Opening the 2021 ACTO Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conference: A Q&A With Centre Director Robert Stephenson

20th May 2021

At Animas, we are always looking to share our perspectives, thoughts and opinions around the topics that are really important, both to the coaching industry, but also the wider world. Centre Director Robert Stephenson is no stranger to thought leadership work, particularly work centred around Diversity and Inclusion, having contributed articles for journals, and joined various podcasts, and other spaces for discussion to share his own experiences, learnings and reflections in this area, but we couldn’t not get excited about this one… Robert was recently confirmed as the opening keynote speaker at this year’s ACTO conference around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion!

Our Head of Content Sam Chambers sat down with Robert to find out more about the conference, what Robert’s talk is all about, as well as the impact that he and Animas want to make in this incredibly important area.

Sam: Thanks for joining me Robert, first thing’s first congratulations on being accepted as the opening keynote speaker at this year's ACTO conference. What a huge privilege, I bet you're so excited! For those that don't know, tell us a little more about the ACTO conference and what it's all about.

Robert: Thank you very much. I am hugely excited about this. The Association of Coach Training Organisations or ACTO are an organisation whose purpose is to ‘uphold the strong values of any good organisation’ and they also have a big commitment to creating diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the coaching profession.

Every year they hold a huge conference and this year the theme is again centred around diversity, equity and inclusion. It's exploring how coaching organisations play their part within that space. Looking at accrediting bodies and coach training organisations and what their role is in that story around diversity and inclusion. Looking at what's the wider picture of this, how we can all be involved, but also acknowledging where the challenges are and where we're not doing as well as we might be.

Sam: And so what was the application process, and did you have any expectations around being accepted to speak when you applied?

Robert: Well, in reality, I guess we didn't expect to be asked to be a keynote speaker for sure. We thought we might get a small section or a workshop talking about the work that we're doing as a school. The application was a really long application form that we had to fill in, just talking about what we're doing, what our thoughts were, and if we were to give a talk, what that talk might be about.

And I guess in the process of filling in the form, we noticed how much work we were doing around diversity. That's a big part of the Coaching Uncaged conversations, which is our podcast. But as it was our first big application, our first big conference, we weren't really sure what was going to come of it so we didn't really have an expectation. It was more about sharing what we would like to talk about and seeing what came back.

But having spent such a long time thinking about what we would talk about and getting that into the application, there is a part of me that recognises this is brilliant that it's happening. And that we have a chance to pull together some of the conversations that we've been having on the podcast and present those conversations to a new, wider audience is amazing.

Sam: Nice, and I know the theme for this year is centred around diversity, equity and inclusion, what will your talk be about Robert?

Robert: My talk's going to be about my journey as a coach and recognising where I've found a lack of inclusion or lack of diversity within the coaching industry. And what I've noticed on that journey in relation to being a trainer of coaches, seeing a diverse range of coaches existing within the training room, but seeing a less diverse range of coaches showing up within the conference space or the wider industry space. My sense is that there's a really rich, diverse range of coaches, especially within the UK, which is the space I can really talk about because that's where I am and that's what I see. So I know there's a real rich vein of diversity within coaching, but it doesn't seem to show up.

We can recognise that it's a common occurrence that people employ people who are similar to them, people that they know. And it has felt that for a long time, you weren't seeing people of colour as executive coaches, so people weren't getting access to that. But also, if you look at executives, if you look at the statistics, you can see that there are less people of colour in that space.

There's less role modelling and in turn perhaps a strange expectation that it isn't really a field where you see black and Asian and other minority coaches existing, but they do exist. Now part of this I feel is because a lot of those coaches then take that work back into their communities.

And that work exists and is flourishing and it’s happening, but we don't see that work necessarily in a conference space. So part of my talk will be around going, 'well, how do we invite these other communities into that space? How do we actively look beyond ourselves to see a difference and invite that difference into it?' And not just the difference in terms of culture and colour, but a full diversity in terms of ability as well, class, gender, sexuality, age etc.

How do we get all of that in there? I think that one of the challenges is that coaching can be seen as a very middle class pursuit. But I think it's classless. When you talk about coaching many people think about corporate coaches with the perception that there's a look or feel about who is in that corporate space to who can become a coach in that space and part of my passion or pursuit is to break down those barriers of thought and to allow coaching to be as inclusive as it can be.

Sam: That's awesome, and I know that diversity and inclusion is also a big part of the work you do at Animas, tell me a bit more about that.

Robert: As a school, I see diversity within both our team and our community, and it feels like it's been that way for a long time, but we recognise there's a lot more happening beyond us, in the wider profession that if explored and challenged, can lead to more progress in the areas of diversity and inclusivity in our industry. At Animas we'd had internal conversations previously. We've been to events and looked around and gone 'that's interesting, there's only four or five people of colour at this event. What's that about?' And we've had little journeys into doing some work around this, but in the last year we've made it a more concentrated focus, recognising it's in the space, and we can be part of that conversation.

And I think for us as a school to be talking about it allows other people to have that conversation. It allows other voices to be heard and to come into the space. And I think that's a real key thing for me, is inviting other voices in. Those voices that are having the conversation in corners, but not having it in a public space. Let's bring it to a more open space and also support people having that conversation.

I think in the coaching industry, one of our things is we're non-judgemental in our coaching practice and it's about how can we bring that into the wider spaces? For example, when we put conferences on or put events on and we look at who the speakers are, are we questioning who is that panel and how did that panel come about?

