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Coaching South Africa


I spend some of my time coaching executives in South Africa and across Europe. I got thinking the other day what South Africa could need from a coach. I mean the whole country. Not the president — not any individual — all of us who live on this southern slab of Africa. All together — melted down into one, put on a chair and ready for an executive coaching session with me.

Let’s start with what I mean by executive coaching. A definition of coaching is problematic because everyone is a coach these days and definitions are all over the place. I’ll define it based on what I have been doing for the past seven years.*

Executive coaching involves a coach, who has both executive experience and training in the art of coaching, working with a person, a client (mostly executives, entrepreneurs etc) on a shared concern.

The shared concern is something brought to the relationship by the person being coached. Being a shared concern means something that we can both get motivated to work on, and resolve.

In this case the client is South Africa. Armed with the above definition, and a shared concern of creating a country that can grow, prosper and develop to its full potential, we start our process.

There we are, South Africa and I sitting in a room, having our first conversation about how we are going to achieve our objective. At first it’s hard. We haven’t yet built rapport and the conversation is exploratory.

I’d start by assessing the current situation and understanding the strengths and talents of my client followed by successes to date. Let me tell you why.

My philosophy is that as humans we are uniquely talented and that our challenge is to uncover and use these talents. I’ve been trained by Gallup (the research people) on this approach and amongst all the tools, models and techniques I have come across, their research has stuck with me. I agree with their findings that we do much better playing to our strengths, than fixing our weaknesses.

Gallup originally got interested in this topic when they came across research by psychologist Elizabeth Hurlock. In 1925 she studied school children in a maths class and discovered that when she divided them into two groups, and gave the one group critical feedback, they improved by 19%. Critical feedback is the type we are all aware of — pointing out mistakes and suggesting how to correct them.

Nineteen percent is not bad, but the second group got an improvement of 71%. How did that happen? What she did with them was to skip the critical feedback and only reinforce the positive aspects of their performance.

By ignoring their faults and focusing alone on what they were doing right, the school children produced a 71% improvement vs the 19% achieved by giving critical feedback. Since 1925 there have been reams of scientific study that back up this approach. Gallup has been at the forefront of this research examining more than 3 million people and thousands of companies around the globe.

The original research has given birth to a whole movement called positive psychology. While positive psychology is gaining a foothold, there are still many people and organisations that spend a huge amount of energy focusing on fixing weaknesses rather than building strengths. Besides the deficiency of results using this approach, it also takes a lot more effort.

I often start workshops on the topic of positive psychology, by asking participants what they would say if their child came home from school with a 5 As and a C? The answer, almost all the time, is how to get the C to an A. Wrong answer. It is much better to focus on the As as there is, somewhat counter-intuitively, more room for improvement with the 5 As than there is with the C.

So with South Africa across the desk I focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. Armed with the experience of Hurlock and her more modern peers, I know that I have more chance of addressing our shared concern talking about success.

My first series of questions would look at what is working, why it’s working and how do we make the talents and strengths of South Africa explicit and more visible so that we can spend time building and entrenching success thinking.

Would I just ignore the negatives? No, that would be naive. What is important is the ratio of positive to negative in our conversation. Dr Marcial Losada found when examining teams that the ideal ratio of positive to negative was between 3:1 and 8:1. Higher than 8:1 and less than 3:1 teams became less effective. The negative aspects have to be covered, but, and this is imperative, they have to be examined in a context of overall positivity, if we are to produce significantly better results.

Next it would be interesting to understand the context within which South Africa operates. I can often, without jumping to superficial conclusions, make some simple assumptions about a person depending on whether they are in their 20s, their 40s or closing in on their 60s.

Erik Erikson, the psychologist, broke down our lives into eight developmental stages and described the nature of each stage. More specifically, he describes the series of crises that we face. This is our rite of passage into the next stage. Each crisis has a positive or negative outcome.

To illustrate this, Erikson describes the crises faced in the first year of our lives as being about trust vs mistrust. Children who are consistently cared for build a sense of trust with parents, the world and themselves. Those who don’t make it through this initial hurdle, emerge with a sense of distrust which affects all later stages.

For South Africa — thinking about 1994 as birth — certainly of a new age in our history, I’d probably find myself sitting opposite the equivalent of a pimply teenager faced with Erikson’s stage five or adolescence crises.

