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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 Catalyst Change Consultants Ltd. 2003 Page 1 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 Catalyst Change Consultants Ltd. 2003 Page 2 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 Catalyst Change Consultants Ltd. 2003 Page 3 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 Catalyst Change Consultants Ltd. 2003 Page 4
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