Business English Coaching with Phil Wade

I’m pleased to introduce Phil Wade. Phil is an English teacher and coach specialising in business English. He’s also authored e-books on business English and is an active online member of the BE coaching community. In our first interview, he talks about his experiences teaching business English and how his approach has shifted into coaching.
Phil, what’s your teaching background and how does coaching fit in?

Hi Dan. Well, I started out tutoring university students and then worked for several language schools as a teacher and course manager, a few universities, some online organisations and I also sidestepped into examining, teacher training and e-learning. Eventually I felt like the skills I had from the CELTA, DELTA and the MA TESOL weren’t fitting in with what business clients wanted and several asked me for coaching. I was actually working at a coaching centre when I decided to sign up for an Executive Coaching course that then led me to the ILM in Coaching and Mentoring. Both have been valuable as they not only help me deliver what clients want but how too, they also provide me with a new perspective on all my teaching.

You describe your career trajectory from teaching to coaching as an answer to a problem. What was it about traditional ELT that wasn’t working? And how did coaching solve the issues?…

Phil Wade quoteMany things. I taught in summer schools and in schools with refugee kids before doing the CELTA so I knew what I needed. The CELTA helped give me that knowledge and essential skills. It also helped me get through the PGCE as we were never taught pedagogy and trained in teaching as a skill. When I worked in language schools, I found that CLIL, CBI, business English and ESP were becoming popular and fit my style better but my TEFL skills, born of teaching fun lessons to teens, didn’t fit. Thus, I had to adapt and I think the coaching seeds were set there. When I set up and ran an MA course, taught foundation and pre-MBA courses at a language school, I wasn’t doing TEFL anymore as students didn’t want it. By the time I’d moved into full-time business English client teaching, the whole ‘cultural trainer and ‘intercultural skills’ thing had been around awhile and teachers who had already rebranded as ‘business English skills trainers’ were starting to call themselves ‘coaches’. Due to the popularity of coaching, more and more business clients were exposed to it so it was no surprise that they expected language training with a coaching style.

After I trained in Executive Coaching, I felt better able to fulfil what clients wanted and started to set up sessions like coaching ones and focus more on the client, talk less, extract more information from them, and just let them lead the session as they always had. I’d go so far as to say that all the managers and directors felt better in a coaching style situation than a TEFL one with copies, grammar, vocab and roleplays, basically, with ‘teaching’. Personally, I think it is because we’ve never had a business English method. Instead, countless people have said that any TEFLer can teach business English. They can’t, in my opinion.

I think the key for me was that coaching gave me a different perspective, an analytical one in which I had time to interpret what and how people spoke, to figure out what they meant, to interpret information and work towards real personal goals to do with behaviour. Yes, grammar and vocab could be addressed but in a student-led way with the client thinking about how they learn, what their problems are and pushing through issues. After all, like me, clients had been learning languages for decades. They had problems that were holding them back and needed help with. Fossilised errors for instance. When they went to some other teachers, they just learned and learned and practised. This didn’t work. It’s like having a hole in a car tyre, no amount of new air or driving the car will repair it. You need to fix the hole and move on.

I’d like to move on to specifics. For teachers who may not be aware of what a coaching approach in BE is, could you describe one or two specific techniques or coaching tools that you employ with your clients?

Well, I generally structure each session following the typical GROW /TGROW model beginning which really is almost DOGME, i.e. I ask the clients what they want to work on or recap and then agree on objectives for that session and maybe future ones. I started off using the SMART goals tool but soon got bored of them as everyone knew them and I wasn’t offering anything new. I then came across CLEAR goals (see here and here) which I found far more useful. I’ve found that goals change a lot so instead of deleting them and building new ones and then not completing others, CLEAR goals take into consideration that clients are part of teams and often their progress involves others around them. It also helps you discuss emotions and how they feel about where they are and want to be. My favourite parts, though, are that they are designed to break down the big goals into smaller and smaller ones. This is the key for me. There’s no point having 3 goals for 30 sessions. You need weekly or daily ones so people see achievement and improvement. Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, CLEAR goals are made to change, and change they do. As I see it, the modern executive is a change agent and so needs flexibility.

Finally, what would you say are the key elements to get right in a coaching session?

Firstly, progress. The same as in business English sessions. Where the latter is often based on language, skills development and confidence, coaching, for me, is more about feelings and that sense that the person has made internal progress which is deeper than at the surface level. In other words, a client who has the typical “I’m stressed and burnt” feeling can be helped reorganise their approach and develop some strategies but that is just dealing with the symptoms. The ‘why’ it happened and keeps happening will get you to personality and habits. If you can uncover those, encourage realisations, change those negative traits, then you will make a massive change in that person’s life. Otherwise, you’re just plugging holes in a dam with your fingers.
Another big thing is listening and silence. It may sound ‘anti-coaching’ but I hate questions. In EFL communication classes, I’ve used books that just had 10 or 20 questions for pairs to ask each other. It sometimes feels like an interrogation, especially with introverts. It took me many months of dedication to change from asking lots of pre-prepared questions and from constantly filling the silence or jumping in before clients had the chance to create answers. Now, I understand the need to create challenging questions, statements or situations and know when I have hit something and clients go silent. Those are the golden moments and result in real answers and progress. This is the same as in class when you ask a very engaging question and students say “that’s a hard question to answer” then go silent.
Finally is the whole idea of homework, which I see similar to the Flipped Classroom. To me, the sessions are just checking in time to find out what has happened since the last one and to address anything that has come up and then to adapt goals for next time. It is like the pit stop in Formula 1. This is why I quite like the online software or activities some company coaches use where clients fill in forms to book sessions, have them either F2F, on the phone or even by email and then fill in more after. That is something I would love to work on but I think my clients enjoy the F2F aspect more.

I love the ‘pit stop’ analogy! Thanks, Phil. If we want to find out more about your approach, where can we look?

All my e-books have a coaching approach. You can check them out on Smashwords:
You’re also invited to join the Business English Coaching Facebook group. It’s a collective of like-minded professionals, many of whom mentored me through my studies:

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