Coaching is on the up in Spain – but in a country that is traditionally unwilling to admit to weakness, and where not everyone has the same development opportunities, it may have its work cut out.
Article about Coaching in Spain, published in the “Coaching at Work” magazine, January 2007
Back in 1994, Jane Upton was “clearly the exception” as a female executive coach in Barcelona. “I had guys in their early thirties telling me it was ok for me to do this job because I was foreign, but that they wouldn’t let their wife do it,” says Upton, who is a coach with Praesta and runs its operations in Spain.
Sara Ais, an independent coach who works with the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), recalls ringing a business bookshop in Barcelona in the late 1990s to ask what books they had on coaching. “They had nothing,” she says. But, according to Ais, in the past two to three years, the Spanish coaching market has “exploded”.
Silvia Guarnieri, academic director and co-founder of Escuela Europea de Coaching, an executive coach training school with branches in Madrid and Barcelona, one of two in Spain accredited by the International Coach Federation (ICF), agrees. When the school was launched three years ago, the public had no idea what coaching was. But Guarnieri is seeing a rapid growth in demand for coach training, and 80 per cent of those becoming certified coaches with the school are funded by their employers. There is a definite shift away from a commandand-control culture towards a coaching style of management, she says.
This year ICF Spain’s third annual gathering consisted of two days in Madrid, attracting some 120 delegates and a handful of big sponsors, such as Spanish bank La Caixa and Pepsi. This compares with a 70-strong ‘professional day’ in Barcelona the previous year and a 30-strong meeting in Zaragoza the year before that.
“It’s incredible,” says Viviane Launer, president of ICF Spain, which has 120 members in Spain, nine of whom are fully accredited. The ICF hopes to reach 200 to 300 associates by the end of this year.
Despite the boom, it is still early days. Launer says Spain is a nation of inequality when it comes to access to training and development.
“Some people haven’t been trained at all, while others have been extensively trained and are very receptive to coaching,” she says.
Spanish managers highlighted one-to-one coaching as one of their top choices for learning soft skills, according to research by the CCL, Emerging Leaders Research: Phase Il, Europe.
The oldest and youngest Spanish respondents did not include coaching in the top learning methods for soft skills, unlike most of the other European participants.
The majority of Spanish respondents fell into two generations: those born in 1952-59 (Generation B) and those born in 1960-70 (Generation C). The other learning options for Generation B were on-the-job training, discussion groups, classroom training and case studies, and for Generation C they were on-the-job training, discussion groups, assessment and feedback, and peer interaction.
“One could speculate that these groups haven’t been exposed to or experienced coaching,” says the report, written by Alessia D’Amato and Jennifer Deal.
Only a small handful of companies, such as the Banco de Bilbao y Vizcaya (BBV A) and Roche Diagnostics, are going all-out to build internal cohorts of coaches, according to Guarnieri.
Steven Poelmans, a professor in IESE Business School’s Managing People in Organisations department, agrees. “Most people are asking for coaching rather than setting up coaching systems,” he says. “Developing internal capacity, as Roche Diagnostics is doing, is still exceptional”
Portuguese executive coach André Ribeiro, founder of Barcelona-based company Extra Coaching, says the coaching market in Spain lags behind the UK by at least five to 10 years. He says HR professionals do not necessarily help the coaching cause in Spain. “The multinationals are better informed, but many HR professionals see it as a threat, believing the coaches will take their work,” he says.
Poelmans says that because historically Spain has had a collectivist culture in which networks are very important, there is a lot of informal coaching going on – which means in some ways there is less need for people to reach out to professionals.
On the other hand, he says, there are issues of power and distance that inhibit coaching. The stereotypical hierarchical, patriarchal, macho Spanish business culture is very much alive and kicking in many organisations. it seems.
Jane Upton says: “Male Spanish bosses can sometimes be frightened of being challenged. Also, Spanish people have a lot of face and pride, with a strong ‘enchufe’ [meaning ‘plug’, or someone important who can pull strings for you] system. Put all this together and that’s what you’re facing as a coach.”
She says that senior executives in Spain often block the move towards a coaching culture.
“We are still seeing the old-school attitude. The other day a friend and I went to a restaurant, which was reluctant to let us sit at a particular table because it was the boss’s. This harks back to the days of Franco, when the boss got what he wanted,” Upton says.
