Like many of us, Eric Kohner has been asking, Who am I? What is my legacy? These questions have kept Eric going to places he didn’t belong. Yet these questions also led him to claim his authentic self and realize he has a bigger purpose.
Eric is an internationally acclaimed executive coach and public speaker with over 30 years of coaching expertise. Asa long-standing CTI Faculty member, he was the first Front of Room CTI leader outside the founders. Eric also founded the international corporate training company ekcoSYSTEM.
Join us as we speak with Eric about his coaching experiences and how he uses coaching to help organizations better engage with their employees.Our discussion tackles Eric’s extensive coaching experience, his engagement with emerging talent in the underrepresented community as an active member of New York anti-gun violence organization SNUG, and his leadership development insights, such as his involvement in BADASS lab and the 5 Knowledge Centers.
Can you tell us about your background before Co-Active? How did you discover Co-Active?
I got introduced to CTI before it even existed. In the mid-’80s, I joined the Actor’s Information Project (AIP) in New York City. Back then, this was a resource center for actors, and they offered many different things. But one of the things they showed me that made me consider was “coaching.” They used to call it Consulting for the Business of Acting, and my consultant was Henry Kimsey-House.
Back then, Henry played around with many concepts that were eventually used to create the CTI curriculum. This eventually led to the creation of CTI, founded by Laura Whitworth and Henry and Karen Kimsey-House. I was one of Henry’s clients, and it was all focused on the business of acting. Henry told me, “Eric, you’re my best client.” I said, “Why?” He answered, “Because you know you need it.”
He then started training people to become consultants and asked me if I was interested in getting trained to do that. Of course, I said yes. I and a couple of other people from AIP and that class eventually became faculty for CTI.
While being a client of Henry’s, I realized that I wanted to do more film and television. To do that, I needed to move to California. Once in California, they started referring other people that were members of AIP to me, so I started coaching in the late ’80s to early ’90s. I was already in Hollywood, pursuing my acting career. Henry moved out to Northern California and declared he was a professional life coach. I started working with Henry and helped him build his practice, and we delivered Business of Acting workshops. He then supported me in building my coaching practice. After that, around ’91 or ’92, he officially went into business with Laura and opened up CTI. I was in the second round of coaches that they trained. After I got certified through CTI, they hired Cynthia Loy Darst and me. We were the first two trainers outside the founders, and in the summer of 1994, I delivered my first workshop for CTI.
I’ve been working with CTI for almost 30 years. Cynthia and I, we’re affectionately called OGs. We also convinced the founders to bring CTI courses to Los Angeles; that is why LA was the first location outside the Bay Area.
In your experience, what is the magic of Co-Active?
When I started getting coached by Henry, it allowed me to be proactive. But what was magical about it was that I wasn’t doing it on my own; it was me being bold with somebody. And for me, the magic was also in the co-creation of it. The magic of Co-Active was learning to be a professional coach from a real embodied and artistic place.
The magic was also not just coaching. It was also facilitating and training people to become coaches. I still remember my first experience with the possibility of being a front-of-the-room leader for CTI. I just wanted to do it. And yet, at the same time, I thought I’d never be able to do it. I can’t, I thought. I can’t do what Henry and Laura are doing. They’re brilliant, and I’m not worthy. And yet there was another part in there saying I can do this. As an actor, there was always that part of me that had to believe I could do it to be an actor.
What has been some magic you’ve witnessed when you’ve led workshops or coached clients?
One of the most powerful things about being a coach and being of service to other people is the alchemy of deeply listening to other people. Having that ability to listen and to have the client feel like they’re being heard is transformational. And it happens daily for me. I’ve watched, facilitated, coached, and witnessed transformative experiences that I’m both a part of and seeing simultaneously. It’s something words really can’t describe. So, being part of that transformation and having the ability to impact people in the world is great. It’s a great profession to be part of something that powerful.
How did you bring Co-Active into organizations? What led you there?
As an actor, you know the odds of getting work as an actor are so small that you have to believe in yourself even when there’s no evidence for you to believe in yourself. This belief served me very well in pursuing corporate work. I had no corporate background, but I saw something that I thought could significantly impact organizations.
I knew that was needed in organizations. So I started dreaming about that possibility. But, without corporate experience, it didn’t stop me. So I started speaking about it inside CTI training. If I saw somebody connected in the corporate world, I would talk about it.
Within a year, I was teaching a class in Norway. There, I ended up really challenging this one woman. She got so mad at me that she ran up to the front of the class, picked me up by my shirt collar, and basically was about to punch me in the face. And I leaned in and said, “Go ahead. I’m not going to back down; hit me.” And she burst into tears and walked back to her chair, and I had this moment of clarity that maybe I should back up and not keep pushing. But the next day, this woman approached me and said, “You need to know something. I am an Olympic gold medalist in long-distance skiing, and I’ve only had one other person have the impact you had on me yesterday.” And I said, “Who was that person?” She told me, “My Olympic coach.”
Hege Sitje, another participant in that class, witnessed that whole thing. And after the class, she magically came up to me and said, “Would you be willing to come into my company?” At the time, Hege was working for Capgemini, and she was the one who brought Co-Active coaching into Capgemini. So that was my first major corporate gig. I’ve been delivering Co-Activity to Capgemini for the last 18 years.
Over your two decades of corporate work, what’s been the biggest value you’ve witnessed?
