Why does the coaching profession struggle to encompass diversity, why should we care, and what can we do? In this two-part report we examine how we can embrace diversity in our coaching practices.

Part 1: Setting the scene. Pointers for why we should act and how, including case studies, by Rajvinder Kaur Uppal

Diversity is a reality. Globalisation, changing migration patterns, improved technology and increased communications have changed how business is done, who with, and who we deliver goods and services to – as well as who we live among.

Census data from 2010 indicates that 36%1 of the US population are diverse. In the UK, as of 2011, this figure was 14%.2 Diversity will continue to rise and spread across the globe, and what is currently the ‘minority’ will, by 2045, become the ‘new majority’.3

This ‘new normal’ provides an opportunity for industries, including coaching and mentoring, to re-examine their businesses, competencies and strategies to best engage with, target and monetise these changing markets.

Over the past few years many industries have faced scrutiny over their equality practices. In the US, for example, nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards attracted protests due to the perceived lack of racial diversity, and for not reflecting contemporary Hollywood. The viral backlash included the now infamous hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

More recently, PepsiCo faced accusations of being ‘tone deaf’4 to the realities of diversity and issues pertaining to the Black Lives Matter campaign. Following a global backlash, Pepsi was forced to pull what was, ironically, its peace campaign.

Social media backlash towards global organisations, events and consciousness are fast becoming the norm. This raises the stakes for service providers and industries to become more accountable.


Good business sense

Diversity has transitioned from being a politically correct buzzword to a reality for the future. Many global organisations and services are introducing diversity and inclusion departments to reflect market demographics and to respond to increasing legislative changes.

The key to serving diversity adequately is to ensure due diligence is undertaken. Diversity, if accurately processed, managed and delivered, can be good for business. A McKinsey Report in 2015,5 noted companies that are more racially and gender diverse not only outperform their competitors but also gain larger market share.

For diversity to fully benefit the majority of stakeholders, an organisation has to consider how it thinks culturally and whether it’ authentically inclusive and committed to reflecting and incorporating change.

Companies that reflect change as part of their process and corporate culture can create workplaces and environments that enable diverse talent recruitment, but more importantly improved talent retention and promotion. Diversity as integral to operations and services benefits workplace morale and interconnectedness and enhances workplace creativity and innovation.

Coaching and mentoring have aided many leaders within companies to reach their goals. However, it is ironic that the lens of self-reflection and revisions in leadership and service provision may not be adapting to changing market trends and flux within the coaching profession itself.

The coaching profession, still relatively young, remains an unregulated industry somewhat immune from public and professional scrutiny. There’s potential for it to be a vital support for the diversity agenda, for both organisations and individuals.

The profession needs to be more mindful of how it acknowledges and facilitates racial diversity, including in training, hiring, organisational practice, branding, marketing, workplace and service delivery. Below are ideas about how to do this.


  • Adapt and adopt inclusive business models

The coaching profession needs to ensure it reflects the needs of the ever-changing market and growing new client bases and potential; also that its services are marketed to ensure inclusivity and reflect the society we live in. Coaches may need to adapt to be more culturally and practically appealing; to undertake training in and around diversity and inclusion and to consider their own diversity hiring.

The coaching profession and coaches themselves must be willing and able to look at diversity in their own cultural and racial awareness, and their own and their client’s workplaces – addressing it both consciously and sub-consciously.


  • Ensure inclusive coaching approaches

Coaching as a concept, specifically traditional coaching, for example, the early foundations of coaching and models such as GROW, are marketed and widely considered Western models. Uniform models, despite being results-orientated, do not necessarily register external and underlying factors, systems or indeed diversity aspects of a client that could be useful. Pay attention to the models, approaches, frameworks, tools and techniques you use in coaching, adapting as needed to ensure diversity and inclusion are taken care of.


  • Embed diversity awareness into training

Training needs to ensure coaches have greater understanding of diversity to achieve greater results for their clients. This requires the coaching profession to turn the lens of due diligence on itself to assess and adapt its own cultural and racial understandings and expertise to ensure it is systemically moving towards reflecting and working alongside market demands.


  • Ensure your ethical approach embraces diversity and inclusion

Professional coaching bodies, including the International Coach Federation, do emphasise the importance of recognising equality and diversity. The updated Global Code of Ethics – which has five signatories – calls on members to “respect diversity and [be] alert to the possibility of the emergence of their own unconscious bias and the potential for inadvertent discrimination in all their communications”.

The signatories are: Association for Coaching, European Coaching & Mentoring Council, Association for Professional Executive Coaching and Supervision, Associazione Italiana Coach Professionisti and Mentoring Institute, University of New Mexico in the US.

However, given that coaching is unregulated, guidelines and terms of conduct are hard to monitor or stipulate. With no obligation for coaches to follow ethical guidelines nor any repercussions, there is a real danger these are seen as virtual signalling.