Allard de Jong, a Dutch coach working with Penna in Barcelona, says the problem with coaching in Spain is that sometimes it is perceived as asking for help – and in a culture that thrives on honour, this is seen as a weakness. “Once people are educated about coaching, they realise it is not weakness but partnering,” he says.
De Jong agrees that Spain is lagging behind other European markets. For coaching to take hold there needs to be a culture of continuous improvement, and this tends to be found only in large international businesses, he says.
Nevertheless, word is gradually spreading and, increasingly, smaller firms are embracing coaching. Ribeiro, for example, is currently working with a 220-strong family-run wine firm in La Rioja, helping the father pass over the business to his two sons and working with some eight leaders in the business.
Francisco Gay, also a professor in IESE’s Managing People in Organisations department, agrees with Ais and De Jong that coaching in Spain tends to be more about working on problem areas than strengths. “It’s about finding out what needs improving – that’s what the coach is paid for,” he says.
Pedro García, human capital manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Barcelona, says companies in Spain usually turn to coaching to improve people’s relationships or skills by changing their attitudes. “They look to coaching to generate change in attitude in areas flagged up as needing improvement,” he says.
De Jong believes another obstacle is that Spaniards tend not to be as ambitious as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
“There is not so much demand for coaching because people are not so keen to improve. This is a generalisation, but it is something I am seeing,” he says.
Gay believes the interest in coaching in Spain is being fuelled by the popularity of “pseudopsychology”. Once people realise the amount of self-reflection it brings, however, their enthusiasm can wane. Spaniards, perhaps, have less of a custom of navel-gazing than the British or Americans, for example.
“Being Latinos, we are interested in pseudopsychology, which can make us receptive to coaching – but once people realise it’s about reflection and looking in the mirror and it hurts, lots of people disengage,” Gay says.
There is still a lot of confusion about what coaching is, it would seem. Upton says that while over the past few years she has noticed more and more people have heard of coaching, they often misunderstand it.
Gay agrees there is “notable confusion” as to what people mean by coaching in Spain. “One of the first things we need to do is to try to classify the concept and recover rigour,” he says.
A question of quality
When Ribeiro meets new Spanish clients, he finds it vital to spell out what coaching is and share success stories.
Poelmans says that most coaching is done at executive level with external coaches, but that it is starting to be cascaded down to lower levels in some organisations. He says that IESE’s position is very clear: that coaching should be an integral part of every manager’s responsibility.
Gay agrees. “From my point of view, the internal model is the most recommended. But another thing is whether leaders want this. Many are not engaged in their own development or lack trust. It’s not easy to bring coaching into the hierarchy,” he says.
Ana Tomás, an Alicante-based business coach, says: “The current trend is to contract external coaches but increasingly firms are thinking about training internal coaches or taking on professional coaches as part of the workforce.”
Ais says coaching tends to be used to support training and development initiatives, particularly at leadership level, to help high potential employees and to help leaders work on challenges. Just as there has been in the UK and elsewhere, there are real issues around the quality of coaches in Spain.
“The big companies are interested in coaching, but we’re a little green in Spain; it’s just beginning. There are not enough good coaches to go round and often people doing coaching don’t know anything,” says Maria G6mez Navarro, leadership development manager at Telef6nica Group.
Ribeiro says: “We’re seeing a great boom, but there is still low quality generally. You can get a certificate in coaching for about €900 (£600) or in executive coaching for €1,500 (£1,000). You get a formula with 15 questions to ask, and that’s about it.”
He adds that there are lots of coach training franchises that are unconcerned about quality, and that much of what is on offer is life coaching. Many head-hunting firms have suddenly reframed themselves as coaching providers, according to the ICF’s Launer.
Poelmans says HR managers complain that it is difficult to know if coaches are professionals and they are looking for advice on that. But while there is a “situation of uncertainty”, the majority of people are still not thinking about this, he says.
Gay says the ICF is the benchmark organisation in Spain, but that it is still very early days in terms of accreditation. “There is no official school, and accreditation is not deemed as that important. It’s more important to have someone professional,” he says.
Ais adds: “We’re walking lamely when it comes to accreditation. It’s a lack and options are limited.”
Poelmans says accreditation has only just started to become an issue in Spain, and many coaches still become accredited overseas. He agrees with Ribeiro that a certificate is no guarantee of quality.
“You can simply pay for the certificate and HR professionals are aware of that. They are looking for ways to distinguish between good and bad,” he says.
