The International Coach Federation (ICF) is celebrating its 20 year anniversary. Happy birthday, ICF! From a standing start in 1995, this leading professional body has grown to be 25,000 members across 121 countries; impressive growth by anyone’s standards. As part of the 20-year celebrations, the EMEA region has organised a series of over thirty autumn events across Europe, Middle East and Africa. These events, collectively known as ‘ICF on Tour’, are creating a wonderful opportunity for the coaching community to connect, share, celebrate and inspire.
Last week, I had the privilege of opening the ‘ICF on Tour’ event in Bulgaria. The event represented the first ever coaching conference in that part of the world. There was quite a buzz in the air, with local media involved and even the ex-deputy prime minister in attendance (who is now embarking on a new career as an executive coach!). As I delivered my session, on the topic of my forthcoming book ‘Building Tomorrow’s Executive Leaders’, I was struck by the enthusiasm and eagerness of the audience. The event reminded me that coaching is still a new and exciting topic in many parts of the world. It took me back to those early coaching conferences that I attended in the UK around the turn of the millennium. In those days, you picked up that everyone shared a pioneering spirit; a real sense that we were all involved in a new profession that was going to make a big difference in the world of leadership. And it has.
One of the speakers who followed me at the conference was a lady called Severine Jourdain, who is the Head of Coaching at Nestle Group. I listened to Severine describing the massive investment that Nestle is making in coaching around the globe and I realised that, when it comes to the corporate world, coaching is no longer ‘the new kid on the block’; it has well and truly arrived! On this theme, I shared with the attendees the story of how I had surprisingly become the ‘Director of Coaching’ of Logica plc back in the early noughties. Logica was a 40,000 person global IT consultancy and, in 2003, I resigned from my role as international managing director to become a life coach. Most people thought I’d lost the plot, including the then Group CEO of Logica, Dr. Martin Read CBE. Martin summoned me to his office, sat me down and said, ’John, I don’t get it. You’re walking away from a very interesting career in leadership in order to become… a life coach?’ At the time, I agreed it was hard to rationalise, but, when I heard his words, I immediately heard another voice inside my own head reply, ‘Tell him that he’s wrong. You’re walking away from a very predictable career in management to become a leader’. That was my honest intuition and I wasn’t for turning.
Suitably perplexed, Martin went for plan B and said, ‘Ok, if you’re really committed to this coaching, why don’t you stay and implement it here in Logica?’ And thus, the role of Director of Coaching was born and Martin single-handedly saved me from my apparent insanity. Over the next three years, I worked as an executive coach with over fifty of the top 150 leaders in Logica around the world, including three who were promoted to the main board. We trained an international cohort of over thirty internal coaches and launched a whole series of leadership development programmes in which coaching was a core component. It was an unforgettable period in which coaching suddenly took hold in an organisation.
Through that experience, I realised that the corporate world was ready to embrace coaching. I had glimpsed the vision that Thomas J Leonard had grasped much earlier than me when he set up the International Coach Federation in the US in 1995; a vision that Severine has now embraced in Nestle, a vision that the attendees of that first coaching conference in Bulgaria felt as they listened to our experiences and stories. In ten years’ time, some of those same people will be attending the 30 year anniversary event in Bulgaria. Only this time, they will not be listening, they will be telling their own stories; stories about how coaching changed their own careers and how coaching transformed the leadership of the executives they went on to work with. And so the tribe marches on.
Thomas J. Leonard I salute you as a giant of the coaching profession. Thank you for letting all 25,000 of us stand on your shoulders for these past 20 years.