taken.

“For example, we’ve identified that we don’t have many female mentors of sergeant and inspector rank. This might not be an issue as we don’t have people specifying they only want a female mentor, but it means they don’t necessarily have that option. So we now intend to work with the Female Police Association support group, to explore running a positive action initiative to recruit more female mentor officers. That’s one way we can use the diversity data.”

The department also works with other support groups for staff with BME, disability, Christian and Muslim backgrounds, for example. As part of the training for the groups’ representatives, Chowdry now delivers a half-day session on coaching.

“Part of this is to make sure we’re appealing and accessible to everyone. We need to make sure coaching is tailored and put in special measures.

“We have to be careful and sensitive because not everyone wants to display that they have a disability or that they’re LGBT or their religious beliefs, for example. And legally we can’t put in place positive action programmes unless we have evidence of demand.”

A suggestion, from the Expresso event evaluation was to tailor some coaching programmes to minority groups.

“We will be giving this strong consideration. We want coaching to be accessible to all, and not seen as exclusive. We have to find that balance. It’s great to support groups but it can cause negativity among those not included in certain groups,” says Chowdry.


Also related to accessibility, but this time to training, is the delivery and assessment of the CMI qualification.

“Part of the assessment is to write a 3,000-word assignment, which some people struggle with, and some never complete. They become disengaged and we end up losing someone who could have been a really effective coach. We need to give more time and consideration to whether this is the best way to assess them. Perhaps we can do observations or professional discussions to limit the amount of essay writing and to speed up the process of getting people qualified. Some people have been held back for a few years.”

Another lesson she’s learned is to “keep in mind is that this is my day job but it’s not the coaches’ and mentors’ day jobs. They’re extremely busy and are doing this on the side.”


Next steps

“We’re doing all this fantastic work and we want to continue to build a coaching culture, but we’re not there at the moment.”

Key to this will be senior leader buy-in. The department has begun initial discussions with Tim Hawkes from Unlimited Potential, which carried out a sample coaching culture evaluation that highlighted the need for more widespread senior buy-in for coaching to become truly embedded.

“Unless we have that, we can only take it so far. I am personally committed and passionate about this and I don’t think I will want to let this go until I’m confident we have that buy-in.”


  • Katherine Chowdry will be sharing BTP’s coaching story at Coaching at Work’s annual conference on 4 July.