Monthly Archives: February 2014

Has ‘curating’ got above itself?

I first noticed the strange new use of the word curator when the King’s Place performing arts centre at Kings Cross in London opened a few years ago. They began a tradition of devoting Monday evenings to the spoken word, calling it Words on Monday. But I was baffled to see that the initial round of lectures, poetry readings and interviews with authors was described as being ‘curated by The Guardian’ (whose sparkling new offices are on the floors above). What did this mean? And who was doing this actual curating, whatever that was? Did it mean that The Guardian newspaper was sponsoring these events, or arranging them? How could this have anything to do with the honourable profession of being a curator, a title earned because of deep and specialized expertise involving objects crucial to cultural heritage?

I have since seen publicity material for film, poetry and music festivals allegedly curated by some person or institution. Where does just being an impresario, organizer, director or producer stop and curating start? When I went to the Barbican recently to hear the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, I was relieved to see that no one claimed to have curated this enjoyable event, though they might have, since someone needed to have chosen the programme and the running order.

And when, exactly, did the noun curator become a verb, to curate? Maybe pretty recently because typing this I see that my up to date version of Word does not recognize it and adds wavy red lines to all its verbal forms.

But my suspicion is that it is only a matter of time before the word curator is annexed in even more provokingly pompous ways. Maybe in the same way that a local council decided to call its lifeguards Wet Leisure Assistants or how bin men have become Waste Disposal Technicians, and museum guides, who obviously need to watch out for jealous rivalry from Curators, have become Coordinators of Interpretative Teaching. People who devise and sell pornography could probably make themselves seem a lot more respectable as Adult Entertainment Curators; Transport for London could re-badge their useful travel advice as Journey Curating.

That this development is possibly already true came home to me when I was making my way through the vast fashion department of John Lewis’s Oxford St store in London. A selection of clothing had been put on elegant hangers with fancy tags and labelled, yes, Curated. These were, allegedly, not just quite nice bits of up-market clothing from a variety of brands that someone from the merchandising team rather liked, they were precious objects worthy of being handled reverently by virtue of being curated, in order to justify their high prices.

So I think now I’d better do a bit of curating of my own. I can start with my wardrobe – that can do with some serious curating which will involve a trip to the already very well run Cancer Research charity shop where they might helpfully re-label their more expensive designer donations as Curated to Cure Cancer. Then I am giving a supper party for my family soon and there are some needs that are difficult to reconcile: the two veggies, the roast dinner addicts, the person who claims that anything ‘spicy’ makes her ill, the one who never eats vegetables, the baby who is still on stage 1 of solids. Clearly only a very expert Food Curator could possibly sort this out so I’d better get down to it to see if I can make the cut.

What can Supervision in Coaching Really Do?

We coaches work in isolation: who knows what we get up to when no one is looking except the client? Coaching is unregulated and looks likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future since no one ‘ in authority’, whatever that means, cares enough about coaching to provide the money to make statutory control a reality.

So something called ‘supervision’, and note the lower case ‘s’, has crept in as the preferred alternative. Now, to get work as a coach in a corporate environment you may have to state that you have a supervisor and name them, saying how many times you meet.

All of these are benign developments, but before we get on to more of what those might be, some aspects of it trouble me. First, claims are made that supervision is part of quality control. Please, someone explain to me how this could be true. Unless the coaching conversation was recorded, what supervision means is one person talking about work they did when the other person was not present. Self-delusion, inexperience, or deliberate concealment could all be at work on either side.

I find that many absurd and unrealistic statements are made about how often coach and supervisor should meet – for instance someone very senior and academic at the EMCC once suggested one hour of supervision for every eight hours of coaching. I have never met a practising coach who was willing to submit to this or thought it necessary – or to pay for it. In fact when coaches have to pay for themselves rather than some benign employer forking out, they are very careful and thrifty about how often their supervision happens. Then there is the notable absence of evidence that supervision makes a difference. This absence does not mean that it doesn’t, but has anyone established that coaches who have frequent and regular supervision do better work and are more commercially successful than coaches who do not?

My own approach is that supervision for coaches is essential as a safe place for the rigorous self reflection which results in increased self awareness and prudent confidence. When done well it challenges, it supports, it develops. By doing this it widens your choices and increases competence. Essentially it is a process for examining the coach-client relationship. I see supervision as having three purposes, all of them overlapping:

Spotting our patterns as coaches. Since as coaches we work in isolation, it is all too easy to develop blind spots which prevent us understanding what is happening in the relationship, hearing what the client is saying, or seeing how we are contributing to any triumphs and difficulties ourselves. Indirectly, therefore, supervision can improve the quality of coaching

Deepening understanding of coach-client dynamics. The newer you are to coaching, the more likely you are to want an endlessly variable supply of ‘tools and techniques’. Supervision can indeed help to do this, but the real work is to look at what is happening in the coach-client relationship, to raise self-awareness about our own responses to clients and to explore alternatives

Emotional support. Coaching is ‘emotional labour’ and like any such work it can be exhausting, troubling, exhilarating. Coaching also raises many ethical dilemmas which are difficult to discuss with people who are not fellow-coaching professionals. Supervision may be the one place where you can explore this material without fear of being judged or told what to do.

