The Passing of a Coaching giant - Sir John Whitmore (1937-2017)

Sir John Whitmore 1937-2017

Sir John Whitmore 1937-2017

Author: Andrew Ramwell @rammers02

The coaching world has lost a great character and driving force with the passing of Sir John Whitmore. Outside of coaching his name is also associated with motor racing in the early 1960’s. After retiring from motorsport, Sir John got interested in transpersonal psychology and will and intention. He trained in the USA and whilst there became interested in Tim Gallwey’s approach to coaching known as the Inner Game. He brought that approach to the UK with several trained Inner Game coaches and focussed on tennis and golf performance.

Sir John quickly realised though that the principles could be applied in other areas, namely the workplace. He began to develop the techniques to be utilised by managers and leaders. He steadily tested and refined his approach throughout the 1980s and is widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of workplace coaching. In 2004, he founded the renowned Performance Consultants International, a provider of coaching, leadership development and performance improvement.

Throughout his career he was a tireless advocate for the profession of coaching, and ensuring quality and rigor in its application. In the 1990s, he was a co-founder, along with Eric Parsloe, David Clutterbuck, David Megginson and Julie Hay, of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC).

Sir John was heavily involved with the International Coach Federation (ICF). In 2007, he received the ICF President’s Award for advancing the profession of coaching. In 2013, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Coaching (IAC).

Outside of coaching his name might not be instantly recognisable but his legacy is assured as the co-creator of the GROW coaching model. When I first starting studying coaching this was the go-to model and its perhaps the most widely known model in coaching. GROW helps managers and coaches approach problem-solving and goal setting with clients or employees and supports them to maximise and maintain personal achievement, enjoyment and productivity.

The GROW model was featured in his most popular book Coaching for Performance. Now in its 5th Edition, it has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. The simplicity of the model is undoubtedly one of its most appealing factors. GROW is an acronym that stands for Goal, Reality, Options and Will. Figure 1. shows the GROW model as presented by Performance Consultants.

Figure 1. GROW model.

As simple as the model looks, the power is in the type of questions asked of the client. I was first taught that you worked through the model G-R-O-W with the final stage of putting into action what you’d agreed to do. Sir John however, indicated that the model might be subject to recycling as well.

For example: If a client sets a vague goal and a detailed check on the current reality reveals more information, then a more defined goal can now be set. Similarly, a defined goal may be subject to change once the current reality has been established. Options can then be tested to see if they will deliver the desired goal within the current reality of resources, conditions, etc. At this point the what and the when of Will can be articulated.

Personally, I would always advocate a mix of verbal conversations and then sketching goals, options and reality on paper. My clients have found that sketching and playing on paper with blank sheets, post it notes and coloured pens brings a different and very positive dimension to the process. The 'what and the when' should be committed to paper or typed and stored electronically. The results are very different between a verbalised commitment and a written out commitment – the words are much more deliberate in the latter.

GROW can be used as a meta or micro level model to set long-term plans for growth or health, or as a one-off session model to help a member of staff set a plan for a specific piece of work.

Sir John was critical of people misrepresenting the model or not understanding the origins and fundamental underpinnings to it. Building self-awareness and self-responsibility are crucial to performance coaching. Tim Gallwey and Sir John suggested that many individuals were struggling to achieve goals because they were not learning from their own experience and were not aware of the available knowledge they already had that would help them. Coaching helps to unlock this awareness.

Sir John Whitmore was a huge driving force in helping to build the coaching industry that we have today. He developed his craft by learning and testing and encouraged others to do the same. He remained passionate and enthusiastic about coaching till the end. These latter points for me will be his biggest legacy.


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