Coaching with a diversity and inclusion lens

Salma Shah’s new coaching programme is designed with a systemic diversity and inclusion lens and aims to be a transformational process.



Salma Shah has been coaching since 2003, but she says little has changed in the UK in those 17 years when it comes to diversity, with most coaches being from a similar background.

She thinks this may be for a variety of reasons, from the cost of coaching courses, the fact that those employers who pay for people to do the courses usually only aim them at senior managers and the lack of diversity within professional bodies.

Salma decided to do something about it. “Coaching is so powerful and leadership styles are now more coaching-led. I felt we needed to open coaching up to a wider pool of people,” she says.

So she set up a diversity and inclusion coaching programme, Mastering Your Power Coach Training, which will be accredited by the International Coach Federation. It has already attracted a lot of interest. “People see it as a breath of fresh air,” says Salma.

She hopes her course will eventually become an apprenticeship programme, given the Government has recently announced an apprenticeship programme for coaching, and widen the coaching pool further.

For now the employers who have signed up for her course are those with a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion. “They have been open and receptive and, with Black Lives Matters, the momentum for change is building,” says Salma. She adds that the programme is not just for those from BAME backgrounds. She states: “It is not diversity training. The coaching programme is designed with a systemic diversity and inclusion lens. Anyone can do it. The whole aim is that the people who take part come from diverse backgrounds. It’s a transformational process. It gives people the chance to exhale and be themselves.”

The first programme of 10 participants is currently being run on two Saturdays a month until November and those who complete it will get a certificate at the end. It includes one to ones, mentoring, practical exercises and self study and the emphasis is on high quality. At the moment, due to Covid-19, the 60-hour programme is being conducted online and Salma anticipates that it could be delivered both online and face to face in the future to give it a broad geographical reach.

Addressing lack of diversity in the coaching profession

Salma’s work has been championed by several employers and individuals. One is Katherine Chowdry, Talent Manager, People and Culture at British Transport Police who is also a coach.

She got to know Salma after she commented on a LinkedIn post about coaching apprenticeships. Salma noticed her surname and asked to chat about how coaching apprenticeships could be supported. Katherine was very aware of the lack of diversity in the coaching profession. She had contacted the editor of a quarterly coaching magazine after noticing that every cover seemed to feature a middle aged white woman and took part in a cover spread on the issue.

She spoke to Salma about the lack of diversity in coaching and how important it is for people who are offered coaching to have access to coaches who look like them.

When Salma set up her programme, Katherine booked four places for members of the British Transport Police. After just one week on the programme, three of them had put themselves forward to coach members of the mainly white male senior leadership team. Katherine says this is unusual. “It goes against the culture for people to be coached by people who are not the same rank, but Salma has already done something to give them so much confidence,” says Katherine.

Building wider momentum

Another company which has encouraged employees to join the programme is learning company Pearson. Senior HR manager Kevin Lyons has been very supportive of Salma’s work and says that coaching is a vital component of diversity and inclusion which has not been fully utilised before. He says: “This programme provides a wider systemic lens on diversity and inclusion. It can propel wider momentum, provide strong role models and inspire others. That will help our overall agenda of equality and progression at Pearson.”

Pearson has two members of staff on the programme. Basirat Agboola is Progression & Recognition Manager, International General Qualifications, and Erin Lashley is International Account Services Manager.

Both are members of Pearson’s BAME network. Basirat has explored coaching in the past, attending an introductory coaching weekend where she says she felt “out of place” because she was very much in a minority. “It made it difficult for me to be able to picture myself doing coaching,” she says. “I felt my ethnicity might be a barrier to me feeling comfortable being a coach. What I am learning through the programme is that this is a systemic thing, it’s about what is projected on you and about not being able to be what you cannot see.”

Her role at Pearson involves supporting international students taking Pearson qualifications outside the UK and helping them get into higher education. She feels the programme will help her in that role, but also internally at Pearson and potentially more broadly. Pearson has partnerships with other organisations looking for greater diversity in terms of mentoring and counselling and Basirat says coaching is one way of increasing this.

Erin’s role involves supporting students and exam officers to get the right qualifications and the right training respectively. She says she has always enjoyed the coaching aspects of the job, but has never had any formal coaching training before now. Salma’s programme is helping her to think more critically about what her team can do to unlock students’ potential.

In the process, her view of coaching has completely changed and she can already see how impactful it will be both personally and professionally. “It is transformative. It inspires people to step into something they do not feel is for them and has already given me more confidence. I feel very passionate about it.”

Basirat agrees. “It’s an amazing group of people. We have all bonded brilliantly. The course demands that we are vulnerable and open and that we built trust between us as we go through this journey. I was worried about it being online, but the time goes so quickly and in such a positive way as we feel fully absorbed,” she states. “The first two weeks have blown my mind.”

She believes the programme will build a very dynamic support network which will drive greater representation generally in coaching. It is very experientially based and participants have been encouraged to practise on family and friends as well as colleagues. “It will enable us to change the narrative and give us real skills we can use at work and in the community which will have a wider impact. It has already had an immediate benefit for us as individuals and as diverse employees.”

She adds that the current climate engendered by the Black Lives Matter movement has enabled businesses to be more brave when it comes to diversity and inclusion. She says: “Coaching has a multiplier effect. It unlocks coachees’ potential. It’s a really positive, dynamic spider’s web of potential outcomes.”

*For more information on the programme, click here. The next cohort will start in September.

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