Henley Business School’s professor of coaching, Jonathan Passmore, is one of the ‘old guard’ of the profession. Nevertheless he is looking squarely to the future, readying the baton for a new generation of coaches. Liz Hall reports
‘The harder I practise, the luckier I get’: for CoachHub senior vice president and Henley Business School’s professor of coaching, Jonathan Passmore, this quote sums up his approach to work, and life in general.
It’s a quote attributed to various golfers, including Jerry Barber, and was popularised by golfer Gary Player. No matter the provenance, Passmore’s point is that he’s prepared to put in lots of effort, and it pays off. Passmore is one of the most prolific authors and most productive people I know.
“My philosophy is that you get as much out of life as you put in. We all start from different places. I was the first and only person in my family to go to university.
“You might have stony ground but if you work very hard, you’ll get a better crop in your field than if you didn’t work very hard. It’s not as easy as if you’ve had a rich and privileged upbringing and haven’t got stones in your field but we can all make progress.”
Passmore is a big believer in the power of education: “Education has been transformational for me in that journey. And that belief has led me to get five degrees because I’ve been obsessive about knowledge and science and evidence because it’s been great for me and I believe it can be empowering for others to help them transform their lives.”
Passmore has authored/edited 30 books, published more than 100 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, the vast majority on coaching. He’s also delivered about 250 presentations at conferences and other events around the world.
Even when he feared for his life when he caught Covid-19 in March 2020, his commitment was to write lots of books if he survived.
“I thought, if I get better, I’m going to commit myself to writing ten new books – one of the weird things you do when you’re quite unwell! So I’ve been working on various new projects. They include The Coaches’ Handbook (Passmore & Sinclair, 2021), Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide (Passmore & Sinclair, 2020), a series of books on coaching tools, and one that had just arrived from the printers when we spoke – a tome of nearly 1,000 pages (Greif, Möller, Scholl, Passmore & Müller, 2022).
In addition to his work ethic, another thing that motivates and powers him is his love of the new, he says. “I have a low boredom threshold. I do like to change. Once I get comfortable and I know how everything is working, that’s the time to go and do something else because I don’t like comfortable, I like the new.”
Passmore published papers in the 1990s on leadership and increasingly, between 2000 and 2010, he turned to writing “around coaching and developmental conversations and have carried that on using coaching and other psychological interventions, so an interest in mindfulness, and in Appreciative Inquiry as a conversational positive psychological approach to change.”
More recently, he’s been interested in third wave cognitive behavioural coaching approaches, starting with Motivational Interviewing (MI), Acceptance Commitment Therapy, compassion-based coaching, dialectical behavioural coaching and meta-cognitive coaching, and “taking these approaches and thinking about how we translate them into coaching as I’ve done with MI.”
This year saw the publication of his co-edited book on such approaches (Passmore & Leach, 2022).
The other series he likes to talk about is the Wiley-Blackwell eight handbook series on organisational psychology: “a massive editing project from 2012 to 2016. I did those at a pace of two a year.”
Passing the baton
Passmore sees himself as one of the old guard of the coaching profession, readying to pass the baton on to others. “It does feel like I’ve been involved in coaching for a long, long time.
“And I also feel that all of the people I knew in the early days are dying. We’ve lost John Whitmore, David Gray, David Megginson, Tony Grant, Alison Whybrow and others. [Many of] the old guard are dying, I feel there are more obituary pages we’re reading about one’s old friends. The old soldiers going to the sentry box in the sky.
“I see myself as trying to pass the baton on to others. And that is very much what my focus is: to encourage new voices to come through and to get more diversity in the voices who are sharing their thoughts, insights and wisdom and experience. That would be a good outcome as we go forward, to more fairly reflect the world in which we work and live.
“A whole cadre of individuals have lots of wisdom, different experiences and perspectives to share to help us move coaching on and situate coaching as a powerful intervention in people’s lives and workplaces.”
Last year, Passmore won an award from Coaching at Work with Charmaine Roche for contributions to social change (race equity) for the in-depth report they produced, Racial Justice, Equity and Belonging, sharing research among key stakeholders and issuing a call to action (https://bit.ly/3J993JY).
Getting into coaching
More than 20 years ago, Passmore attended a Newcastle College distance learning coaching course. At the time he was still working as a manager in a consulting firm, and was attracted to coaching as “something new”.
Soon he began to build up his own practice in PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). “At that stage coaching was being called career counselling, and was often about getting better at your own job or transitioning to another job.”
Still in the early 2000s, he “came together with people like Stephen Palmer, Alison Whybrow, Ho Law and Pauline Willis to form a coaching forum within the British Psychological Society (BPS – known as the Special Group in Coaching Psychology). While continuing in my own practice to think about designing coaching courses that would be as part of a consulting offering in organisations.”
