Thursday, June 14, 2007

Coaching: Business Coaching in Mainland China and Hong Kong


This is an article I wrote as a Feature Article for the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches last year:

Business Coaching in Mainland China and Hong Kong

Over the past two decades, China's economy has enjoyed extremely rapid growth and development. More and more business people around the globe are entering China to take advantage of unprecedented business opportunities, and both local and overseas-invested businesses are booming.

Is the emerging profession of business coaching enjoying the same level of growth here? Having been a business coach in China and Hong Kong for almost ten years, I would like to briefly report on the status of our profession in this part of the world. While this isn't intended to be a comprehensive or in-depth analysis, I would like to share several of my observations in order to provide a general picture of business coaching in China.

The country is composed of four parts: Mainland China, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), the Macau SAR, and Taiwan. My study is focused on several major cities in Mainland China (e.g., Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shen Zhen) and Hong Kong.

Organizational Management Style

This year, I completed a small survey of 183 business executives in the area. The results indicate that 79% of these executives view their organizations as maintaining a directing style of management. Only 21% consider their companies to have adopted a more open and collaborative style, utilizing some degree of coaching in their daily operations.

According to these executives, the most common reasons for their companies' using a directing style are listed below, in descending order of frequency:

1. Managers lack time. They are too busy for a collaborative management style;
2. Managers lack coaching skills. They do not know how to coach their colleagues;
3. In small or family businesses, owners are accustomed to a top-down management approach;
4. Managers do not trust their staffs. They don't think their employees can work independently, without clear instructions; and
5. Managers fear losing control.

These responses are quite typical for managers in a developing economy. With more and more overseas investment and injection of management know-how into China, the situation may change in the years ahead.

Government Intervention

The Chinese and Hong Kong governments' intervention in our profession is minimal and neutral. They neither encourage nor discourage business coaching. However, there are some organizations in Mainland China that are using the term 'coaching' to describe what some view as 'New Age' style human potential development activities. These activities mirror Large Group Awareness Training, based on encounter groups which emerged with the popularization of humanistic psychology in North America in the '60s. Communist governments are very sensitive to these kinds of groups, since the psychological manipulation involved is perceived as potentially threatening. Anything that smacks of 'New Age' may be considered suspect by a Communist regime.

In my opinion, if you plan to expand your coaching practice into Mainland China, you must clearly distinguish yourself from any such human potential development organizations. Hong Kong SAR, however, is more open, and you are free to practice your coaching function however you see fit, as long as you don't run afoul of the law.

Coach Training in China

There is some 'coach training' in Mainland China, most of which is conducted by local consulting firms. However, an examination of the contents of these training programs reveals that they are not actually comprehensive coach training programs. Rather, they teach NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and address leadership, personal development and team-building issues. While coaching can enhance leadership skills, personal development and team building, coaching is not just about leadership skills, personal development and team building!

This reflects a misunderstanding of coaching by business people in Mainland China. Business coaching is about helping others to expand their awareness, both of themselves and their businesses, rather than about motivation, persuasion and leadership techniques. As a more developed city, there are quite a few coach training programs available in Hong Kong. Most of them provide training in personal life coaching, and some are ICF accredited. The WABC's RCC Program is still the market leader in the field of business coaching, with about 300 graduates since its launch in 2002.

Impact of Chinese Culture on Coaching

Can North American coaching methodologies be applied equally well in China?

This is a difficult question, and I have studied it for years. I completed my coach training in the US. After practicing here in Hong Kong for the past ten years, I find my answer to the above question is 'yes,' but with some modified understanding of the coaching process.

Nearly every single book about coaching you can find in the bookstores will tell you to coach using curiosity and intuition. How about coaching someone who has very little curiosity or intuition? This is typical of Chinese people. In our country (and many other Asian countries), parents taught us not to be curious. Curiosity is equivalent to danger and is deemed impolite. We have also been educated not to speak if we are uncertain. We keep our intuition to ourselves. So, are curiosity and intuition really critical in coaching?

Let's examine how curiosity and intuition contribute to coaching. As a coach, curiosity sparks your interest in every facet of the client's issue so that you can inquire into every possible aspect, at every possible angle. This helps the client to explore more broadly and deeply. Intuition tells you which parts of a client's dialogue contain potential misunderstandings, saving both your and your client's time.

However, neither curiosity nor intuition works very well for the Chinese, even though the coach is willing and able to provide both. Why? Because the Chinese don't talk much! Perhaps unlike North Americans, the majority of the Chinese population is extremely reserved, particularly in the context of a business environment. They think thoroughly before they speak, and then they speak cautiously. They are reluctant to answer questions they consider irrelevant, and the more curious the coach is, the more questions the client might consider irrelevant.

Intuition is based on the coach's experience, through which the client's answers are filtered. Lacking the rich information provided by the client's answers to numerous 'curious' questions, there isn't much to find through intuition.

My solution is very simple—I have stopped using intuition and curiosity to coach. A coach's major task is to clarify clients' misunderstandings so that clients can discover more by themselves. What people think will be reflected in what they say. If there is some misunderstanding in a person's thinking, there will be signs of that misunderstanding in their conversation. Coaches can use curiosity to search for and intuition to locate those misunderstandings.

We can also be trained to recognize these signs—the openings in the coaching dialogue. Openings lead to potential misunderstandings and thus potential new awarenesses for the client.

There can be many openings the coach can identify and help the client to explore. For example, when the client tells you that none of his people want to work hard, there might be a potential generalization in the client's mind. Or, when the client says that she cannot do something, there is a possibility that she has adopted a limiting belief.

Listen for the openings. When you hear one, simply ask your clients to tell you more about that. This can cast some light on their potential blind spots. Sometimes we put too much attention on questioning. Coaching is more about listening. People new to coaching want to learn how or what to ask their clients. It is where to ask that matters even more.


In China, whatever is popular in the world can become trendy very quickly, but it can cool down really fast. Coaching is one of these trendy things in China right now.

Coaching is still very new to Mainland China and Hong Kong. It has been here for just a few years. Although people talk about coaching in the business sector in China, there is not much coaching actually happening here. Part of the reason is a misunderstanding of what real business coaching is, and part is a lack of managers' awareness of the real benefits of coaching to their businesses.

For our fellow coaches, China is a huge potential market. However, it is still operating in a stage of confusion. Once more people appreciate the importance of true business coaching, a prosperous future lies in store for our emerging profession.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Winter Issue, 2006).

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