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Creating Global Connections Through Coaching

  • POSTED ON MAY 04, 2022
Gonan Premfors
“Co-Active works because it connects people at their core. The things that normally define and divide us — including culture, religion, nationality — disappear.”

Human connection is a powerful force that brings people together. Gonan Premfors is the embodiment of this truth, having pioneered professional coaching in the Middle East ever since 2004. Gonan was the region’s first professionally certified coach, and she brought the Co-Active Training Institute to Dubai in 2005. Soon, she will deliver the first ever CTI courses in Arabic — and also helping us expand into Sweden.

Join us as we talk with Gonan about her experiences in coaching and how she is starting a coaching revolution by connecting people regardless of race, colour, and religion.

Could you tell us a little about yourself? How was your life prior to discovering Co-Active?

I’m from Turkey and lived there through my university years until I was in my early 20s, when I moved to Dubai. Before I became a coach, I was a financial advisor. The career suited me well, as I was good at sales, but more importantly I was good at relating to people. Most guys in the field were really knowledgeable but lacked the ability to relate to their clients the way I did. My portfolio of clients and assets grew fast, and I suddenly found myself a manager in charge of people that had been in the industry for many years. I was still in my early 30s when I started to guide and train these highly skilled guys to both sell and help them build relationships.

“Unfortunately, the company I was working for never invested in soft skills. I had to go out and learn about coaching, mentoring, leadership skills, and emotional intelligence.”

In my 10-plus-year career in finance, I had a team of 10 advisors, and I really enjoyed working with my team. However, by the time I got married and had a child, I was working 12 hours a day, so I got burnt out. I quit my job and gave my portfolio and assets away. People thought I was crazy to walk away from my “book” of clients, simply because I was making money without lifting a finger. People usually sell their book when they leave the industry. I was simply done and walked away.

I did quite a bit of soul searching for a couple of years. My husband had recently set up a business and I would help him out a little here and there. I started to get phone calls from friends and colleagues from the financial world about how to approach something at work. I really enjoyed helping my ex-colleagues figure things out, and something was working because the calls got more frequent. I didn’t really know what I was doing or what it was called, but I guess I was mentoring.

One day after I had finished one of many such calls, my husband half-jokingly suggested that I start charging people for my time. And that’s when I knew I had to do something about it. Unfortunately, there was no training or certification available in the region. One of my friends in the US told me to look into Co-Active coaching. I did find courses offered in London, and it didn’t take me long to start jetting over from Dubai to London.

But by the time I was in the Balance course, my business sense kicked in. I told myself, “This is amazing. We have to bring this to the region.” I spoke to Lori Shook and Jim Patterson, who were leading another Co-Active course in the same building. They happened to spearhead CTI’s expansion, and they basically agreed to set up a Fundamentals course date and see what happened. In May 2005, almost exactly 17 years ago, we ran the first Fundamentals course in Dubai. Jim and Lori led that course. I put my sales skills to use and I managed to fill the course. It took a lot of work, because nobody knew what coaching was back then.

With cultural and regional differences in mind, what method did you use to engage with people in Dubai? How did you convince them it was worthwhile to invest in coaching?

There were four or five people who were coaches in Dubai at that time, but they were really training managers. When I went to HR departments asking them to send their training managers or managers, they knew this new coaching thing was something good, but they really didn’t understand what it was. In the end, I decided to simply show them by giving lots of sample sessions — and it worked.

What are the demographics of the participants on the courses? Are they the people who discovered Co-Active? Are they locals? Is it a Dubai-based site where companies’ learning & development divisions send their managers? Who are the course participants, and how did they end up in the room?

Our participants are literally from every corner of the world. Because Dubai is such a powerful regional business centre, countless international organizations have their headquarters in Dubai, and then you of course have the bustling local economy. In the early stages we had very few locals, but now we have a steady stream of locals filling up the courses, with participants from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles and from Mumbai to Cape Town. We have also managed to achieve a good balance between men and women.

