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Peak performance

Christine Harland  is director of Camden Writers. www.camdemwriters.com

Calling in a professional who can challenge stagnant working practices and ingrained ways of thinking is an enlightened way forward for any business. The advantages can  be even more pronounced when it is a family firm. Christine Harland outlines the benefits

Growth, acquisition, promotion, reorganisation or a key employee stuck over poor communication: these are some of the situations where executive coaching can pay dividends.
 
According to Theresa Hall, a principal consultant in the Coaching Division of RightCoutts, a UK human resources consultancy, the issue is not always that a company is ill-prepared in a financial or organisational sense; it is the individuals who are ill-prepared for what is taking place.
 
Good companies have always paid close attention to their human resources, offering training courses, management seminars and psychometric testing. Many companies are now turning to coaching as they refine and enhance the team that will ultimately drive the business forward. In this process, a highly trained individual – the coach – armed with insight into the company's goals and objectives, works one-on-one in a safe and confidential manner with an individual.
 
Chris Webbley, who started his career at BT and is now part of the executive coaching division at Rivercalm, a UK business development consultancy, is always clear with the sponsor that coaching should not be viewed as a remedial activity.

"It is more frequent these days," says Theresa Hall, "for the issue to be improvement rather than problem solving. Two years ago a request for coaching would have been about an intervention for someone who was in trouble. These days, it's much more about moving on, about driving the business forward. It's about getting results and increasing productivity."

Graham Alexander, the principal of the international coaching firm that bears his name, agrees that it is arguably more valuable to coach your high performers. Executive coaching is often compared to sports coaching. The finest players work every day with a coach in order to break habits or explore a new approach. The platform is one of excellence and the jumping-off place is the desire to perform more effectively.
 
Alexander took two key ideas from Timothy Gallwey's book, The Inner Game of Tennis, into his coaching work. "One of those," Alexander says, "was the concept that the individual's emotional and mental state has a big effect on the way he or she performs."

The second key concept was that you can be enormously valuable to people without telling them what to do.

"The capacity of the individual, under the guidance of a good coach, to come up with his or her own solutions and see their way forward is high."

There are a lot of coaches out there. Traditional means of measuring competency – experience, references, industry-specific expertise and professionalism – pertain. Many coaches combine excellent coaching skills with profound knowledge of a specific industry and the business environment in general. Alexander says that in the early days, it was enough if a coach was skilled at asking questions, listening and making good suggestions but things have changed.

"Today, it is critical for these skills to be underpinned by a rigorous and clearly-stated methodology linking the coaching to the business imperatives. The essence of executive coaching versus life coaching," explains Jim Povec, CEO of ImproveNow.com based in New England, "is that with the former the process is linked to a business agenda. The company is the client and truly effective coaching has to be measured in terms of value to the business, although in the process there are benefits that reach into all aspects of life."

An initial meeting is held with company representatives during which the agenda is outlined and the coach is briefed on the reasons for the intervention. The coach and the client should also establish a finite timeframe. The coach should receive a detailed profile of the individual, his or her job description, perceived issues and company expectations. In some instances, a specific concern has sparked the initiative. In others, firms routinely require their fast-track employees to undergo a period of coaching, during which they have the chance to step back and look at both their careers and their lives.
  
It is crucial that the individual feel that he or she can trust the coach and that there is good rapport. The coach must also feel that he or she can work constructively with the individual. But, warns Hall, the issue of rapport can be complicated. "Often, a person will choose the coach with whom he or she feels most comfortable and that isn't always the best choice."

Coaching, she adds, is not a nice chat about things in general; it constitutes quite a challenging relationship. Paradoxically, the discomfort someone feels often indicates a good match."

Coaches agree that they cannot work effectively with a client who is not committed to the process. It helps if the company is clear about its goals and can reassure the employee that this is a positive rather than a negative exercise. Understandably, there is often initial apprehension and resistance, but when the chemistry between the coach and the client is good and the latter feels assured that all communication is confidential, the resistance fades.
 
Alexander, who became interested in the field of self-development while working at IBM, states clearly in his book, Super Coaching, that it is not possible to coach someone who does not want to be coached, no matter how skilled you are.
 
In many businesses now, coaching is regarded as a perk and employees who are dedicated to moving forward request it as a benefit. The process is welcomed as an indication of value rather than a signal that your days are numbered.
 
"Often it comes down to the front and the back of personal traits," according to Jim Povec. "You may have someone," he explains, "who is concise, straightforward and frank in his or her communication — a plus in many situations. The downside is that the individual may lack tact and diplomacy – a trait, incidentally, that comes through strongly in my psychometric tool of choice, the Harrison Interview."

"It is the coach's job," Povec asserts, "to help the subject see how they come across to others and enhance their leadership and communication skills."

In a family business setting, where personal and business life intermingle and issues tend to arise around familial relationships, communication can be particularly complicated. Typically, in a family business, there is a dynamic that has been established and has become the norm. Everyone believes that he or she is being rational but actually there is a pattern of behaviour that needs to
be interrupted before business can move forward.

"Coaching," says Povec, "is particularly crucial in the family business setting, where you leave the workplace and continue to interact on a personal level."

"Often," he adds, "there is no one to confide in, to speak honestly to about important concerns and decisions, and that's where a coach can be important."

There are many differences between today's coach and yesterday's mentor, but one essential feature they have in common is  trust. The coach, like the mentor, has as his or her goal a successful outcome both for the company and the individual. Chris Webbley looks ahead to when there will be a more widespread use of coaching techniques in business. With today's flatter structures, coaching can engender a new management style, enabling front-line managers, for example, to ask the right questions and have effective conversations with junior managers.

"What do you think?" is a powerful place to begin. "The answers," according to Povec, "lie within the individual and the company. The coach as facilitator asks the right questions — often difficult ones — in an environment that encourages honest exploration and out of that comes the shifts that allow both the individual and the company to move forward."

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