The problem with calling your career coach a “sherpa”

The summit of cultural misappropriation.
The summit of cultural misappropriation.
Image: Reuters/Tim Chong
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They’re not from Nepal. Their families cannot claim a connection to the 18 Sherpa clans. Yet a growing number of career coaches and consultants call themselves sherpas.

Sara Roberts and her San Francisco-based consultancy, Roberts Golden, are among them. She just added a service called Executive Sherpa to guide senior leaders through mountains of changes. The name originated with an executive at a Fortune 50 retailer who appreciated her assistance and said he needed a guide.

“He likened me to a sherpa,” says Roberts, whose background is in change management and organizational development consulting.

There’s just one problem: What sounds unusual or noteworthy to consultants and coaches sounds disrespectful to some Sherpas who object to their heritage being appropriated as a branding tool or title.

“It’s quite insensitive. I want people, especially in the West, to realize that sherpa is not a profession. It is an ethnic group with a rich cultural heritage,” says Dawa Futi Sherpa, a college administrator who moved from Kathmandu to New York City six years ago. (Sherpa is a common surname for the ethnic group.) “On Instagram, just hashtag sherpa and you will see the random, ignorant, and offensive things people think the term sherpa means”

She suggests managers find another term and stop “propagating the derogatory and wrong concept of what the Sherpa people are. …No one in Nepal confuses, or even jokes, equating the word ‘sherpa’ to a guide or a porter.”

The corporate types of “sherpas” work in Australia, France, the US, Switzerland and other countries. The job title shows up as a branding tool: strategy sherpa and ideas sherpas; on Twitter and LinkedIn there’s the Gym Sherpa, the Human Resources Sherpa, the Tech Sherpa, and a startup sherpa or two, as well as quite a few social media sherpas. The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development has two staff members with sherpa in their titles, including its chief of staff Gabriela Ramos.

Hannah Morgan has been known as the Career Sherpa since 2008. “One reason the sherpa term has become hip is because it sounds less arrogant than expert or guru. And it sounds more unique than ‘guide,'” said Morgan, (who has republished a handful of my blog posts in a monthly collection).

Sherpa is joining the throngs of other offbeat and obscure job titles such as ninja, evangelist, IT dragonslayer, and (my favorite) chief troublemaker.

Indeed, the “identity slippage” of Sherpas started many years ago, as the term’s meaning evolved from “the people who come from the East” and live near Mt. Everest to mountaineer guides, says Kathryn March, an anthropology professor. She’s studied Tibetan people since 1975 and is the head of Cornell University’s Cornell-Nepal Study Program.

“Westerners have allowed themselves to create this idea … of someone who will put your needs before theirs and will do so with great loyalty, ability, strength, perseverance. So I’m not at all surprised that the business world is developing its own ‘sherpas,'” she says.

When a Sherpa guides someone through blizzards to a Himalayan peak, he takes a dangerous job, March notes. “They’re there to encourage you to keep walking, to lighten your load, to remind you what your goal is,” and that may be similar to a career coach.

But sometimes even the coaches need a little coaching—along the slippery paths to cultural sensitivity.