A long-standing campaign for the BPS to launch a coaching psychology division recently came to fruition, thanks to the efforts of people such as Passmore, Palmer and Whybrow. Passmore was the first chair of the BPS Division of Coaching Psychology.
After PwC, Passmore joined OPM, where “we started calling [the approach] coaching and I led their coaching practice. From 2004, we developed Level 5 and Level 7 coaching courses with the Institute of Leadership & Management.”
In 2006-7, he started a doctorate in coaching at the University of East London (UEL). And in 2008, he set up two master’s coaching programmes, one in coaching psychology and one in coaching. He stayed at UEL until 2012, when he left to set up a consultancy practice and a partnership with another consultant, which they ran for about seven years, working in safety-critical industries such as construction, development and engineering.
“Then I sold that business and went to Henley Business School to join Christian van Nieuwerburgh who I’d originally trained in coaching at OPM. But he left before I started so I took over the coaching programmes and practices.”
Passmore has been with Henley for five years. During this time, he says: “We developed some new courses such as team coaching and coaching supervision. We put the MSc Coaching programme online and got it accredited by the Association for Coaching, the European Mentoring & Coaching Council and the International Coaching Federation. We increased the student numbers from 150 to 600, and expanded the research and consulting activity.
Evidence and science
“My passion has been around bringing evidence and science to coaching because what irritates and frustrates me has been in the early days a lot of people claiming the power of coaching but weren’t able to substantiate their claims. There was almost a claim that coaching is fairy dust – that you just sprinkle it on people and individuals will be transformed. I felt that was wrong. Not that coaching wasn’t powerful, but that we should make claims that are grounded in science and evidence.
“And if I felt that, then I had to get out there and do some of the research, I had to encourage other people to look at coaching with a critical eye and ask questions about what it could do but also about what its limitations were, and encourage others to engage in that scientific endeavour to share their knowledge and wisdom.
“And I think part of the reason I’ve done so many edited books is because I think there are lots of people with perspectives and answers. And if you only focus on doing your own writing and work, often that’s your small contribution on that area of very deep knowledge that people have, for example, on psychometrics. I think psychometrics can be a really powerful tool in coaching, and the book, Psychometrics in Coaching (2008), which I edited with the Association for Coaching, was a way of bringing together lots of different psychologists who’d developed tools to ask them how might coaches take your framework, your research which happened in parallel to coaching and apply into coaching context.
“It was the same with the International Handbook of Evidence Based Coaching: people who’ve worked in parallel areas, maybe in positive psychological or other psychological frameworks, thinking about how these models can speak into coaching.
“[So we’re] building bridges between different areas of coaching and other psychological enquiry to help us to broaden our repertoire of evidence based approaches.
“There are lots of students producing fabulous theses that just get forgotten in a university library. How can we shine a light on these to get discussion and disagreement where we can learn from the exchange? Because only by asking questions can we build on our knowledge. And coaching is very much in that tradition – it’s a collaborative-based process, a partnership where we bring the support for the individual and we also encourage them to be critical and challenging in their ideas.”
Professionalism and ethics
“In addition to the science piece, there’s the professional piece I’ve tried to contribute to, which in my area has been coaching psychology. The BPS has a 100-year plus history and it’s not been a body that has been as adept and flexible as some of the newer bodies. There’s still much work to be done within the BPS to help it be more international and collaborative, to take a partnership-based world view, to give knowledge away as well as set professional standards. But we’ve now successfully created a division that is a home to coaching psychologists.”
He says that although “some of the other coaching professional bodies have been slower to come to evidence than one might hope, I think now post-2020, there’s broader consensus across the bodies that science and evidence is important, that standards are important, not just in training.
“But I’d still like to see as we move forward in the next decade a continued improvement in standards and appropriate regulation in coaching in the UK, recognising that it’s an intimate, personal conversation and that continued ratcheting up of training standards, of control over those who do and don’t practise, I think would be a good thing.
“Improvement around ethics and ethical practice is also something we need to make progress on so there’s a fairer balance between coaches, coachees and organisations.”
Passmore was closely involved with the State of Play in European Coaching & Mentoring, commissioned by the EMCC and sponsored by Henley Centre for Coaching, and published in 2017.
“In our research, we asked coaches in 50 European countries about their ethical practices and what they might do in particular scenarios. And this illustrated that a significant number of coaches would behave in ways that would be either condoning illegal activity or expecting professional bodies to not sanction illegal activity or activity prohibited in codes of conduct. In the examples of bribery, insider dealing or fraud, a significant number of coaches would be willing to turn a blind eye.
