Charly Cox has found her purpose, her ‘my why’, and focusing on climate change and coaching is the perfect vehicle to get her message across
After much deliberation and trepidation, and push-back from others, systems coach and former photojournalist Charly Cox re-launched herself as a climate change coach. It’s proved to be timely and welcome.
Cox had spent two years trying to write her new website “because it felt very edgy to come out as a climate change coach when I’m not an environmental scientist”. Even the day before launching the website at the end of 2013, she considered removing the words ‘climate change’.
“There’s a whole bunch of coaches with a sustainability background so quite sensibly they’ve niched into sustainability. But when I said I wanted to work in climate change, lots of coaches pushed back and said, ‘that’s having an agenda’. And of course you have all the same doubts that jump up of not having any clients, of limiting yourself.”
Thankfully, Cox stuck to her guns. The phone started ringing and it’s continued doing so.
“The day after putting the site live, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) launched a report – brilliant timing, although completely by accident – someone rang me at 9am to get me to write a blog, and someone else for me to speak. I thought, you’re such an idiot, you should have done this two years ago! Look at how much positivity it’s generating.
“What’s interesting is that I’d convened some coaches through a Coaches Training Institute (CTI) Facebook page. Older coaches and/or those with activism bias were struggling with what they wanted the world to do, and felt slightly threatened. But newer coaches didn’t see climate change as an agenda problem; they either said, this is niching, or this is purpose. We had an interesting conversation about how we have to manage our own threat response and attachment because that’s not serving. We can be coaches but also mention this stuff.
“I think there’s a danger that [as coaches] we’re stepping away from being challenging or even being revealing of the whole system. I’d love to believe that when people get into a place of wellness, that that’s enough and we can stop at that point, that we don’t have to say, let’s connect you with the bigger environment. Eve Turner and Peter Hawkins (Turner & Hawkins, 2019) have written about this in their new book, about connecting people to something bigger.”
Most of Cox’s work comes through referrals. One reason why her business is going really well is because she’s re-found her purpose – she believes.
“I’m standing in ‘my why’ and it’s working. We tell clients all the time to find their purpose and fulfilment, certainly if you’ve come from CTI training [as she has]. If we’re not doing that too, why should clients follow that model?”
In addition to her own coaching practice, started in 2016, supporting those making career changes into the green economy (as well as some social justice clients she’s kept on), she set up The Climate Change Coaches in 2018 using an associate model, offering free street coaching at events and in communities. The organisation is moving into doing more systems coaching workshops to reach many deeply and have more impact, rather than one-to-one.
Why does she care about climate change? “I care about fairness. I have a real desire for equality and what upsets me about climate change is that we thoughtlessly and unknowingly made life worse for people who have done very little to contribute to the problem, which feels deeply unfair. I’m always wanting to support the underdog.”
Having her first baby in May 2016 fuelled her passion for action further. Many of her clients are parents, too, she finds. “Now I have literal skin in the game, I don’t have a choice [about working on climate change].”
A coaching approach is ideal when it comes to responding to the climate crisis and related issues.
“As coaches we know that when people believe and are believed in, they do incredible things. People experience real problems when they try and help others believe because they’re using a teaching, not a coaching approach.
“We’ve seen time and again that building good relationships with others enables you to empower and influence them, and that coaching skills like non-judgement and open questions allow people to express their concerns safely so that they can move forward. Telling people what to do doesn’t work; helping them work it out with you, does.”
Key, too, is tackling powerlessness.
“When I was rooting around, deciding what to do, I listened to lots of podcasts and read lots of books. I started drawing out the different parts of the system and put speech bubbles on them, imagining what they might say. So what you heard was ‘anxious’, ‘uncertain’, but the root cause in all the parts was powerlessness, even if they were governments or big corporations. It made me think, oh, if this is just a powerlessness problem, [empowering is] what we [coaches] do for a living.
“Another thing was finding out from research by Ipsos Mori that 4% of people don’t believe in climate change. It speaks to that agenda piece. The story has moved on from, ‘you should care about climate change’ to, ‘you do care but you don’t know what to do about it’. If the question is, ‘I want it; I don’t know how’, then that’s the beginning of every coaching session I ever have. I also noticed there are tonnes of resources out there but of course, when we look at them, the lack of belief gets in the way of us adopting them.
