· 3 min read · News

Me and My Coach


<b>Even senior executives need a little help to achieve their objectives. Andy Zneimer looks at three coaching relationships</b>

Whether or not you are a believer, it seems its almost as common today for business executives to have a coach as it is for middle-class Americans to have a psychotherapist. Coaching is very much in vogue and the days when members of the board would never admit to needing help to achieve business objectives are on their way out.

In sport, when athletes reach their peak performance they continue to surround themselves with experts in various fields, be they nutritionists or psychologists. The support they offer can help them run fractionally faster or jump that bit higher. In business, by contrast, CEO and board directors can become isolated at a time when performance is expected, and must be delivered.

With the average tenure of a chief executive now around three years, and organisations such as Philip Morris, Mattel and Coca-Cola filling CEO positions twice in that same period of time, it becomes ever more apparent that a skilled coach can help increase an executives chances of success and why good coaches are sought after by companies hoping to cut recruitment costs and increase organisational efficiency. For many of the above reasons, HR directors and their teams are coming to appreciate how a skilled coach can be instrumental in improving departmental performance.

However, seeking out a coach does not mean results will automatically follow suit. Like any relationship, both sides have to work hard to get the best from the partnership and obviously trust will be a necessity. Coaching isnt just done to its subject. In fact, much of the coachs work will involve listening and questioning and encouraging coachees to take responsibility for their own problems and face them head on. Its also a relationship that cant be forced. Executives cant be pushed kicking and screaming into a coachs office on orders from on high. Time and commitment will need to be sacrificed to get the positive results.

There are of course many business scenarios where a senior executive may feel the need to seek out a coach. Quite often, it is highly relevant when an executive is brought into a new organisation or a current employee changes role within the same company. Termed on-boarding by coach Bill Pitkeathley, this transition period can have heavy financial implications if you get it wrong and can lead to much organisational disruption.

Coaching is not just about improving the individual it can have a wider effect. Help one senior individual improve their results and it will have a positive, trickle-down effect on those they work with. On an even larger scale, coaching can improve the results of entire teams within businesses. Paul Z Jackson, a former senior producer with BBC Network Radio, co-runs The Solutions Focus (TSF), which was recently hired to create a programme that would develop coaching skills as a core competence for managers at

Walkers Snackfoods. Working closely with the HR team, Jackson implemented a radical coaching strategy to help staff learn faster through the better sharing of knowledge and experience, improving managers ability as leaders and communicators during an ambitious programme to

increase the companys market share.

In our competitive market place for talent we needed to ensure our employee proposition was robust, explains Sarah Miles, human resources director at Walkers. We identified a lack of coaching as a big gap. We also believed that given the age and service profile across the management population in Walkers, sharing know-how would have

huge competitive advantage. Our recent survey scores showed improvement in the level of coaching across the business.

Conventional coaching often starts from what you and your organisation are doing wrong. We begin with whats working well and build from there, says TSFs Jackson. The coach uses the skills of listening, responding and asking the right next questions to draw out know-how, skills, success stories and ideas for action from the coachee.

Myles Downey, a former member of the Economist Intelligence Unit and founder of The School of Coaching in London, observed in the late 1980s that most executive coaching seemed to have little or no lasting impact.

I asked myself what it would take to establish confidence and resilience in executives so that new behaviours could be better maintained and not be diluted by existing cultures, he states. He identified the need to move away from inflexible coaching models and look at what actually works for the client. Most often coaching is applicable when an executive faces a challenge that they cannot deliver alone. His solution? To encourage people to think and act differently.

Downeys services were retained by the Prudential when Sir Peter Davis was chief executive. Working closely with a team of seven very different key senior executives over two years both as individuals and within a team context Downey explored ways of helping them

develop their own potential and deliver the Prudentials new-look, online financial services offering. He was given the task of bringing these individuals together as a team to develop a vision and a strategy the end result was Egg.

I believe that the HR community has a real role to play in coaching teams within organisations. However, at very senior levels, for many financial and political reasons, external coaches will always be needed, adds Downey. Buyers though are going to get wise and more discerning as they realise that there are many independent coaches plying their trade who are not very competent. Coaches must realise that it is the organisation and not the person sitting opposite them that is the client.