“Dubai — and the region — is very mixed, so when we are in this room and teaching the classes, we can have 15 or even 20 different nationalities and every imaginable culture.”

I have also developed a very good relationship with the government here, and we have trained many government officials, senior police officers, and even royal family members from several countries.

“We have coached and trained Sheikhs and Sheikhas, princes and princesses. We obviously don’t disclose who they are in the courses. Ultimately, we have a really good reputation as a trusted place of learning and development.”

How has the CTI presence in Dubai evolved and changed over the last 17 years?

CTI is well established in Dubai with our dedicated training room and offices in Dubai Knowledge Park, where many of the training institutes and universities are. This educational space has become more regulated in the last few years, and we are accredited by the KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Authority) that ensures educational excellence in our field.

What has gradually changed over the years is the increasing number of locals and Arabs from neighbouring countries attending the courses. Our market covers all Arabic-speaking countries including the Gulf Cooperation Council countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar.

What has also been a positive change is that we are now 10 leaders who are based in Dubai and one in Bahrain. The ICF chapters are in almost every country. The best news is that the CPCC is still regarded as the best coaching qualification you can have, and many large organizations demand it for any coaching work.

The region is undergoing constant change, from the cultural revolution in Saudi to normalization of relationships with Israel. While there is still a long way to go, we can see the fabric of society change. We do feel like Co-Active and all the coaches are a part of driving that change.

Many competing coaching programs have popped up since we began almost two decades ago. The market we opened revealed a big opportunity. Most of these programs are both cheaper and faster. However, our program has proven over and over that it is very rich in experience and content. While competition has increased, we have retained our position as the market leader and continue to grow in the top segment.

The pandemic was a big hit initially as we found our feet with the online programs. I also made the decision not to scale down our operation during the pandemic. I kept our training room and office facilities, and as a direct result we have now more than ever cemented our reputation and commitment to the region. CTI Dubai is again buzzing with community events and in-person training.

“With coaching we’re adding a drop in the ocean of change in the region, but that drop is highly impactful.”

The Co-Active model and philosophy — what makes Co-Active special and unique? Why are you still here 17 years later? What is it about Co-Active coaching that separates it from other coaching models?

What I have noticed when I learn what other programs are teaching is that they are very transactional in their coaching context. It tends to be about taking someone from point A to point B. They may find themselves in a similar situation again, because there was no transformation the first time around.

What I know is that when we take individual participants through the Co-Active program, they see the world from a completely different perspective. Life has changed for them, and they look at themselves differently and see potential ahead of them. Co-Active is much more than coaching. Every participant can apply the Co-Active learning to any aspect of their life.

“We don’t push anything with our coach training, but of course people go out and do incredible things, which is really nice — and that brings transformation.”

What are the challenges you have when teaching the Co-Active model due to language barriers?

Our courses are in English, and anyone who attends has a good grasp of English so we don’t face that many challenges while teaching. We are working to launch Co-Active in Arabic at the end of 2022, which is a major milestone. One of our Arabic-speaking CTI leaders here in Dubai recently said, “Now, my mother and my sister can take the course. They didn’t take it before because it was not in Arabic.”

This opens up an entirely new market for us, and we are excited to see what impact Co-Active will have on a bigger group of people here in the region.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Co-Active Training Institute. Any solutions offered by the author are environment-specific and not part of the commercial solutions or support offered by CTI.

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Co-Active Training Institute (CTI)

Since 1992, CTI has been working with coaches and leaders around the world, helping them navigate toward stronger relationships, integral solutions, and creating meaningful impact in the world. The work we do goes beyond training. Through ground-breaking teaching methods and a global network of world-class faculty and partners, the Co-Active difference delivers contextually relevant and experiential learning that ignites transformation and a life-long journey developing the deepest expression of leadership in each human being.

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