Last night, I attended a stirring call on the coaching profession to wake up and recast its responsibilities in relation to a world that is messed up and in crisis. The call was made by Aboodi Shabi, who one might reasonably describe as a leader of the coaching profession in the UK. Courtesy of a platform with the London Coaching Group, he extemporised on themes I have advocated myself, most recently in my presentation to APECS. But Aboodi made the case with a passion and bluntness that challenged me to stand up for this agenda with much greater clarity. A theme of the evening was how coaching could “come out” as a profession that engages with society’s problems. Aboodi’s message resonated with a good proportion of his audience, although it also provoked fear and dismissal among a vociferous minority.
Only about a decade ago, corporate values were all the rage. We lived in a world in which business was largely viewed as a force for good and corporations identified their success with the general wellbeing. Now, as we labour to fund the bailouts of the banks, we have a more nuanced view of business and the statements of values seem hollow.
But values remain potent. The public cares about them: not the values of PR spin but the actual lived values of organisations. Most of the corporate scandals of recent years became scandals precisely because they generated perceptions of values betrayed.
I’ve been reconnecting with my work on narratives in coaching for a seminar I held this week for a City law firm. I was struck by how the prism of narratives helps us understand the enduring power of organisational cultures that foster corporate scandals – and by the questions this raises for our ethical orientation as coaches.
The problem of dysfunctional organisational cultures just won’t go away. Dysfunction is such an anodyne word, it barely scratches the surface of the harm that is wrought by self-serving organisational cultures. This week we heard how a cover-up at the Care Quality Commission of its own failings in inspecting a hospital in Barrow contributed to the needless deaths of at least eight mothers and babies. An organisation that exists to protect the public interest in health care put protecting its own reputation above the safety of patients.
As a postscript to Martin Vogel’s blogpost here last week about our shock at realising that we weren’t properly communicating to our clients the strength of our commitment to what we do, here’s a reflection on what led to this epiphany. I think this was a long time coming but, for me at least, our recent meeting with the very impressive but self-effacing Andy Street, CEO of John Lewis, had a lot to do with it. When preparing for the meeting I was puzzled to find that the John Lewis Partnership defines its chief purpose as “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”
At Vogel Wakefield HQ yesterday we were undertaking our annual strategic review and pondering our deep motivation for building our own business. We reached a startling conclusion: we don’t surface in how we present ourselves to clients our real passion for what we do. Instead, we neuter it by smothering it in business-friendly language. Our passion is to challenge the things that are toxic in organisations: to inspire people both to align themselves in their working lives more closely with their positive values and to push organisations into making a more positive contribution to society.
It’s not that all corporations are toxic nor that they make no contribution. But we have worked in organisations long enough to have developed a deep aversion to the negatives caused by internal politics, short-term perspectives, spin and the like. We have reached a stage in life where we can do more to mitigate these negative impacts on others, and to preserve our own welfare, by holding ourselves outside the organisation and working with those within.