Does the performance coaching industry have a racism problem?


I’m going to start with some assertions that I think are uncontroversial.

If you disagree, then the rest of this article isn’t for you. Just walk on by.

Here are the assertions. To be a performance coach worthy of the name you:

1. Believe in fulfilling the potential of all those you coach and may coach in the future, including those from a Black, Asian or non-European heritage.

2. Believe that everyone should have the opportunity to develop and grow.

3. Are passionate about equality of opportunity driven by equity according to need.

4. Know that a big part of your job is to address any areas of “interference” to fulfilling performance potential, including those within yourself and any systemic hard wiring that leads to stunted growth.

5. Accept that racism is a pervasive and profound moral and ethical issue that runs deep and is totally unacceptable.

6. Accept that if you are going to be performance coaching learners who are from a black, Asian or non-European heritage, then your position on racism needs to be unequivocal and you need to be educated about the unique challenges they face.

7. Embrace the notion that racism is a performance issue – as well as the moral and ethical dimensions, it is a key performance issue because it leads to stunted growth and is an obstacle to the fulfilment of potential. To use Tim Gallwey’s equation, it represents profound interference.

If you are a performance coach, employ or engage performance coaches or work in the performance coaching sector and you don’t agree with these assertions, then:

The rest of this article is not aimed at you.

POV: you have no business calling yourself a performance coach, positioning yourself as a performance coaching business or engaging performance coaches to work in your organisation.

Becoming explicitly anti-racist.

The business I help to lead, PlanetK2, took an explicit anti-racist stance a couple of years back because we believe that alongside the moral and ethical issues, taking any other stance is incompatible with professionalism. We believe that being anti-racist is part of being professional; we think that doing anything else, including being “neutral” or “non-racist” is unprofessional.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

That stance didn’t start or finish with a black square on our profile back in the summer of 2020. It started with educating ourselves and accepting the discomfort that brought. We have PhD’s, holders of Masters Degrees and countless other qualifications in the business and the ignorance and the lack of education and awareness in this area was profound.

We read, we talked, we shared, we changed our language and approaches to recruitment and development. We began to address racism in ourselves and those we worked with, including members of the team. Anyone on the team who was too ignorant to recognise racism and failed to either address it or take meaningful action, became clear very quickly that they were not welcome here. We’ve become a little less ignorant. The work continues, never ends and is necessarily uncomfortable.

Writing and sharing this article feels uncomfortable, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as it is for those who suffer at the hands of racism and racists every day.

We are not paragons of virtue, far from it. We have a long way to go.

There is no moral high ground here, though there is a moral swamp that needs draining. 

A little while ago, we made the decision to invite other organisations who work in our sector to join us and become explicitly anti-racist.  A few weeks back, I wrote to the 8 CEO’s (or equivalent) of organisations who position themselves as UK-based performance coaching experts. They, like us, market themselves primarily to other businesses.

I sent them an invitation to commit to a charter and form an alliance of anti-racist performance coaches, so that we could make more of a difference by educating each other, sharing lessons, practising, developing resources and reviewing how well we were doing in being anti-racists. You know, like we all promote as best practice to our customers when they’re working on something that matters.

Here are the charter points I outlined – the only difference was that in the original I referred to “ethnic minority” rather than “global majority”.

1. We believe racism is ethically and morally wrong.

2. We also believe high performance can never be achieved where any form of racism is present.

3. Our role as professionals in the world of performance coaching is to be actively anti-racist and that opting to be “non-racist” makes us part of the problem.

4. We will actively and explicitly address and confront racism and racist attitudes wherever we see them – whether it’s in ourselves, our organisations or our customers.

5. We will educate ourselves on racism as much as we do on high performance.

6. We will be intolerant of racists or racism in our colleagues, we will accept the experience of those who tell their stories of racism against them as true and real and we will act in a way that shows it is unacceptable.

7. We are committed to increasing the representation of global majority coaches in our organisations.

8. We are committed to ensuring that global majority colleagues who work in our organisations are not simply represented in numbers but occupy positions of real power and influence.

9. We will not use psychometric profiling tools, measures or tests that, implicitly or otherwise, further discriminate against those from a non-European heritage.

And what happened?

Pretty much fuck all. Pretty much, because one of the people I contacted came back almost immediately and said to count him in. Otherwise I heard nothing.

“And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence”Simon and Garfunkel

Given that I sent the invite via direct message on LinkedIn, I thought I’d better check whether the other leaders had been on the platform since I sent it. Of the remaining 7, 5 had been active on LinkedIn since.

I contacted the 2 who hadn’t been active by email and heard back from one who shared that they had a clear commitment to anti-racism as a BCorp. I’m looking forward to talking more with him about specific action and public collaboration. As of the time of writing, I haven’t heard back from the other CEO.

So, 1 x immediate response to join us. 1 x other response sharing an alternative course of action to meet the same goal and 6 x lots of silence.

Does that tell us anything meaningful?

I’m not sure. There are a lot of possible explanations for the silence, including, but not limited to:

The possibility that despite being on LinkedIn since I raised the issue, the leaders in question haven’t seen my message. Perhaps in time they will and they’ll respond. I’ll let you know if they do.

The possibility that being anti-racist, with all that entails, is too uncomfortable and there’s too much white fragility in addressing the issue in themselves, their organisations and their work.

The possibility that it’s not important to them.

The possibility that they are already activist anti-racists and I’ve failed to notice.

Occam’s Razor might be a useful tool here.

So what?

If you’re a performance coach or run a performance coaching business I’m calling it out. Unless you are explicitly anti-racist, supported by meaningful action, then you are professionally inadequate, incompetent and will become irrelevant.

If you disagree, let’s have the debate.

If you agree, it doesn’t mean you have to join an alliance with us or anyone else. (Isn’t that sweet of me?) It does mean that you take meaningful action (examples are outlined in the draft Charter). Just for clarity, putting images of black or brown people as an accompaniment to your social media posts while continuing to use assessment tools that are discriminatory, probably doesn’t count as meaningful action.

If you work in HR or L&D and employ or engage with performance coaches –

Please ask those performance coaches and organisations you work with about their position on anti-racism and the specific and meaningful actions they are taking, before engaging them. You have the power to drive change by deciding how to invest your budgets. Every one of your employees, especially those of Black, Asian or Non-European heritage, deserves that from you.

So, does the performance coaching industry have a racism problem? In the absence of a collective and activist anti-racist stand, backed up by meaningful action, the answer has to be “yes”.

Anything else makes you part of the problem.