Perspectives From A Leadership Coach Who Leverages Cultural Differences To Drive Business Results

Perspectives From A Leadership Coach Who Leverages Cultural Differences To Drive Business Results

There is a quote that goes, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. And as coaches we are part of transformations, we help people change their behaviours and make their lives better. This is a responsible position. What are your thoughts on this quote?

I have this belief in my mind that coaches are people who co-create the coaching process with the coachee. When you have the power, no doubt you have great responsibility. It is there for you, and when you step into the leadership role, you pick up on that. It is always on your shoulder. As a coach, I position myself as somebody that co-creates the process with my coachee. I help them see things from a different perspective. I may use one of the cultural orientations framework dimensions and show them how that actually helps them in their leadership role.

We always have that assumption in mind that leaders need to have power to control and only then they can play the role of a leader. But sometimes that might not be necessary. And the paradox is, how do I actually bring in humility? So as a leadership coach, when I co-create with my coachee, I help them see that both are required in order to succeed.

Sometimes not having power, is also a power for the leader. Let me share an example from a recent client that I had. They were experiencing chaos in the company and people were leaving. The CEO did not know what else to do. He felt he had provided whatever they wanted and met their expectations, but people were still leaving. So, now he felt powerless. But he still has the power inside to make a change. He has the power to not do anything or use it to act as a catalyst in order to keep moving forward. So, you don’t need to be powerful to drive business results. Sometimes too much power and control can stifle people.

As part of coaching, we use a number of approaches and triggers to get insights. What are some of the perspectives that have yielded the maximum insights for your coachees?

I use different modalities in my coaching approach. There is no one approach but a couple of them in combination. The first one would be ‘perspective taking’, where I invite the coachee to see the scenario, the situation and the context, from a different role. So I invite them to do roleplay in session as well. They play themselves in the role and then step outside and tell themselves what they will do, including in the past and the future. So they explore different time dimensions and different roles. They can also seek perspective from someone who is a mentor and who they really trust and are close with.

I also think listening plays a huge part in my coaching approach. I did a coaching session today with a coachee in Australia. She was suffering from burnout, and she said she just feels the need for someone to hear how she is feeling. It was that simple. Somebody listening to her made her feel good.

Tell us about a situation or an anecdote where when you were coaching somebody, they had a moment of insight and this insight propelled them faster towards their goals.

I have an example which is also related to perspective taking. I had a coachee who constantly kept saying that she feels guilty for not doing things right. She was feeling sorry for her boss because her boss had helped her a lot. And the word ‘guilt’ came up in the conversation at least five times. So, I asked her to share a bit more and tell me the story behind it, which she did. I then asked her to take a step outside of herself – what would she tell her current self after hearing about all the guilty stuff that she was mentioning? What would her new-self tell her? She can objectively tell the current self that she is doing too much, focusing on other people, burning herself out and risking her own health and wellbeing. And what advice would her new-self give her current self?

Once done, she can go back to her current self and based on the advice given by her new-self, she can come up with insights. My coachee felt that she had so many thoughts in her mind that she was feeling lost and confused. So, the short five to eight minutes of conversation, helped her to reposition herself and realign herself with her own values. It allowed her to think of what she wants to really do instead of ignoring her values and putting other people’s values before herself.

When we coach, we wear multiple advisory hats, which includes coaching and mentoring. And as human beings, we sometimes want to jump and share information quickly. In your experience, how do you avoid the advice trap?

I interact and work with a diverse group of coachees from different cultural backgrounds. I do not avoid the advice trap. It depends on the context and the coachee’s level of awareness. For example, if I’m coaching an Executive Director who already has knowledge, has the ability to reflect, and has high self-awareness – then most of the time, I don’t give advice. I only invite them to ask questions and I ask them to share their stories and tell me what they have learnt from those stories.  I ask them how they would reframe their story? This is a good approach to what I call ‘higher self-awareness coaching’.

I do have coachees that are at managerial level or who are individual contributors, and they don’t have the knowledge yet. Here, I would need to play the mentor role. For example, I might help with presentation skills. The individual might need to present to a group of CEO or senior leaders. So, I would help with the knowledge and then the coachee will find their own style of presenting.

I would say that all coaching is cultural coaching in a way. Leaders have to deal with the challenges that different personalities bring into the workplace. Leveraging cultural differences in coaching does help me a lot in my work right now.

We coach people at different layers of the organization – this could be mid-level, high potential, senior leaders or someone in the C-Suite with board responsibilities. Does your coaching approach vary across the different layers?

One of the biggest differences that I observed between these two groups, or two individuals is that with the CXO, the focus of the coaching was very much on their leadership style, leadership behaviour, their mindset and attitude. It is also about how they can influence, get people on board and motivate them. It is more about the intangible things. Whereas in the managerial level, it is about focusing and building on the skills and competency. Topics like time management are common. Questions like, how do I manage my time? How do I prioritize my time? How do I present in a more influential way? How do I speak in a more confident way? are common. These questions to some extent make an appearance in CXO conversations as well, but the intensity and focus is slightly different.

Organisations are investing in internal coaching capabilities, and they engage with external coaches as well. Both are making a difference to the organization and their outcomes. What do you think are the differences between internal and external coaching and the possibilities that it can address?

