Business coaching, like much else in South Africa, was isolated from mainstream professional development due to international restrictions during the years of apartheid. Thus, it is only in about the last five years that coaching has sprung to prominence in South Africa.
However, as might be expected, many of the problems and inequalities from the past remain. In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic presidential election. Although Nelson Mandela—after 27 years of imprisonment—became president, the demographic imbalances created by 50 years of dictatorial white supremacy still hang heavily on the country. In this context, coaching in South Africa faces daunting challenges. At the same time, coaches have unique opportunities to significantly engage and intervene in the on-going process of transforming the country from a racial tyranny into a free, open and democratic society.
South Africa is a land of enormous diversity. Of the 11 official languages, the main ones include English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana and Sotho. The variety of languages reflects the country’s wide ethnic and cultural differences. Language can also represent a minefield of cultural and power politics, since it was used in the past to promote minority racial groups and suppress the majority. The white population, who are still the main beneficiaries of coaching, tend to be monolingual, or, at best, bilingual (English and Afrikaans). Africans, on the other hand, commonly speak not only English, but several African languages as well. The choice of language in professional settings is often viewed as a reflection of past power dynamics, and must be negotiated with sensitivity and tact.
In a country in which racial differences were the main driving force of daily life for so many years, it is inevitable that color still plays a major role in public discourse and personal sense of identity. This is a potent issue to which coaches must be highly sensitive, and they must learn to navigate these delicate waters with flexibility and skill.
Coaches in the developed world would probably be startled to discover how often, both in private conversation and in public debate, the issue of color predominates. The main identifiers are obviously “white” and “black.” But in South Africa, there is a third category, defined by a term that western societies would regard as offensive or unacceptable. “Colored” refers to mixed-race individuals, most of whom so define themselves. They are predominantly Afrikaans-speaking. These racialized categories are a source of personal, educational and business friction and misunderstandings. Thus, for coaches, there are minefields to negotiate when dealing with either personal or professional issues.
For me personally, this represents an unusual opportunity to be part of the changing landscape in a fledgling democracy. In other more privileged and wealthier societies, the coach probably does not encounter such raw personal hurts and structural imbalances; here, open and frank discussion is gradually dismantling them. In this sense, it is an exciting time to be a coach in South Africa, working with individuals and leaders at the cutting edge of this crucial transformation.
Multicultural and diversity issues
Difference—of gender, race, culture, language and education—creates huge challenges in any workplace. Emerging from its traumatically divisive past, South Africa is in the early stages of trying to work with these complexities and its own unique burden of history.
As currently practiced, coaching is viewed as a privilege far beyond the hopes of all but an elite few. This presents an ethical dilemma. Previously privileged executives are still the ones who benefit from all that coaching offers. The irony is that many who would also benefit are working in the same organizations, but as “previously disadvantaged” (i.e., black men and women), they may not yet qualify for coaching. Often they are not employed in sufficiently senior executive positions to qualify; with coaching they might be.
In South Africa, most organizations remain subject to male culture and assumptions. Corporate culture continues to be dominated by white male norms, language and behavior. Although women have made serious inroads through the glass ceiling and into the boardroom, most South African organizations still reflect the culture and values of a male point of view. Women face complex and difficult challenges in the workplace.
Ironically, one place where women are beginning to feel equality is in South Africa’s parliament, which is predominantly black and 50% female. However, women still face disempowering behavior and stereotypes from both female and male colleagues at work, regardless of their occupational field.
Research and development
Important academic research is underway in South Africa. A growing number of masters and doctoral students have recently completed, or are in the process of completing, current market research projects, and their papers are circulating worldwide.
Some of the difficulties in the marketplace stem from the lack of enough qualified, certified coaches to service the needs of small, medium and large organizations. Purchasers of coaching services demand measurable results, value for money, recognized accreditation, sustainable ethics, standards, and continuing professional development.
One development is the creation of the Coaches and Mentors Association (COMENSA), whose mission is to create an umbrella association in South Africa to provide for the regulation of local coaching, to develop the credibility and awareness of coaching as a profession, and to promote the effective empowerment of individual and organizational clients. One of the roles of COMENSA has been to build relationships and alliances between purchasers and providers of coaching services. This has encouraged collaboration across many different functional areas, such as the training and development of professional coaches.
A second area of development is inside organizations. Companies such as Standard Bank, Old Mutual, Woolworths, Netcare and Pick ‘n Pay are in the process of creating their own standards and competencies to regulate the hiring of external coaches, ensuring their alignment with the specific ethics, standards and competencies of those organizations. These corporate bodies are also beginning to investigate the possibility of developing their own internal coaches.
A final development is the collaboration among business coaches themselves, who are forming alliances to offer coaching services to corporate executives and their teams.
Coach training and certification
Two key issues in South Africa today are the dearth of black coaches, plus a lingering perception that coaching is “exclusive” (i.e., not dissimilar to South Africa’s recent history under apartheid). On the other hand, there is a new range of quality coach training programs, both commercial and academic, which are often influenced or supported by international coach training programs. However, because the young, aspiring black managers are busy gaining their years of experience in the business world, many are not yet ready to step into the position of executive or business coach. They want to build their competence, expertise and credibility before tackling the task of coaching other aspirant leaders.
Another issue which has surfaced—and one of the underlying reasons for setting up an organization for coaches and mentors—is that any new profession attracts mavericks as well as pioneers. With the development of coaching as an identifiable, legitimate profession in South Africa, and with international support and pressure, some of the problems of unregulated and untrained coaches will begin to recede.
Challenges coaches face today
In South Africa four types of coaching have emerged: executive coaching, providing one-on-one services to leaders or senior management within organizations, entrepreneurial coaching, one-on-one coaching for entrepreneurs building their own businesses, management coaching as the primary way for managers to develop people and achieve results, and life coaching to support individuals wishing to make significant changes in their careers or personal lives.
The key challenge remains overcoming the legacy of apartheid. With such a diverse work force—in terms of language, race, culture and history—we still do not have enough black coaches working at senior management levels. Due to the country’s destructive history, this is only the second generation of skilled and “in demand” black business leaders. First generation business leaders were often forged in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Looking to the future
Business coaching in South Africa has a positive and powerful future. That bright future is attributable to the explosion of coaching inside organizations, the development of coach training programs, the inclusive, democratic process of COMENSA’s creation of ethical codes and standards of competence, the development of a supervisory framework, the collaboration of executive coaches, and the benefits of international partnership.
The coaching profession is still in its formative stages in South Africa, in the process of becoming a profession in its own right. Over the next few years, we will see increased regulation of coaches, with a demand for qualifications, specific standards and ethics, and recognized certification. There is an exponential explosion of coach training within the country, both academic and commercial/corporate.
Coaching is the trend of the moment. If it continues to develop at its current rate, conforming to internationally accepted standards, coaching will make a significant difference in helping to develop individuals, executives, their teams and their organizations. It will usher South Africa into the future with the very best of inclusive and transformational business practices.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Summer Issue 2006, Volume 2, Issue 2).
Sunny Stout Rostron, MA
Sunny Stout Rostron, MA, is an executive coach and the author of six books, including Accelerating Performance, Powerful Techniques to Develop People (2002). She is one of the founding members of the Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (COMENSA).