For many years, my tagline was Bringing Human BEING into Business. Then, about 15 years ago, I gave my business card to somebody, and he looked at it and said, “You expect to get hired for this?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. As a matter of fact, the person that had your position before you hired me for that reason, and that reason alone.” So I bring Human BEING into business, and more organizations realize that it’s not just about performance; it’s not just about the bottom line. Companies need their people to be engaged more and more.
They’re realizing internally that to keep their talent, they must continually develop them. And the work that I do by bringing Co-Active into organizations is all related to that. And then, externally, businesses are also aware that client relationships create a long-term business. And coaching skills are precious in that regard.
How have you been able to stay true to yourself?
Well, I don’t think I’ve held onto it 100% over the years. For example, I created a website about 10 years ago that was very corporate in style, and it said all the right corporate things. One day I realized that wasn’t who I am. I’m not a traditional corporate type.
Another instance is how I changed the name of one of my leadership development programs to BADASS Leadership because that’s what’s made me successful: I’m a badass — that’s part of my brand.
So, I think badasses go into areas where they have no business going. There is a little bit of audacity to being a badass. That’s especially needed today because nobody is an expert anymore. The world has become so convoluted and complex. What worked two years ago is no longer relevant today. We all have the range and many facets of ourselves to be expressed. I know there’s a pendulum swinging back and forth; over time, we adjust based on the changing environments around us. As of today, I think I’m leaning more towards my disruptive side. And it is a different disruptive than what was in my youth. This disruption is for the sake of a much bigger cause.
What would your advice be to other coaches about being their authentic selves?
A new client recently told me, “You’re comfortable in your skin. I want to feel comfortable in my own skin.” My advice comes from a place of authenticity and abundance. There are two types of people in the world: the people who get you and the people who don’t get you. There are enough people in the world that get you and love you just for the way you are, and when you fully embrace that, you will have an amazingly full practice.
I came to this realization 20 years ago: for the people who get Eric Kohner, I am this incredibly transformative coach they love to death. They can’t wait to work with me. And for people that don’t get me, I have the opposite impact: they literally get nothing from what I have to offer them, and sometimes I repel them. And that’s okay.
What has been one of the most significant turning points in your life?
I turned 65 about 5 years ago. In our culture, 65 means something, like it’s time to slow down. And it also was a moment to reflect on my legacy. At that moment, I realized I had lost a part of myself. There was a part of myself that I had lost by being in this lovely, wonderful bubble called “the dominant white culture.” I was inspired by a book I was reading. I wanted to be part of something that wasn’t in my bubble. And because of some of the challenges I had in my youth, I wanted to give back.
Once again, I started dreaming. And the next thing I know, magic happened. I’m in front of a woman that worked for Rikers Island. Rikers Island is a notorious prison in NYC. I connected with her, and she introduced me to another organization called SNUG. SNUG is guns spelled backward. They are a New York State-funded anti-gun violence organization. Their staff is made up of individuals who have ‘lived the life’, meaning they have all been at risk of getting shot or shooting a gun themselves. Now they work in an effort to stop gun violence in their communities.
I knew SNUG would benefit from some coaching skills, so I approached CTI and asked if they’d be willing to donate three Fundamentals to train their entire staff. After about one or two years, we delivered those three workshops, which transformed my life. It got me back in touch with a population that just CTI or the corporate world don’t usually engage with. And it got me back in touch in a way that made me feel alive.
And so now I wake up for this. I have meaning and purpose because I have these people in my life — people who continually inspire me. And slowly, I think I’m inching towards something. I don’t quite know what it is yet.
So what’s next for you? What are you doing in the next 5 to 10 years?
Of course, I have no idea what will happen in the next 5 or 10 years, but I’d like to see what will happen. I’m quoting a new client from Sony Music Entertainment, Maria Neve: I’d like to see “people that traditionally don’t feel like they have a voice, to find their voice.” So I’d like to be a catalyst for that: for the people who have a voice and have held power to learn how to listen and be curious.
I think that Co-Active is a wonderful platform for that. I would also like to see organizations create leadership programs that integrate underrepresented communities with upper management, allowing them to experience and learn from each other.
Tell us about BADASS, your leadership development program, and why it was created.
About eight years ago, a woman from Capgemini approached me. She said, “We have a leadership program. We want them to do something really edgy, off the wall. So could you come up with a proposal in the next 48 hours?” And I got off the phone, and within 45 minutes, I created the acronym for BADASS and then made a one-and-a-half-day program that would teach that, and I submitted it. BADASS stands for:
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job. They went with another company. And so the BADASS concept just stayed on my computer for a few years.
Then it came time to redesign the Whole Mind Leadership program I had created. I decided to add a component around giving feedback. I realized BADASS would be a great structure to provide feedback. For instance, what really works about you is your boldness, and where you could improve is in the area of spaciousness. Or you’re very disruptive, but you’re not very authentic. From there, it went from being a tool used in one section to becoming the centerpiece. In today’s world, BADASS qualities are what’s needed in leaders.
And now, suddenly, BADASS isn’t considered too edgy. In fact, many companies want to be badasses. It’s the right time.
What is your legacy?
Two things come up. First, I work daily to be a better human being. I wouldn’t ever say I’m a good human being, but I think I work at being a better human being. Second, I was willing to disrupt the status quo for the sake of something. If something was significant to me, I risked being liked, I risked being accepted. I risked fitting in for something important to me. And it was for something bigger than me. I have no illusions that I can change big systems and structures alone or even in my lifetime. Still, if I can put a little dent in it and if the next generation picks up on it, maybe in a hundred years, it will be different.