Cultural Coaching

What is cultural coaching?

Cultural coaching is a service developed by VALOA project and NISO ry[1] in Oulu for companies and organizations in the Oulu region. A cultural coach is a foreign student who has been trained to work as a coach in the culture of his/her country. The main focus of coaching sessions is on work culture and professional communication, and the service is offered to the international and internationalizing companies and organizations in the Oulu region. The first pilot, launched in the Oulu region, involves 11 international students from different countries who work as the “cultural ambassadors” of their own country.

Professionalism emphasized when selecting cultural coaches

Those selected for the pilot at the University of Oulu are foreign degree students pursuing their Master’s degree. All of them have completed at least a Bachelor’s degree. The students applied for training and were selected particularly due to their ability to convincingly share cultural knowledge about their home country. One of the requirements was that the cultural coaches had obtained work experience in their home country. In addition to this, the selection emphasized the ability and confidence to perform, motivation, commitment, and creativity.

The cultural coaches of the University of Oulu represent 11 countries: Brazil, Spain, Greece, Russia, Pakistan, India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan. When selecting students, it is a good idea to also consider the country-specific demand for the service. It has been difficult to find coaching assignments for coaches from less familiar countries, and, if the service is to be truly beneficial to internationalizing companies, current and future economic areas / trading partners should be kept in mind.

The cultural coaches of the University of Oulu represent four international Master’s degree programs in the fields of education, economics and technology. They also possess highly diverse fields of know-how based on their previous degrees and work experience in addition to their current field of study. Their fields of know-how are related to e.g. international business, organizational leadership, computer science, environmental technology, international relations, as well as multicultural education and training.

The cultural coaches prepared an introduction of themselves to potential clients on the Weebly platform, and the profiles were linked to the cultural coaching website. The coaches used the profiles to describe their know-how and background in more detail. More info:

The students are committed to activities for one academic year. Some of them are first-year students in a two-year Master’s degree program, and some are second-year students who will graduate at the end of spring. The first-year students will continue to work as coaches in the following academic year, and the group will be expanded in the fall with new applicants. The current coaches will also help to train the new cultural coaches next fall.

Training can be included in studies

The selected cultural coaches received training with a scope of 3 study credits. The participants were not guaranteed study credits for the training, but they received a certificate of participation. It is up to the training program to decide whether this is accepted as part of the student’s optional courses.

Training was planned in cooperation with VATU (Support for graduation), a subproject of the OHTY project (Development of Guidance and Working Life Skills in Higher Education). The trainers were Bärbel Fink from the Learning and Research Services of the University of Oulu and Victor Arroyo from Innovative Keynotes (performance training).

During the training process, the cultural coaches considered the significance of culture in general, their own culture in more detail, as well as the differences between their own and the Finnish culture. Each participant also gathered information and material concerning their own cultural background. The training involved 27 hours of contact teaching as well as independent work.

The aim of the training was:

  • to develop the cultural coaches’ cultural understanding and awareness in general: what do we mean by culture and where and how does it appear
  • to learn to describe one’s own culture while utilizing various frameworks in diverse ways and reflecting one’s culture with the Finnish culture
  • to develop one’s ability to perform and strengthen one’s credibility as a performer and the ability to interactively communicate with the audience
  • to learn how to operate within the framework of cultural coaching: cooperation with the client, fluent and close interaction, punctuality, planning coaching sessions to meet the client’s needs, receiving feedback etc.

After this, each student practiced coaching “a real client”. They received feedback from the client on the coaching, and the group also met for a joint feedback session where they considered the successes and challenges of coaching as well as the general issues related to coaching assignments together with the other coaches and the project manager.

Structure and contents of training

Coaching sessions emphasize work culture

Cultural coaching may involve coaching a small group/team, workshop activities, or individual/group discussions. The coaching sessions are always tailored to meet the client’s needs and wishes and they are usually held at the client’s workplace.

The cultural coach provides diverse information about the culture of his/her home country. Usually, the main focus is on work culture and professional communication. Coaching relies on interaction between the audience and the coach. Coaching usually includes an introduction to the culture of the student’s home country, followed by an interactive session. The duration of a basic coaching session is two hours, but longer sessions can be arranged (e.g. workshops). The cultural coaches work in English.

A small compensation inspires commitment

In order to inspire commitment in both cultural coaches and clients, it was decided that cultural coaching will be subject to a charge. The price of coaching is determined by the duration of the coaching session, the form of coaching, as well as the advance preparations required. However, the price is only nominal, and basic coaching costs EUR 50–100 to a company. The invoice is sent by NISO ry (Network of International Students in Oulu).

Benefits to the company/organization?

The service provides internationalizing companies or those planning to expand abroad an easy and affordable way to receive competent knowledge about the target country and its culture, thereby providing the chance to gain an advantage on the global market. In addition basic information (culture in general, economy and business in the country, organizational culture, interaction, leadership styles, power relations etc.), the cultural coach also provides the client company with so-called tacit knowledge about the culture of his/her home country. This kind of knowledge is very difficult or even impossible to come by through online search engines. On a more general level, cultural coaching also provides information about the impact of cultural differences when working with foreign partners.

Cultural coaching also offers the client the possibility to receive information about the international training programs of the University of Oulu and the competencies of foreign students. The client can become acquainted with a student who knows the culture of the organization’s target country and the client may consider the possibility to continue cooperation in the form of an internship/project work etc.

Benefits to the student?

Cultural coaching provides students the opportunity to form networks with professional parties as well as accumulate Finnish work experience. Cultural coaching allows students to adapt the skills they have acquired during their university studies to correspond to the needs of work life as well as practice general work life skills and capabilities. These include e.g. interaction skills, the ability to perform, coaching skills, and project management skills.

In addition, cultural coaches receive a compensation for the coaching sessions that they give. They receive a certificate of their participation in training (3 credits) that may be accepted as an optional study module.

In the long run, cultural coaching improves the students’ position in the labor market and their possibility to integrate into the work life of Finland.

Feedback has been positive

Feedback on the coaching provided by cultural coaches has been fairly positive. The cultural coaches are highly motivated and truly wish to invest in coaching. This is evident in the coaching sessions. The groundwork and preparation have received praise from clients, and most clients have found the coaching sessions useful.

Feedback from students has been nothing but positive. The training and the trainers received a lot of praise, and the students felt that the training provided them with the necessary skills to work as cultural coaches in the business sector. They were extremely enthusiastic and motivated and could not wait to share their knowledge about their culture to companies in the region.

Continuing cultural coaching after the project

Regional business organizations and representatives of the business sector have also provided positive feedback on cultural coaching. The sector has indicated that there is a need for this kind of service. Companies have been interested, but the demand has remained quite low. However, it should be noted that the service was just launched near the beginning of the year and new services often take time before they find their niche in the market.

The university has shown green light to continue with the project, and cultural coaching will probably continue as a service coordinated by the External Relations of the University of Oulu. NISO will also be involved in the future, but, based on the experiences, cultural coaching is too demanding to be coordinated by a student association alone. International students are usually highly active, but the active people in a student association change every year so it is not certain that suitable competence for coordinating such a service can always be found among the students.

[1] Network of International Students in Oulu


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