  • Be aware of potential organisational culture limitations

Coaches also need to have the ability to recognise and work within flawed systems. The reality is that very few organisations and companies have managed to engage a company culture that inwardly and outwardly incorporates and values diversity seamlessly in their operating DNA.

This may create obstacles and/or potential conflict for some clients. It is key that the coach working within such organisations is able to identify and acknowledge this, and tactfully ensure the needs of the client are considered and treated as paramount.

Bringing about change in the workplace will require robust future thinking and extensive transformation programmes which explicitly address unconscious bias. Coaching can play a key part in this.



Working in flawed systems can throw up all sorts of issues for the diversity-aware coach, and which will often benefit from the coach working with a supervisor. Coaches need to ensure their supervisor has had appropriate training in diversity awareness. They also should be aware of where, when and how they may need to refer the client to a specialist or coach with appropriate diversity awareness. This could be a coach from the same racial group as the client, who may have better cultural and racial understanding, and be able to address the prospective needs of the client.

Alternatively, it could mean finding a coach who has greater experience and training to work with the cultural and racial barriers a client may be facing.


Next steps

Real progress will be made when diversity moves from an obligatory, politically correct term, to one that strives for real inclusion. Diversity needs a seat at the decision-making table. Leaders of coaching institutions, and training and accreditation bodies need to take the lead and treat diversity as a legal, ethical and business obligation. Diversity needs to be a cultural and practical norm not segregated and considered an issue to tackle.



The reality is that diversity and inclusion need to be given the highest priority, with a clear value proposition, for any business or profession to survive and thrive in the future.

Diversity and the changes ahead provide the opportunity for the coaching profession to analyse, strategise, market, innovate and deliver for this ‘new normal’.

Coach training organisations, accreditation bodies, sponsors, coaches and coach supervisors, and academics in this arena must become proactive leaders around diversity. They need to be committed to ensuring the coaching profession does not fall through the cracks of accountability, adaptability and appropriateness in service provision and delivery.


  • Rajvinder Kaur Uppal is a member of the AC, the International Coach Federation and the Change Management Institute, UK. She runs Plan B Consultancy, offering a tailored approach to coaching, and has more than 25 years of eclectic work experience spanning three continents.
  • www.planbconsultancy.co.uk


Case study 1: Joyce

Joyce is an African-Caribbean woman in her late 30s. She has worked for the same housing management company for 10 years. Joyce is diligent and enjoys her job as a housing manager. She has unsuccessfully applied for senior roles twice in the past two years. She’s been quite vocal when she’s witnessed inappropriate behaviour, reporting discriminatory banter she’s overheard to her line manager.

Joyce feels that her personality, which she sees as being an open book and confident, may be seen by some, including her line manager, as ‘troublesome’. Following her latest failed attempt at promotion, she feels stuck, stigmatised and unappreciated. Joyce is considering making a complaint but is concerned this would add more stress for her and make her even more unpopular. She believes that she would never be offered, let alone find, the right coach in her workplace. Joyce also lacks faith and trust in the system, and as a result, independently sought and paid for a coach outside the workplace.

Joyce found someone, recommended, from her own racial background and who doesn’t work in her field, who she felt at ease with and able to discuss what she saw as stereotyping holding her back at work. Joyce has been able to discuss issues she could never contemplate, nor wish to discuss with her manager, who she feels doesn’t understand or know who she really is, and would likely judge her for her opinions and hold her back even more so.



Case study 2: Yen

Yen graduated from a prestigious law school and is two years into his law career, working for a large law firm in London. The company recently announced a remit to undertake more work within diverse communities. During a team meeting, Yen was asked by a senior partner if he would lead on working with the Chinese community on immigration issues. Yen felt under pressure to oblige, as there was little engagement or discussion in the request. Another lawyer with Indian origin was asked to do similar work with the Indian community, and agreed wholeheartedly.

Yen does not have any links with any diverse communities and only speaks English. He is keen to ensure he is valued for his broad spectrum of work and is anxious not to be pigeonholed and held back by being viewed as one of the ‘minority’ lawyers. He attempted to discuss his concerns with his coach who is based internally on a voluntary basis and hasn’t received relevant diversity training.

Yen was conscious that the coach had no real understanding of what he was trying to raise around his concerns, so he changed the discussion topic to pass the time in his coaching session. As the coaching is not about his true concerns, he is yet to see any real benefits from the sessions. He wants to enjoy his work and doesn’t want to continually vent about his concerns when he gets home to his partner, who thinks he is being taken advantage of.

Yen’s only objective is to be a great lawyer, not a diversity lawyer, to climb the ladder at work and to one day reach partner status.



Case study 3: Jaswinder

Jaswinder is a newly appointed NHS team leader, managing a team of 14 social workers in the Midlands, UK. After 15 years of service, Jaswinder was successful in being promoted from within the team. As a result, she knows some of her colleagues as friends and also knows most of their strengths, flaws and weaknesses.