The respected consultancy ConsultEast is running a training in supervision in which I will be involved. The dates are March 10-14, 2014 and there are still places. To find out more email

Were psychometrics to blame?

It’s true that the Co-op Bank’s decision to appoint Paul Flowers as its Chairman was baffling in its wrongness: a Methodist minister with no financial experience to speak of, who hired rent boys and was caught in a sting operation where he was filmed apparently buying crystal meth and cocaine. Dubbed The Crystal Methodist, he is reported to be writing a book and starting up as an after-dinner speaker. Well, good luck to him, there have been stranger career resurrections than that.

But in the wake of the scandal, and the serious damage it has done to the Bank, the search for scapegoats is continuing. And guess what? It was all the fault of psychometrics. I have worked throughout my career with journalists, have been a freelance writer myself and was married to a journalist for many decades so I think I can say with authority that there is nothing a journo likes better than de-bunking. And many journos are specially fond of debunking psycho-babble. At one level who can blame them? We coaches, psychologists and consultants do love a nice bit of psychobabble: it can cover our anxiety about whether what we do actually has any value, so adding a few long words and over-claiming for their scientific validity can smudge things up beautifully.

This makes us – and psychometrics – a bit of an easy target. Tom Whipple had some fun in The Times on February 1 2014 where in one smooth slide he went from reporting that Rev Flowers had ‘passed’ a psychometric test to an unsubstantiated claim that the Myers Briggs (MBTI) must be the culprit to an even more unsubstantiated claim that its use is ‘widespread’ as a selection tool in the finance sector to then some of the usual meant-to-be-witty attacks on the ‘test’ for its apparently simplistic structure. Hold on Tom! First, you don’t know that the MBTI was involved because the Co-op Bank have refused to name the ‘test’. Second where is your evidence that the MBTI is used for selection as opposed to development in the finance or any other sector? And have you ever taken the MBTI yourself with a proper de-brief?

For the record, although not unheard of, it is rare for the MBTI to be used for selection. When you do the licensing training you sign up to ethical use, including agreeing to using it only for development – where it is magnificent – and not for selection – for which it was explicitly never designed. And personality questionnaires are not ‘tests’ since there are no right answers, so you cannot ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ them. Maybe the Rev Flowers took some psychometrics such as numeracy or verbal reasoning, which genuinely are tests and do have right/wrong answers. It is easy for journalists to get confused here.

Some of this happens because those of us in the business of working with organizations on this tricky human stuff are not clear enough ourselves about what psychometrics can and cannot do. We can get so blinded with love for the power of the MBTI, for instance, that it becomes a whole way of seeing the world, when, mighty though it is, it has well known weaknesses and limits. Where trait-based instruments like the NEO or 16PF are concerned, lack of time and perhaps lack of expertise can mean that we rely on computer-generated narrative reports which are invariably bland and cautious. We do this rather than slogging through the more tricky but ultimately more subtle and valuable task of writing our own reports. We may over-sell the benefits of psychometrics because we like the idea of being ‘experts’, or fail to persuade commissioning clients that there are more effective methods of providing data for the selection process than just administering a few questionnaires.

This can combine fatally with the grandiose ideas that many appointment committees can have about their own allegedly superior intuitive ability to judge candidates, where it is common to over-rely on a traditional panel interview, a selection method with the lowest level of correlation with performance in the job.

Ultimately, the decision to appoint Paul Flowers was the result of an extremely poorly designed recruitment process. The Co-op culture, with its legacy of 19thc labyrinthine bureaucracy and apparent ‘democracy’ also seems to have contributed.

But this event is also uncomfortable for the senior HR staff at the Bank who should have been tough, trusted and reliable advisors to the selectors. This would have included reminding them that however impeccable the methodology, there is no process in the world that can guarantee a perfect appointment. All you can ever do is minimize the risk of hiring the wrong person. In this case, even had he somehow got through the assessment process, a rigorous probe of this man’s reputation, background, skills and track record would soon have revealed that he was not the right man for the job. Sorry, journos, but it was nothing much to do with the psychometrics.