“I think that might have arisen for a number of reasons. One is that while coaches might cover it very basically in coach training ethics, it’s not covered in sufficient depth.
“Second, I think whenever someone reaccredits themselves, there should be a requirement to do basic training on ethics as a hygiene factor.
“Third, I’d like to see professional bodies spend more time generally collaborating with each other so there’s a single code of ethics for all bodies.
“I’m still in favour of plurality in bodies – I still think there’s value in having different bodies emphasising different aspects but having greater collaboration between them… including to put more investment into science and enquiry. We’ve seen that happen in medicine.
“I’d like to see the same happen in coaching so we can have more randomised controlled trials. If you compare coaching with MI, both have a similar history, but MI has got hundreds of RCTs; coaching has about 50. The main reason is that coaching has usually been done by individuals not connected to universities, professional bodies haven’t put any money into research and there haven’t been these collaborations between organisations, universities and professional bodies. I hope we’ll see much more of that collaborative working.
“One of my little catchphrases is that I aspire to have all boats rise. Knowledge shouldn’t be something I protect for me but something that should be shared to have others learn and get better. It’s the same in professional bodies: how do we collaborate and share that knowledge to try and get a movement with everyone rising? The world has made the greatest progress when everyone has collaborated and shared knowledge and were able to stand on others’ shoulders. When we keep things private and secret, we all lose out.
Passmore joins CoachHub. a global digital coaching solution, at a time of rapid expansion with the digital coaching industry, and in CoachHub itself (see news, page 8).
“CoachHub has seen massive growth as I think have all digital coaching providers with Covid. We have 3,000 coaches on our books and we are in three figures for our turnover, 100s of millions from our activity, and [with] 1000 employees.”
He stresses that while digital coaching offers the potential to scale coaching provision, this shouldn’t be at the expense of coaches delivering the service. “In big organisations, along with power comes responsibility, and I think it’s incumbent on me and all of us to try and navigate a balance between the different stakeholders, including coaches.
“We [need to] find a way to have affordable coaching so coaching becomes democratised and do that in a fair way that respects the needs of coaches. And while there may be the opportunity to scale coaching, we don’t turn coaches into individuals who are simply delivering a commodity. Coaching is still a very special personal relationship that does enable insight, a transformational change to happen over time, and as such we need to set high standards for coaches and we need to recognise and reward the coach community if we’re moving towards a more commercial arrangement for the delivery of coaching.”
Passmore’s not in any rush to phase out human-delivered coaching, though.
“I’m still in the camp of ‘let’s have human-to-human conversations’. There’s something different about a one-to-one human-to-human conversation where I know someone is hearing me, listening to me and understanding me and are displaying their empathy in their response. And that’s a feeling, not just a recording.”
Despite a hefty work output, Passmore still manages to travel and prioritise family time at the weekends. “I’m quite a family guy and have been very active in the bringing up of my girls. I’ll often get up at 5 or 6am so I can do a few hours’ work progressing books, for example, so I can have family time during the day.”
Passmore loves travelling, and has travelled widely.
“What I particularly love when I travel is to make up a trip and see where it takes you, not go on a package holiday. I love meeting other people on a train, for example, and just having a conversation. You start talking and they tell you what’s going on in their lives, their interests. Those are some of the most fascinating, most interesting days you can have. Chances are your paths will never cross again but you can have hours of fantastic chat. It’s very pleasurable, insightful and fun.”
As with so many of us, most of his presentations have been delivered from his home office over the last few years. “And maybe that’s good – a smaller ecological footprint. There was a time when I’d hop on a plane to go and speak in South Africa… if you think about the carbon you’re burning, it’s unsustainable.”
There’s no doubt that Passmore will continue to reinvent himself, to contribute to keeping the profession on its toes, seeking out the new.
“Whether that’s travel and putting myself on a bus in Myanmar at 5am wondering where the bus stops and being on a bus with chickens with people whose English as about as good as my Burmese.
“I’ve found that people are generally nice and with a smile and desire, you can figure out how to make the next connection to the next bus.”
Not a bad metaphor for how to approach life.
- J Passmore (ed), The Coaches’ Handbook: The Complete Practitioner Guide for Professional Coaches, Routledge, 2021
- J Passmore and T Sinclair, Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide, Springer, 2020
- J Passmore and S Leach (eds), Third Wave Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, Pavilion Publishing, 2022
- S Greif, H Möller, W Scholl, J Passmore and F Müller (Editors), International Handbook of Evidence-Based Coaching Theory, Research and Practice, Springer, 2022