I don’t want to generalise as many companies do have very good internal coaches who are supporting their coachee’s development. But I have a client who has an internal coach. And when they are coaching the leaders in the organisations, the leaders often feel that the internal coach has a mission or some motive that is driving the coaching process in a certain direction or towards global objectives. So they feel they are being manipulated. They don’t feel comfortable. So when they reach out to an external coach, like myself, they feel more comfortable talking to me as I am not linked to the system, and I have an independent view. Although I don’t know every detail of what is going on in the company, my role is to help them tell their stories and provide an opportunity to look at a different version of it.

Culture is one of the key lenses to your coaching practice. What kind of business results has that brought to the entire process of coaching for you?

I would say that all coaching is cultural coaching in a way. Leaders have to deal with the challenges that different personalities bring into the workplace. They have to work with people who have different preferences, different modes of thinking, communication preference, time management, and so on. And when I bring in the paradox perspective to the coachee, they realize that they cannot expect everyone to behave like them. Leveraging cultural differences in coaching does help me a lot in my work right now. Last year, I was coaching a group of Chinese leaders in a team coaching environment. And you will find that even in a homogeneous team, they do share diversity and differences as well. And they had realisations like how one individual preferred indirect communication to avoid conflict and that is why he kept quiet during meetings. There was another person who preferred direct communication and openly disagreed with others and shared his perspective. There were some people who were not comfortable with that. Culture has a lot to do with our upbringing as well.

Is team coaching similar to facilitation? If no, then how is it different? What are the objectives people are driving towards in both these contexts?

From my experience doing both team coaching and workshop facilitation, I do believe that they share some similarities and some differences as well. You need facilitation skills for team coaching, so you can facilitate the conversations. Facilitation is a skill that all coaches must have to help the team have a dialogue in that space. In team coaching, there is a very clear issue or problem that the team would like to resolve. They need to align so they reach their objective and drive business results. So, I would say that team coaching is more purpose driven and the sessions are goal oriented. Each one will get the chance to explore their own perspective in a safe space, while being pushed a little bit outside their comfort zone. And then they align to reach the ultimate team goal. With workshop facilitation, it is more free-flowing, and it is not necessary that there is a team goal. Each person can have their own different takeaways.

I see you use a lot of technology in your facilitation and coaching to get teams to collaborate and ideate. How useful is technology to you as a coach?

What I’m trying to do is to leverage the benefits of technology in coaching. Some coachees are very open to technology, and if they love it, then I’ll take it to the maximum. I will bring in a mural, ask them to do some activity on mural reflections and document it. The most important learning would be asking the coachee to document their goals, their actions and learning points regularly with the help of technology. This actually helps them to see the progress they are making. As a human being, when you see your progress, you feel good. And you can show it to your manager and point out your progress and achievements. There are other coachees who are reluctant to use technology. In that case, I use less technology. I tell them to put it down in their notes or do some journaling and share it with me, and that would be fine as well. They have the choice and can make their own decision.

Democratisation of coaching has become possible through technology platforms. People can access coaching at the click of a button. What are your perspectives on this?

I heard this term ‘democratising coaching’ from some of my colleagues in the US, and this idea is becoming popular over there. In Asia, where I’m active, I can see two trends. I’m seeing a huge transformation in our workplace. We are seeing the younger generations, especially those born after 1995, have very different needs and expectations from their organizations and leaders. These needs are not explicit or visible compared to needs from the past. We hear words like Belonging, Trust, Vulnerability, Emotions, Authentic, etc. These are emotion words. In the past, no leader would talk about this. Leaders would feel this is feminine energy and they would be afraid to touch these subjects. But now, if you’re managing the young generation, these are the things that you have to deal with. As a leader, you not only talk about profits, KPI and performance. The new performance measure for you would be the quality of the relationship that you have with your team members and employees and how happy they feel. I think democratisation of coaching makes it easily accessible for the employees. It’s definitely going to be a trend. Asia might be a few years behind, but it’s definitely going to happen.

The second trend which I see, especially from China, is there are a lot of young coaches. Some of them graduate from school and take up coaching classes, and they come up as a coach. So, you will see this trend where everyone is training to be a coach. But what value is that coach offering the employees, organisations and leaders? My thoughts on this is that it would be difficult as you need the context and corporate experience in order to help the coachee with a different perspective. Although you don’t give advice, you can ask questions. But to do that, you need context – how an organization operates, how an organization functions, what systems do they have place? What are they going to deal with? Who are the stakeholders? All this gives the big picture. So this trend may not be so healthy at the moment.

What do you think the future of coaching will be like for you? What do you think your legacy or contributions to coaching will be like? 

I think my role would be very much in Asia. I would be bringing in the cultural perspective or cultural element into coaching. We have all heard about diversity, inclusion and equity. People in Asia have started talking about this as well. But our context is very different from US or Europe. Asia has its own context, whether it is in China or Singapore. And Southeast Asia has its own context as well. So, how are we going to deal with that? What do we do when we interact with coachees that are from diverse backgrounds? So, with my role, I would like to position myself as someone who leverages cultural differences and brings the cultural perspective or element into coaching.

Phek Yen NG Phek Yen NG

Founder – The BORNEO Consulting Co. Ltd. & Awakenings | Coach | Facilitator

Phek Yen NG is passionate about helping leaders develop their global leadership competences, to make business work globally. She is a leadership coach, facilitator and trainer with extensive experience. She is COF Master Certified (Rosinski & Company) and is also a Certified Coach from Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching. Phek is a champion for diversity, inclusion and cultural transformation and provides consultancy services on DEI to organisations. She is the co-author of ‘Positive Psychology Coaching in the Workplace’. Prior to her coaching career, Phek was the Finance Director and Qualified Accountant for China Mobile.

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