We're Still Missing a Core Competency in Coaching

Across the globe, we find people who practice a variety of faiths, adhere to different family structures, speak hundreds of languages, and lead their lives in beautifully varied ways. Renowned anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall has said, “There is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture,” and I couldn’t agree more. Even if we choose to live nestled in isolated pockets of homogeneous culture, the vibrant diversity of other societies will inevitably touch and impact our lives. Such is the nature of life on Earth.


This is a very good thing; Cultural diversity helps us develop empathy, curiosity, and worldliness. Initially, we may be shy of people who seem different from ourselves, but opening ourselves to their wisdom and experience helps us grow and learn in incredibly rewarding ways.

One might expect that people in the coaching profession would embrace this view, but the industry is surprisingly myopic. As the world becomes more interconnected and people become more mobile, the diversity of societies continues to grow, both globally and locally. As a result, the need for coaching spans cultures, and coaches must learn to adjust their offerings to support people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

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...coaches must learn to adjust their offerings to support people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Over the past two decades, the coaching profession has been on the trajectory of exponential growth, which means that more and more coaches will enter the field unprepared to mentor and guide a diverse client pool. This educational oversight can only lead to discord and strife. Understanding and respecting cultural differences is no longer optional, it is imperative. The time has come for the coaching profession to integrate culture and intercultural competence into the core of its work.

It is with this belief in my heart that I launched a rather ambitious study. I did my research in the hallowed halls of the University of Minnesota, steeped in academia, but with the intention of sharing my findings with a much wider audience. When I launched this study, there was still limited scientific knowledge around the topic of intercultural competence in coaches, and, to date, there has been neither an agreed-upon, clear understanding of what it means to be an interculturally competent coach, nor an assessment tool with which coaches can be trained and evaluated. So I decided to use a tool that wasn’t coach-specific, but was highly trusted within cultural competency circles: the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI).

The IDI assesses a subject’s current stage of intercultural development, and when I paired it with one-on-one interviews, I found that I was able to get a clearer picture of coaches at different stages of the intercultural competence development process. I could see both how these coaches thought about culture generally, and how well they understood and applied concepts of intercultural competence in their coaching practices.

Using two fundamentally different tools in this study was quite intentional, and allowed me to note two things simultaneously:

1. What a coach believed about a specific topic AND 2. How far along in his or her intercultural competence development the coach was when expressing this opinion.

The IDI laid the groundwork, but the interviews brought everything into focus. I believe that any exploration of culture’s role in coaching must include and encompass coaches’ actual lived experiences. Capturing coaches’ views through their own voices is key because, from the inception of the ICF, it has been a self-governing body. It is a professional group for coaches, led by coaches, that has tremendous influence over coaching philosophies, methods, and ethical standards. If research is to have any impact on the profession as a whole, coaches themselves must feel heard and respected. Including firsthand input from coaches on their perceptions of culture and intercultural competence makes this study accessible to the population it examines. In other words, this is a study about coaches that actual coaches can benefit from!

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I conducted this research because I was deeply curious about what I might find, but also because I am a coach myself. I work to create spaces where my clients feel valued and understood. I’ve witnessed others in my field try their best to create similarly accepting spaces but fall short due to a lack of intercultural competence. If the work I’ve done through my study can help my coach colleagues be more sensitive, aware, and effective when working with diverse clients, I’ll consider that a huge win.

The coaching field is in a very early stage of thinking about culture and intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is not part of required coaching core competencies determined by the ICF, or by most other coaching certification programs. In other words, being interculturally competent is not considered an essential competency for current and future professional coaches. I hope to change that. I believe that equipping all coaches with the ability to engage in effective interaction across cultures will increase their efficacy and bolster their success. I believe that a coach who can create and nurture valuable interactions with clients who represent different orientations and worldviews is a coach who can make the world a better place.

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I believe it’s time we taught coaches how to do their work, regardless of national or ethnic group, gender, generation, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, or any other cultural factor. And I believe that doing so will transform the industry in the best possible ways.

As my first step in this endeavor, I will be hosting the first-ever learning retreat of this kind: Intercultural Institute for Master Coaches, June 14-16, in Minnesota, USA. I would like to invite you to join me. This program is truly unique because it is grounded in intercultural development, utilizing the IDI and guided by one of the top IDI senior administrators globally. My hope is that this program, especially this inaugural year, will gather champions of this work—meaning that the coaches who deeply care about the importance of intercultural competence in coaching will join me in this inspiring 2.5 day program. If you are intrigued, please check out the program details by clicking the link below and register.


I look forward to meeting you and building together a more interculturally capable coaching profession!