“There’s a dual process happening where both coaches and clients are saying, ‘I don’t know how’. Someone said to me, ‘climate change has been institutionalised by the technocrats’. It’s an interesting idea that scientists own it. So one of the things we do in workshops is a constellation around climate change, and the quality of the conversation is really rich. If we’ve made it safe, someone will say, I don’t believe in climate change, someone else, I don’t think it’s fair that the developing world can’t have what we had, or, I don’t know what to do for the best. And we’re able to say, you’re having the same quality of conversation as they’re having at Davos and the UN Security Council. It’s empowering – they’re like, really? Suddenly they start to get into collective action.
“One scientist I spoke to, said, ‘this is a human behaviour change problem’, and I said, ‘that’s what I do as a living’. As soon as he told me it was a problem I could solve, I thought, OK, I don’t need to retrain as a scientist. So The Climate Change Coaches was a response to the, ‘how do we take this to the public as opposed to the people who will pay us for coaching’, how do we get bigger than that?”
Cox worked at Save the Children head office in London for five years, then for a year for the charity in Sierra Leone.
“I stayed on in Sierra Leone [afterwards] because I wanted to help the underdog. [Sierra Leone] were desperately trying to change their image as a country, after terrible conflict, and I had an opportunistic and idealistic response.”
She retrained in China in photojournalism, came back and noticed that NGOs all expensively flew in photographers. As she already knew lots of local photographers, she realised they could offer the same quality at half the cost. At the same time, she thought, “these dudes know the country and won’t take people’s dignity away and will get the nuances, and we will subtly shift the dial, because there will be photos you won’t get from us.”
The creative agency she set up worked with the UN, among others.
“It was really fun. I loved building something and creating with humanity jobs in a country with so few. We were a family. Nobody could tell me not to give someone money for a taxi for their wife in labour. You had to be knitted into the community; it was really in your face. It taught me about the power of relationships in business which NGOS can totally miss, going in in a transactional way. Also everyone there was focused on solving real problems, they weren’t just making another widget to make money. They said, ‘what needs doing here?’
“Spin forward seven years and I want to leave – it’s 2012. I’d seen some great leadership on a shoestring and some terrible leadership when there were pots of cash, and I thought, there’s something in this. The lie in development is that you can’t do anything without money. I thought, but the problem is leadership, so maybe I should go and work on that to solve the problem of social justice quicker. The planet just slid me by! None of us were talking about the rock underneath us, which seems crazy now but the scales were over all of our eyes.”
During her transition back to the UK, Cox was working with a coach who helped her reframe the negativity she was feeling about getting rid of jobs she’d created.
“I now talk about this in coaching – finding a dream about climate change rather than a nightmare. My coach helped me build a dream. I sat my national staff down and asked what their dream jobs were. They came up with things I thought, no way. Our night guard Yousef wanted to be a computer technician, though he had no numeracy or literacy. But I kept my mouth shut because it would all be post-closing. I gave them all a budget for re-training as well as five times the legal severance pay. The best use of profit ever! Yousef proved to be a complete computer whizz – he came second in his class.
“[My staff] taught me how to coach. I didn’t tell them they couldn’t do it, so they did it! Most, like Yousef, had no literacy or numeracy. And I now get clients with PhDs saying, do you think I can do it, Charly? and I say, of course!”
Having decided to become a leadership coach, she trained with Coaches Training Institute (2013-4), then in 2015, as a systems and relationship coach with CRR Global.
Cox and her associates are designing a modular training model comprising an accredited coach training programme and a companion course for non-coaches to use coaching skills.
“We realised through a lot of market testing and conversations that there’s a big need to create a programme to teach coaching skills to influence, empower and create change. This is a shift from trying to do it by ourselves. We want everyone to have the skills to be a climate change coach!
“We will also build a global network of coaches with the skills to work on climate change topics. We will still offer free ad hoc coaching and workshops at events…[but]… our focus in impact terms will be on the training programmes.”
They’ve also been approached by an academic publisher to write a book on climate change coaching, “a hugely exciting way to communicate the philosophy of empowerment in this climate change space”.
Cox believes it’s particularly important to role model in climate change coaching. “As a leadership coach, a big thing was modelling behaviour such as the pursuit of awareness and constant questioning and saying, I’m scared. In the climate change space, we need to role model compassion, creativity, love, agency, generosity, acceptance, because there’s more polarisation, hatred and fear coming down the tracks. It’s about helping people return to the generous person inside them.
“The IPCC report is pretty scary in terms of the global south getting too hot for people to live in – where are they going to go? There’s a real need, even if we don’t do what I did, which is turn my business to climate change. Who we’re being as coaches has a really important role here – we can be what the world needs more of and that’s contagious. What you put in, you breed.”