Emerging From the Closet
A Fresh Look at Coaching
The benefits of personal coaching for senior partners in professional services are
well understood - but are they missing a trick in how they apply it? Nick Corble of
suggests that the time has come to de-mystify coaching – to strip it back to first
principles and use it to access much broader cultural and tangible benefits.
Frustrated by training courses and bored by seminars, coaching has become the
latest buzzword amongst senior partners looking for personal and professional
development. In the same way that any celebrity worth their salt has their own
personal trainer, a personal coach is fast becoming a ‘must have’ amongst those at
the top of the professional food chain.
Coaching is more than the latest fad. It’s been around a while and used correctly
can deliver real benefits to those who use it. But what about those who pay for it?
Traditional approaches to coaching have helped to perpetuate an image of it as
something exclusive, conducted with almost Masonic-like secrecy. Typically, it is
used in an ad hoc way to help specific individuals, although there is nothing to say its
basic principles cannot be used to achieve wider strategic goals.
Rather than simply creating pockets of enhanced performance, an opportunity exists
to use coaching to deliver quantum team-wide change, measurable in pounds and
pence. As they search for ways of achieving real competitive edge, the challenge
currently facing professional service firms is how they can take coaching out of its
closet and expose its proven benefits to a wider audience.
Is It Dark In There?
The reasons behind the popularity of coaching aren’t difficult to pin down. Senior
partners are, almost by definition, technically excellent at what they do. Their
problem lies in knowing where to go next once they’ve reached the top of the tree.
Do they simply sit and admire the view or do they throw down ropes to those behind
them? They may even eye taller trees with envy and wonder if they can make the
leap to a fresh redoubt. Having these discussions can be difficult and even expose
partners to charges of disloyalty, and as such it’s no surprise that they rarely happen.
The danger is, if left to fester important personal and professional issues can feed on
themselves and become barriers to going forward. A partner’s technical brilliance
may make them impermeable to criticism on other aspects of their performance such
as how they manage those below them or finer details of their behaviour and
performance. Quirks become accepted as part of someone’s personality, the price a
firm pays for having them around, and as such remain unaddressed. In time quirks
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become absorbed into the culture and before you know it that price can escalate to a
point where it becomes a cost impacting on the bottom line.
In these circumstances there is no doubt that coaching can provide a highly effective
way of breaking this cycle. It needn’t be just about addressing problems either.
Individual partners are typically highly aware of their shortcomings and areas of
unfulfilled potential, what they often lack is a means of gaining the confidence to get
the most out of what they’re good at and finding that vital way of differentiating
themselves from their peers and competitors.
By its very nature coaching generates something of a mystique. Confidentiality is
one of its central tenets and people can feel uncomfortable talking about it. Outputs
are also necessarily intangible and firms can begin to worry if in agreeing to a coach
they’ve signed a blank cheque. At the same time coaching is highly intensive and by
definition requires highly specialised expertise, both factors that add to the cost and
cast a platinum aura around the service.
Outside the charmed circle perceptions become formed rather than informed.
Cynics may confuse coaching with therapy and mumbling can take place at the
water cooler. Over time it can become seen solely as a remedial rather than
developmental device, a trend often accentuated in the way it is applied or allocated.
Despite its advantages, those who may benefit from coaching can quite reasonably
begin to fight shy of it and ultimately an opportunity is lost.
Can I Open The Door A Little?
Here lies the challenge – to make coaching a sustainable tool by removing its
exclusive tag and taking the best of what it offers and packaging it in such a way that
it can be spread across a wider base. Experience suggests that coaching is
something that can benefit all senior professionals. The trick is to make it available
in a way that provides benefits in more than one dimension – for the individual
certainly, but also for their colleagues and critically, for the firm. The key to this trick
is to flip traditional reactive policies on coaching (a partner asks if the firm will fund
some coaching or the firm suggests it as a way of solving a problem) to a much more
proactive approach – one that identifies areas where coaching can make a
difference and then acts on them.
Actual mechanisms for achieving this will vary according to circumstances. It is
possible however to take four common principles from the individual coaching and
apply them within a strategic context. A key starting point is to agree the objectives
of the process. As highlighted above, these are likely to be rooted in the firm’s wider
strategic aims and may be articulated in a set of competencies or behaviours.
The next step is to understand the current situation using appropriate diagnostic
tools. A good example of these might be a 360° Feedback questionnaire, in which
colleagues, staff and even clients are asked to rate individuals’ performance - in
confidence - against a range of questions. Other tools may include critical incident
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reporting, work shadowing or interviews. Although rarely appropriate for senior
partners workshops can also have their place.
As with all individual coaching the third step is to agree the ‘coaching contract’, in
this case what has to be done to meet the firm’s objectives, which in turn leads to an
application programme. It is at this stage that individual coaching may be identified
as desirable. Critically, by going down this route the temptation to apply coaching as
some kind of blanket panacea can be avoided, with the intensity it offers applied only
where it is likely to achieve results. Other responses may be more generic, for
example help with dealing with difficult members of staff or how to get the best out of
all members of a team.
Let The Light In
Taking a more strategic approach to coaching offers a number of additional
advantages that can compound on each other. These benefits fall into three camps.
First, and perhaps most importantly, there are the strategic benefits. Whilst it can be
useful to nudge an individual losing his way back on track the benefits of coaching
can be multiplied many-fold if the performance of every member of a team is
assessed and addressed according to commonly agreed criteria. These may take
the form of a competency framework or a looser behavioural framework. Whatever
form they take, such criteria should be rooted in the declared strategic objectives of
the firm in the context of its ambitions and competitive position. Whole teams can be
encouraged to move in the same direction without losing the opportunity of
addressing specific individual issues at the same time.
Second, there are real cost benefits to taking a broader approach to coaching. By its
very nature one-off ad hoc meetings with highly experienced practitioners are
expensive. You can easily end up paying for a half or full day even if a coach is only
with someone for a couple of hours, and even if its not transparent such inefficiency
tends to become built into day rates. Co-ordinated programmes are de facto more
cost efficient, making it financially feasible to broaden the coaching base.
Third, there are a host of side benefits a more strategic approach can deliver.
Bringing coaching out of the closet offers the opportunity to put it into context, to
explain the objectives and de-mystify it. Those not directly involved can also be
given the opportunity to contribute to the process and develop a stake in its outcome.
Communication up and down the firm is improved and a greater clarity of mutual
understanding developed. Issues that were traditionally swept under the carpet can
be exposed to daylight in a constructive context – and, more importantly, addressed.
The lessons are clear. To the uninitiated coaching can appear as something of a
‘black art’. To some extent it has been in the interests of both the profession and
those receiving coaching to maintain a perception of exclusivity. Like many good
things in life however, its basic principles are quite simple and there are few reasons
why, if constructed properly, its benefits cannot be applied to a much wider
audience. The concentration of ambitious intelligent people prevalent in the
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professions make them a natural territory for accessing these benefits and leading
the way in developing coaching as a development tool. Rich rewards are on offer to
those prepared to accept this challenge.
Catalyst Change Consultants can help organisations take a fresh look at coaching
and develop a more strategic approach to its application. Further details on our
services and approach are given on our website page ‘How We Help’.
The copyright on this article is the property of Catalyst Change Consultants Ltd.
However, sections of it may be reproduced in full or in part so long as appropriate
acknowledgement is made to Catalyst Change Consultants Ltd. and reference made
to the company’s website www.catalystcc.co.uk
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