Interview: Sir John Whitmore shares his thoughts on coaching and the ‘grow model’

Sir John Whitmore at the ConsultEast event at The Great Hospital.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Sir John Whitmore at the ConsultEast event at The Great Hospital.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

Sir John Whitmore is recognised as the man who introduced the concept of 'coaching' into the world of business.

As chairman of Performance Consultants International, he is widely seen as the foremost exponent of coaching, leadership development and performance improvement in the workplace not just here but across the world.

The author of five books on leadership, coaching and sports including 'Coaching for Performance', which has sold more than 700,000 copies in 17 languages, he is also a former racing driver, qualified pilot, and keen painter - and it is those pursuits which have helped shape his thoughts as much as any business theory.

But most of all it is clear when you speak to him just how passionate Sir John remains about the subject of coaching.

Recently, he came to Norwich to speak at an event organised by business and professional consultancy consultEast at the Great Hospital.

Many managers might know of the so-called GROW Model of coaching which has been attributed to him and seeks to help bosses work with staff to help foster both personal development and improvements in performance.

But actually the author appears pre-occupied with a greater problem than what is set in black and white, namely in a world where we are better educated and arguably more creative how can the talents of the individucal be harnessed to best effect for the good of a business?

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And, as he admits, the individual is key to the whole process, as is the leadership shown by senior managers.

What coaching is not, and certainly should not be, is a tick-box painting by numbers process.

'That's what I am going to be talking about,' he explains speaking ahead of the visit.

In fact, he admits that he is not overly happy with the GROW model.

'It wasn't human enough - in the early days it was very human,' he says. 'That's really what's gone wrong.

'It was too prescriptive. When you do that, you don't have a personalised relationship with employees.

'It's been attributed to me as the inventor of the GROW model, but I am actually against it. People get stuck on it and they feel they have to go with that sequence.

'It's useful for asking questions and it's useful for coaching, but half of the time it's not the right way to use it. I think it's something that's easy to remember, but it's wrong to see it as some kind of Holy Grail. People tend to like it if they are bureaucratic.

'Business unfortunately is a bit like that and I will be talking about breaking away from that in a flexible way. Every single human being is different.

'One of the most successful ones I had was a small company with 40 employees. They adopted coaching very quickly and better than a large organisation which takes a long time to change.

'With a large organisation it may take them five years to get it in place. We are seeing that now with the NHS.

'One of the things we focus on very strongly is getting people to understand that they have to be much more egalitarian with their employees. In one company I worked with they stopped calling their staff employees and said 'you are all partners'.'

Not surprisingly, perhaps, smaller companies are often quicker to embrace some of the changes involved in the coaching process than larger firms, where it can take time to permeate through an organisation's bureaucratic armoury.

And he is realistic enough to accept that some staff may be more willing to pay lip service to the concept than really embrace it.

'There's always a tendency for a small proportion of people to go backwards as they see any change as negative for them,' he says. 'I would say that's a relatively small percentage overall.'

Yet leadership is key to making coaching a success.

'I see no difference between the executives and first employees,' Sir John says. 'I think you want to treat them all in the same way. People much prefer their work if they are cared for or cared about. It depends very much on the type of executives at the company. They need to set the standards.

'At the company where they now call them partners they had their whole executive team come first. Really the chief executive and the top team are very important, because they themselves need to go in this direction and apply this and be more egalitarian. If they don't have that at the top, it's very difficult to have that at the bottom.

'It's most important to get the top team working in this direction. Companies are doing it slowly, but smaller companies are easier because they can change quicker.'

In fact, it was a background in sport and in particular motor racing which led Sir John into developing his coaching ideas for business and his trip to Norfolk will also see him meeting up with former racing colleague Jack Sears, who still lives in the county.

'As a professional racing driver I won my first race in 1958 and in less than a year I was driving in the Le Mans 24 hour race,' Sir John notes. 'I became a professional with Ford when they won Le Mans and everything else. Jack Sears was also part of the Ford team. He and I were driving together for many years and he and I are good friends.

'Coaching is from sports anyway. We were all sports people looking at the psychology of sport and what we could do to improve performance in that way. Business people then said, 'we want some of that'. All of us understood what makes people perform.'

But what of his own influences?

'I would say it is my parents,' he says. 'I was born before World War II. My father was head of the Home Guard in Essex and my mother was head of the Red Cross. We had to live by our own imaginations because they were busy all of the time.

'My sister and I stayed in Essex whereas most of the children went to the North because my mother wanted to keep us there.

'We were living in an air raid

shelter and I learned very early

that we needed to look after ourselves. I developed an interest in pyschology.'

And he is also clear that coaching has many applications beyond business and sport, including schools.

'One of my big passions is education. I am a trustee of four different charities which deal with education and I'm very distressed that education hasn't progressed as fast as it could in terms of its approach to coaching

Montesori Schools are very much like coaching, and that was 100 years ago. You see a similar thing at Summerhill school in Suffolk.

'Summerhill is exactly what the coaching approach is,' he adds. 'The idea has been there for a very long time, but it's taken a long time for people to adopt it.'

The creative process is also very important, and he believes it is an abilitiy to visualise which can help generate successful coaching.

Sportsmen and women often have this school, but he notes that it is also found in more creative types such as artists.

Yet in any case, coaching is far from an abstract concept, but is really about people and the pyschology of what makes them tick.

'It's unusual for people to look at the pscholoygy side, which is unfortunate because that's what a human being is,' he says.

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