InJapan, respect for age and experience was a key factor in selecting a coach. A coach inHong Kongconfided that she would feel uncomfortable if she had to coach senior Chinese men because they would expect a senior male coach to work with them.
So how did coaches adapt to this ingrained cultural expectation – for advice and insight – from their clients? Nearly all Asian coaches stated that spending time building and cementing the relationship was the first task in the engagement. It took time (ranging from 3 – 4 meetings to 3 months) to build trust. Only when trust was established could the coaching really shift to the real agenda. One of the reasons it took time to build trust in many cases, was that the company was paying for the coaching, and clients needed time to be convinced that the coach would maintain confidentiality. Therefore, patience was critical for coaching Asian clients. A coach fromTaiwanconfided that she adapted to cultural expectations, by giving advice initially and then encouraged clients to start thinking for themselves, once they were comfortable in the relationship. She stressed that it was critical to cement the relationship before giving any sort of feedback. A Japanese coach shared that demonstrating care and affection, in addition to being soft and indirect was her way of working with her Japanese clients. While working with his Thai clients, one coach adapted his style by giving out a lot of information, and bringing Buddhist teachings into his practice. AHong Kongbased coach used leadership models as a framework to lead the discussion and provide guidance; she also used instruments to provide data that was used to discuss issues. She felt that many times, she needed to plug knowledge gaps and thus teaching and mentoring was often used. At the start of the engagement, coaches had to spend some amount of time educating the client on what coaching was and how it worked. One Malaysian coach presented his ideas and solutions as options that the client could consider.
Therefore, all coaches flexed their styles and adapted their process to meet their clients’ expectations and cultural preferences. This cultural expectation could be the reason that the primary means for coaching inAsiawas through face-to-face meetings. Only one respondent inSingaporeblended a face-to-face meeting once a month with three weekly telephonic sessions. The coach fromJapanused a small amount of telephone coaching. Not only client, but even Asian coaches themselves preferred face-to-face meetings. Most meetings lasted an average of one hour with meetings inTaiwanbeing longer – about one and half to two hours. Nearly all coaching engagements were paid for by the client’s company and lasted from six to nine months.
Differences between Local and Expatriate Clients. All coaches agreed that they adapted their coaching style when coaching local clients as compared to expatriates. In working with Asian clients, English language fluency was often a challenge. A Singapore based coach found it easy to communicate in English with local clients from Hong Kong and Singapore, but found it hard to understand his clients from Indonesia and Japan – and they found it hard to understand him. Talking about his American expatriate clients, a Malaysian coach expressed that he found Americans individualistic as compared to his Chinese clients who were more collectivistic. The Americans rated themselves very high on self-assessment instruments whereas the Chinese were more modest. One coach inHong Kong who worked with Australians and Chinese admitted that Australians were more willing to come up with their own solutions. She felt that Asians were accustomed to being told by their parents what to do, and questioning authority was not part of the Asian ethos. Opening up and sharing thoughts was easier for expatriates, they were more articulate and wiling to do this than her local clients were, was the opinion of a Thai coach. Explaining how culture influenced coaching at the organization level, the Malaysian coach stated that the starting point for his Malaysian clients was subordinate development, that is, what his juniors needed to do to improve. Only later in the process did his client come to discussing self-improvement. In contrast, focusing on improving self was the starting point for expatriate clients explained a Thai coach who worked with Americans. Malaysian managers saw improvement as a collaborative effort and held the team responsible for success rather than carrying the sole responsibility. Local managers were very conscious of what others in their team and the organization would think of their actions and decisions. Thus, the social context was an important factor in coaching Asians.
Nearly all coaches agreed that coaching a client from the same culture did not create any cultural challenges. They therefore suggested that as far as possible, there should be cultural fit between the coach and the client to the extent that the coach would have similar working experience. In addition to personal chemistry, matching with respect to language fluency was important. Both needed to understand each other even though English was the common language. The coach fromTaiwanpointed out that there were cultural differences in between those who were raised with English as their first language, and those who had Chinese as their first language. Those who had been raised with English as their first language were more open and expressive and less reserved to participate in the coaching process.
Any discussion of culture and cultural differences is always a simplification, the objective of which is to help one to understand the complexity of reality. In any culture, there will be multiple sub-cultures and exceptions. The findings of this study should be read within this caveat. Those working in multi-national organizations in Asian countries adapt to the cultural patterns of the parent company. Thus, even in a country, there are differences between the organizational culture of a multi-national corporation and a local company. The coach must be open and sensitive to these complex realities of a globalized world.
The objective of this study was to explore how executive coaches inAsiaadapted their practice to suit the cultural context of their clients. They needed to do this because coaching inAsiadiffers from the conventional understanding of coaching, which has its origins in a Western ethos. Trying to reconcile theory and practice can lead to some frustration when coaches realize that their ‘theory in use’ is at variance, from what they have been trained to espouse. I hope that this study puts to rest this frustration, because theory and practice need to be adapted to the cultural contexts in which they are applied.
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