How can coaching help me?

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In a highly competitive organisation airing such dilemmas could have felt career limiting, she observes. 'You have to appear to be on top of everything. Discussing that sort of thing with your immediate boss who is responsible for the setting of your salary and reward structure is unattractive.'

For this manager, however, there was an alternative outlet. Her company used executive coaching and she was able to talk through her problems with an independent outsider. 'With a person outside the organisation, you can have a very open discussion. You are not constantly thinking about what you are revealing and what the consequences will be, which allows you to be more honest with and about yourself,' she says.

Over a year's coaching, the executive established that she made her best decisions when she had peace and quiet and time to gather facts and consider them carefully. By changing the way she worked to allow for this - delegating more and working partly at home - she became better at her job, more confident and worked fewer hours. 'My coach showed me how I could spend 70-80% of my time doing what I enjoyed and did best and de-emphasize the rest,' she explains.

Helping individuals tackle their own particular problems is what executive coaching is all about. Unlike sports coaching which conjures up images of a tough task-master yelling directions, executive coaching operates at the non-directive end of the spectrum. The aim is to help executives alter some aspect or aspects of their behaviour or thinking, to improve leadership, performance or effectiveness, or to achieve business objectives. By listening, questioning, prompting, interpreting and suggesting, an executive coach is there to support and challenge in confidence until the coachee arrives at a solution.

'Our job is not to give advice,' says Max Hellicar, a partner at specialists Supercoach, whose clients include investment banks and asset management houses. 'These people have their own ideas. The trick is to ask the right questions and allow them to work out the answers.'

Susan Bloch, head of coaching at Hay Management Consultants, says the financial services industry has much to gain from executive coaching, particularly with leadership development. 'It's a way for the best people to get better,' she explains. 'It may involve anything from building a strong or more effective team and preparing the succession, to clarifying strategy, to becoming a strong communicator and adopting an appropriate management style that will energise the team to run that extra mile.' City institutions are characterised by very talented people, but they don't always work well with others, Bloch elaborates. 'No one wants to work for someone who is very moody and often loses their temper. Coaching can help to alter that management style.'

The following example illustrates that point. A very young woman in investment banking, a superstar leading a team of 50, had a reputation for being 'prickly' and frequently losing her temper. She often found her team uncooperative and defensive and there was high turnover among them. She also needed to address the question of how to be successful in a man's world. Coaching involved looking at her role and its requirements and developing her self image, exploring how she might maintain a certain empathy while at the same time being strong and assertive. A major focus was on self-control, but energising her team, leading and motivating them, rather than crushing them, were key issues.

The benefits of the six-month programme were obvious: the team became strong and stable, relations with colleagues were improved, stress levels lowered, and the executive herself felt more in control.

Coaching can also be useful as a career development tool. Very often the skills and abilities that get a person to a certain stage within an organisation won't be enough for them to progress further. Fast growing, flat structured, creative organisations throw young people into responsible roles very early on. Their role changes and their way of working has to change too.

Take the example of the ace trader destined for a management role: 'The disciplines and attributes that make him an effective trader may make him dysfunctional in management,' explains Hellicar. Similarly, the analytical and investment skills that make for a successful chief financial officer will not be so useful in a more public role where external image and successful communication are critical. Bloch goes further: 'Anybody moving into a key position should have a coach to help them through the transition,' she believes.

One executive, a valued rising star who moved from a strategic role at corporate HQ of an investment bank to a more hands-on managerial role as MD of its European division, was faced with a deputation from his new team complaining that he was not communicating with them and that they felt cut out. He himself was unused to open plan working and the lack of privacy that brought with it and while he knew there was a pocket of resistance, did not know why the team was not cooperating.

Coaching encouraged him to think about how his new role was different in terms of his managerial/communication style and revealed that he needed to be more visible, communicative, sharing and listening. Coaching continued for almost a year and as a result of his altered style, this executive's whole relationship with his team changed for the better.

Bloch believes there are situations in which coaching may be effective over as little as three to six months, for example after a merger or acquisition where things need to happen very quickly. The coaching organisation may coach an entire team in team building, seeing its members individually and as a group, perhaps twice a month.

But coaching rarely involves a single issue. As Hellicar points out: 'It is important to deal with the whole person and their attitudes.' So, an executive may use coaching to explore ways of improving an unsatisfactory relationship with their boss or with a fellow team member, but the sessions are likely to range more widely, looking at how the individual can 'work better' or more effectively and raising their awareness of self generally.

Hellicar often asks the question, 'What would help you to be really excellent now?' It is important, too, he believes, to 'update the individual's sense of self. If someone says they love being in administration, is it a question of competence, confidence or commitment that keeps them there?'