Launer says companies do not yet seek accreditation in the coaches they use. And she says Spain is a long way off from having regular supervision for coaches. She does, however, believe organisations will soon start seeking accreditation.
Meanwhile, as Gay says, it is more a case of “a mi no me expliques los titulos que tienes, pero lo que haces,” which translates as “don’t go on to me about all the letters after your name, what is it you do?”
“Businesses are looking for people they can trust and prestige in the case of well-known coaches; they want to know they can have a relationship based on trust,” he says.
Coaches are often selected because they come recommended. “It’s a closed world and recommendations go mouth-to-mouth,” says Garcia, who agrees that firms are looking for someone they can trust who has maturity and experience. “It has to be someone older who has accumulated experience,” he says.
Ais agrees: she says that coaching is the one profession in which grey hairs actually count for something.
PwC’s Garcia says large companies in Spain are beginning to appreciate the importance of feedback and evaluation, and that coaching is the missing link There is not a widespread culture as yet of Spaniards welcoming constructive criticism, however.
Gay, who agrees that Spanish firms are increasingly introducing 360-degree feedback mechanisms, says: “We are not at all Anglo- Saxon, and while we like evaluation, feedback is very hard for us.”
Both Gay and Garcia believe that Spaniards are getting better at receiving criticism:
“Feedback is very necessary; we have to hear things we don’t like and we’re learning,” said Gay, who also thinks one of the problems in terms of Spanish people being receptive to coaching lies in the use of the verb “ser” (”to be” in a permanent sense) as opposed to the verb “hacer” (”to describe behaviours”).
“People say: ‘You are unpunctual’ instead of what they should say, which is: ‘You often arrive late’ – which would imply that someone could improve,” he says.
Gay adds that if someone has some negative feedback about someone else, they do it via the HR function. Spain is perhaps not as hung up on models as the UK. He says he hasn’t detected formalised methods in the coaches he knows: “Basically we are Socratic coaches, and beyond that we are applying our own expertise and experience.”
Sir John Whitmore’s “GROW” model – Goal, Reality, Option, will – is popular, as is neurolinguistic programming (NLP), according to García. Ribeiro uses some NLP (PNL in Spanish) and “GROW”, among other things. But he says only small numbers of people are training to master’s level in NLP, compared with some 250 each year training in the basics.
“There are issues of quality in terms of NLP. People are looking for simple, rapid training,” he says.
One model that is becoming more and more popular in Spain is Chilean sociologist and philosopher Rafael Echeverria’s “ontological coaching model”. This model is taught at Escuela Europea de Coaching and by Newfield Consulting, for example, which was founded by Echeverria.
The model’s premise is that businesses are essentially networks of conversations and they can be defined by the conversations they have. If you want to change an organisation, change its conversations, Echeverria says. His “ontology of language” discipline stems from the idea of humans as intrinsically linguistic beings; as observers. It links with work by fellow Chileans – Fernando Flores, finance minister in Chile’s Allende government, who was imprisoned during the coup in the early 1970s; and biologist Humberto Maturana – as well as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and US philosopher John Searle.
Launer acknowledges the growing popularity of the ontological model, but says it is no different from any best-practice coaching model that seeks to help clients find a new way of being by working with language, emotions and the body.
What does the future hold?
De Jong says he believes coaching in Spain will take a different turn from the Anglo-Saxon world, with its emphasis on results and performance.
“In Spain, there is more of an interest in personal development. I think coaching will have a broader base, influenced by the South American self-help culture and the likes of [Argentinian psychotherapist and author] Jorge Bucay,” he says. “There is more of a penchant for philosophy in South rather than North America, which is why we’re seeing the ontological model of coaching.”
De Jong says that most of the coaching models in Spain come from Anglo-Saxon culture, but that Spain will continue to adapt these, with coaches being more like “philosophical counsellors”.
Ais says: “We need a culture that defines what coaching is, so it is not seen as a remedial activity or as another American invention that won’t last.”
Silvia Guarnieri says: “We no longer have a culture in which pyramidal command and-control styles work. As coaches we go in as the plumbers of the organisation, to help things flow, to sort out damaged relationships and help people converse. I think people are becoming ready to have radically different conversations.”
She believes coaching is a permanent part of the Spanish landscape: “I think coaching is about being more human. It might go forwards but not backwards. It’s here to stay.”