The adolescence crisis is about identity vs role confusion. It is a time when we need to ask “Who am I?”. To successfully answer this we need to have integrated the positive outcomes from the earlier crises.

Did we develop a basic sense of trust? Do we have a strong sense of independence, competence, and feel in control of our lives? Once the easier crises’ have been resolved, adolescents can face the “Identity Crisis”, which Erikson considers the most significant.

Solved positively South Africa emerges with a strong identity, and ready to take on the challenges of the future. However, without a positive outcome, we sink into confusion and are unable to make important decisions.

At this point, and this would probably be after a good couple of sessions, I would draw on the work I did in my thesis which covers the use of scenario planning for coaching. This is particularly apt for South Africa as scenario planning has had a deep impact on our country. Most prominent is the Anglo American work, better known as Clem Sunter’s “High Road” and ‘Low Road” scenarios. Back in 1988, who would have thought that we could avoid going down the “Low Road”?

In addition, The Mont Fleur Scenarios in 1992, looked at what South Africa would be like ten years down the road. I have to take an aside here to ask you to imagine what it must have been like in 1992 trying to map out possible futures for South Africa. Violence was widespread, we had no idea how negotiations would turn out and the country was effectively bankrupt as result of sanctions and wars fought on our borders.

Perhaps it was as a result of the difficulty of the exercise that it had the impact that it did on the participants, most notably Tito Mboweni and Trevor Manuel. Both participated in the exercise and later took significant leadership roles in the country.

Together with my client, we would jointly create scenarios for 2014 which would describe plausible futures for South Africa. These would likely emerge as follows.

1: Labelled and limited

This scenario describes a South Africa which follows on its current path of division. We compare ourselves to other “First World” countries and label our shortcomings loudly and destructively.

There is little tolerance and labels such as “democracy” are used as a stick to beat ourselves up and show how we are not up to the level of other countries who proclaim to have “better democracies”, despite their obvious shortcomings.

We constantly highlight our non-achievement, ignoring significant steps we have taken. To the rest of the world this further illustrates how little we have achieved since 1994. “I told you so” becomes our mantra. As with the person who compares themselves to others and always finds someone better, we dwell on our weaknesses rather than our strengths.

We are indignant and divided into smaller and smaller pockets of angry, frustrated losers. Like the sports team that isn’t getting results and enters the downward spiral of turning on themselves, we illustrate this to the world through the law of diminishing returns, as we squander the numerous opportunities that were once available to us. Blame is a cornerstone of our culture and we use our energy and resources to push responsibility onto anyone but ourselves.

2: Strength in diversity

The second scenario plays to our strength in diversity. South Africa creates its own identity which is a unique democracy not modelled on that of any other nation. We stop comparing ourselves to others in a way which limits our imagination and always show us up for being deficient. Instead we learn from others while creating our own positive future.

Our diversity, which currently divides us, is reframed to be a strength. As in the world of agriculture where scientists are finding monoculture is limited and susceptible to disease, we create a new culture for South Africa which is formed from the melting pot of our varied and diverse backgrounds.

Like Brazil, where there is no typical Brazilian, South Africans are no longer classified by the obvious and limiting labels such as black, white, Xhosa or English. Rather we focus on much more meaningful descriptions of ourselves. “Ubuntu”, “a boer maak a plan” and “the friendliest people in the world” will be some of our own labels, describing unique South Africanisms, which the rest of the world will look to with envy.

Brand experts know that in the busy, noisy and cluttered world that we live in, success requires standing for something unique and leading as opposed to following others while trying to be better. South Africa will be unique in this way — a shining light for the world to see what is possible.

Our strength will come from striving for our own ideals rather than those that others have created before us. Our people will be more tolerant of each other and while dialogue will be robust, it will be within an overarching framework of positivity and success. As individuals and as a country, we take responsibility for our future rather than casting blame.


With these two scenarios before us as possibilities for the future, I’d leave my client, as all good executive coaches would, to reflect and make their own decision as to which future they would like to create. It’s never easy and there are of course things outside of our control which need to navigated.

There are, however, always facets very firmly in our control. The scenarios become a roadmap for us to hold up our individual and collective behaviour, attitude and actions. We see what we look for, and if we want to look for different things, the scenarios provide a textured background against which we are able to make our choices.