She has found managing her team difficult on a personal level as many continually play to her ‘friend card’ or play the ‘race card’ when she tries to advise them of some of their mistakes and guide them to areas for improvement. Jaswinder feels as though she cannot do right for wrong and thinks that her promotion isn’t worth the extra money, as it’s more work with little gain.

Most of her time is consumed dealing with personnel issues and tactical politics, with limited social work, which she misses. Her line manager, who is also Asian, is known to be extremely inexperienced and new into the job. Jaswinder has requested some coaching. She is keen to discuss her issues with someone who isn’t going to avoid the sensitivity of race and diversity as she has found the department to be extremely keen to be seen as politically correct, but often lacks real change
and direction.

  • Be willing to learn and address your own prejudice and bias
  • Avoid relying on a go-to coaching model that doesn’t recognise your client but just relies on goals alone
  • Avoid confusing religion and culture as one and the same thing
  • Allow the client the time and space to tell their own narrative and dictate if/when culture and race could be an issue or area for discussion
  • Be willing to critically assess your own marketing and branding and establish where you sit within the market
  • Be aware that you don’t need to just aim to have diversity clients to be part of the change strategy. Your work within the coaching culture and work with organisations can also be effective change.


1., 3. D Burgos & O Mobolade, Marketing to the New Majority – Strategies for a Diverse World. NYC: Palgrave MacMillan: Millward Brown Publishing, 2011

4. Census (2011), Office for National Statistics, London, UK4. T Jan, (5 April, 2017), ‘Pepsi tried cashing in on Black Lives Matter with a Kendall Jenner ad. Here’s how that’s going’, in The Washington Post

5. V Hunt, D Layton & S Prince, (January 2015) Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Co Online




Part 2: Why does the profession struggle to embrace diversity? What else might it do to bring about a shift? David Clutterbuck reports


Take a look at the spread of your coaching practice. How similar and dissimilar are your clients?

I frequently ask this question at events around the world and the answer is almost always: not very! Gender diversity tends to be quite high, though female coaches tend to have more male clients than men have female clients. But racial and cultural diversity tends to be low and, in some cases, almost non-existent. For example, in one group in Asia-Pacific, all the Caucasian coaches had almost all clients from the same culture; all the Chinese coaches overwhelmingly had Chinese clients. How has this come about? Among the reasons are:

  • In most societies, executive coaching tends to focus on people in power positions, inevitably predominantly from the dominant cultural group
  • Coaches tend to move in social groups they feel most comfortable with, so they don’t necessarily encounter potential clients from other parts of society
  • It is usually easier to build rapport with someone from a similar background and culture.


There are pluses and minuses. The pluses include playing to our strengths. The minuses include avoidance of challenge. If we are serious about our development as coaches, then it makes sense to seek coaching relationships that offer us opportunities to learn.

We can seek different perspectives, from which we can learn, in numerous dimensions: gender, work role, discipline, personality type, disability, sexual preference and, of course, race and culture. It can take courage to engage with and develop requisite trust and intimacy with someone a little different. It takes more courage to work with someone who is different on multiple dimensions.

Having made the decision to seek greater diversity in our practice, how do we find diverse clients? A helpful approach is to seek alternative networks, being honest about why you want to engage in co-learning. It’s important to demonstrate real interest in understanding the world through the eyes of people in this community. Offering pro bono coaching gives you valuable experience, which translates eventually into paid assignments.

Other ways to install greater diversity in coaching practice include:

  • Identifying those groups, or individuals, with whom we feel least comfortable and able to be authentic – then deliberately seeking opportunities to engage with them. This requires us to identify and test the boundaries of who we can work with. It’s OK to find you can’t build sufficient rapport with some people to coach effectively. For me, one such group is fundamentalists (religious or political), because I have not been able to find ways to help them have self-honest conversations. That limitation defines me more than them, but recognising my boundaries has freed me to be myself with a wider range of people.
  • Seek diversity in your supervision group. Did they all come through the same route of coach education? Do they all work with similar clients to your own? The probability is that they will have the same limiting assumptions as you do.
    In a more diverse supervision group, you are much more likely to have your assumptions challenged!
  • Could you benefit from reverse mentoring from someone from a different culture or background? Would you listen more attentively to them than to a similar peer?
  • Cultural intelligence is becoming a core competence for coaches. While it’s not necessary to be an expert, what can you do to ensure your cultural awareness and competence constantly increases?
  • How do you contribute to the development of the coaching profession? Among the most common ways are blogs and articles based on research. If you create such materials, how diverse is the range of your co-authors? The benefit of co-writing with people from different cultures is not just that you learn from them (and vice versa). Equally important is that co-authoring gives them exposure and helps them break the publishing glass ceiling. Academic journals, particularly, are subject to unconscious bias in that some now remove any hint of either gender or nationality from the peer review process. However, that still does not apply to most academic journals, nor to the popular literature.


A key part of coaching is helping clients enlarge their world view and overcome assumptions and biases that limit themselves and others, whose lives they influence. If we aren’t doing the same for ourselves, what does that say about the ethics of our coaching practice?