Are we actively thinking about creating a real diverse variety? We know diversity and variety creates richer, deeper conversations so how do we do that? How do we make that happen? How do we push that into the space and be part of the discussion?

Sam: Brilliant! What are you trying to achieve in this area, and what's the big vision, for both you as an individual, but also Animas when you think about leadership and in particular diversity and inclusion?

Robert: One of the big visions is that when you turn up to a UK conference, that there's actually a diverse range of people attending the events and a diverse range of people delivering at those events. So that people see themselves represented, they see role models, they see that doing this work is possible. Because I think about, if someone that was completely new to coaching were to attend a conference, what would they see? And as a result what would they believe is possible? How can we create a vision of what's possible by bringing diversity into the space?

For me, I think the biggest vision is to make diversity part of the conversation in such a way, that it becomes just what we do and those events are diverse because people are going, 'this is who we are, this is what we do.' The other piece of this is we don't just have diversity for the sake of it, but we have the best people and we have interesting and knowledgeable people in the industry, and I think if we only have one type of person, that sea of same, it stops us from thinking deeply and challenging our thinking. We know we can fall into groupthink when we have that, so how do we push beyond? And how do we create an industry that is a shining light to the world that says 'this is how things can be done. When we talk about inclusion and diversity, this is what it could look like.' I know lots of organisations are doing work around this. I know lots of coaching bodies are doing the work around this. And I guess we're just part of the voice of that work.

Sam: And so you shared a little bit about your talk, what are you hoping that the people attending the conference take away from it Robert?

Robert: That they can play a part in creating the change. In coaching we talk about how it starts with us and we're the one that makes the change and the individual creates their life and their reality. And I think that what I'd love to come from that is that people go 'right, what's the part that I can play? What's the allyship or activism that I can get involved in to create change within the industry? How can I be a voice that speaks up when I see something that I don't think is quite right or I think could be different, or I think could be better?' That's what I want, I want people to leave asking themselves what's my part in this and that it's OK to play a part in this.

Because I also think that for some people, they're probably thinking 'I don't really know what to do. I'm not part of a minority group, so what do I say? What should I do? I haven't had that experience. I can't talk about it.' But I think we can all support each other to have those conversations and to create those changes and to challenge when we see things and feel comfortable saying 'there's all the same people there or the same class there or the same colour there. Let's change that.' Let's ask ourselves the question, starting with 'what could be different?'

Sam: We've worked together on some article contributions for various journals around diversity and inclusion but I guess my question is, what's next? Where else might people see you sharing your experience, expertise and perspectives on these incredibly important issues?

Robert: We're always going to be talking about this work as part of the podcast as well as the other things that we talk about on there like new coaching concepts, or conversations centred around the great books in coaching. The podcast is about exploring coaching, it's about pushing the boundaries of coaching, it's about hearing the different voices involved in coaching it's seeing what great work people are doing and sharing that to the wider coaching world so people can be aware of it and can be inspired by it so that we can be better at what we do.

I see coaching as a craft, it's a skill that we are constantly chipping away at. We're constantly learning, and I feel that part of what we do is provide voices that inspire people to learn something different or to try something else that helps them to enhance their practice.

I will keep having those conversations, and inclusion will continue to be a big part of that. Part of what we will do is continue to write about this and whether that just stays in our articles or whether that becomes a bigger publication around inclusion stories and the stories of other coaches coming through is the bigger question. I think that's one of the things that has been murmured about and this is the time to stop murmuring about it and to actually invite others to share their story of inclusion. Both in the sense of where it's been a challenge, but also where we can celebrate it. Because what I don't want to do is just highlight where it's going wrong.

I also want to celebrate where we're doing this work well, and where else we can learn from. And as we're having this conversation, my mind has been made up that we will produce a book that talks about both the challenges and the celebrations of diversity from coaching perspectives, inviting coaches to share their stories, and for me to be part of the sharing of that, or the curation of those stories.

Sam: I know this work is going to continue as we have more impactful projects in the works.

Robert: Yeah, and I think the other piece for me is the joining together of all the different organisations as we talk about this because we can see people talking about this work in their own spaces. And it's about let's not talk about it in one space, our own space, but let's join these these conversations up, so it's a bigger conversation, so it's not just one organisation doing the work, it's all of us. I think that's really important, that it becomes part of what we do as opposed to what somebody else does for us. We become a tangible part of it.

I recognise that I'm in a unique position, I'm a black Centre Director of a coaching school, and when you look around the UK, you're not going to see many of those. So I feel both privileged to be in that position, but I also feel that there is a calling to do good here, there is a calling to speak up about it. I can look around and explore how can I help others get to this position and why is it only me? What's that about? Ask the question of: Who's being invited? And who feels that they can step into the space and do this work as well?

Being a black man and a centre director, those things marry and connect in different ways and they're an intersection of who I am, and it's looking at that intersectionality and asking questions about where else can that exist? And how can I be supportive or a voice of enabling that to exist in other arenas and other spaces?

Sam: That's a brilliant vision. Thank you so much for speaking with me Robert and I look forward to seeing your talk!

Find out more about this year’s ACTO Conference and how you can join here, and check out the Coaching Uncaged podcast for more of Robert’s discussions around diversity and inclusion, coaching and much more here

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