Coaching can transform careers

What does a coach mean to you? If the image in your head is José Mourinho or Pat Cash, you appear to have missed one of the biggest trends in executive development in the last decade.

Coaching is now one of the most popular ways in corporate life for senior leaders to improve their skills and performance at work. Increasingly communications professionals are also turning to coaches and some think coaching is particularly suited to them. If you have recently made the leap from director of communications to director of corporate affairs in a FTSE company, a coach may have helped you push up through the ranks.

Alex Gordon Shute, founding partner at corporate affairs and investor relations headhunter Ithaca Partners, is a huge fan of coaching and also a qualified coach.

She often recommends coaching to corporate affairs directors, particularly at critical points in their career. The biggest of these is stepping up to an executive committee job for the first time.

‘You will be having a different level of conversation from what you have had before. Sometimes it will be about subjects which are not part of your own skill set and you will be expected to lead people whose job you couldn’t necessarily do yourself,’ she says.

In this circumstance, Gordon Shute says, coaching can be ‘magically transformational’.

It should be a safe and confidential place to share your challenges with someone who is qualified to help you. ‘Coaching should be able to unlock in you the power to move forward. It should help you to find your own path and management style in a supportive environment,’ she says.

As Gordon Shute points out, reaching that stage of your career – and the remuneration package that goes with it – puts you in a small group of people who are leaders of the whole company and not just your individual function.

As a corporate affairs director, part of your job is to inform those at the top of the business how they are seen by the outside world. When you are the only person who sees things through this particular lens, it can be a difficult message to deliver.

This is what makes coaching particularly helpful to communications directors, as they can help you with presenting tough messages and bridges into difficult conversations. Unlike other members of the executive committee, corporate affairs directors cannot point to a profit and loss line to show the value of what they and their team do.

Even if you are having coaching because you have a steep learning curve to climb, the chances are that you will not be alone amongst the leadership team.

‘This is the natural path of self-development when you reach a leadership level. Most chief executives have coaches so it does not have any stigma attached to it. It’s not a remedial measure, indeed companies only invest in coaching when someone is high potential,’ Gordon Shute says.

With her knowledge of the UK’s leading public and private companies, she estimates that about 25 to 35 per cent of corporate affairs or comms directors in the FTSE 350 will have had coaching at some point and that roughly 15 per cent are having it at any time.

While it is not necessary to have a coach that has experience in the communications function, it can be particularly helpful.

One person with great knowledge of communications who recently moved into coaching is Catherine May, formerly corporate affairs director at SAB Miller and before that in the same role at Centrica, British Gas’s owner.

May says: ‘Big businesses can be very political places. Having a safe space to explore strategies is a hugely positive thing.’

Since comms professionals have to rely on their influencing skills to win people over, coaching to perfect your personal style can be very useful. It allows you to think about how you are going to take your colleagues with you.

‘If you want people to buy into your strategy you need to be very good at influencing and having a high level of impact. Working on those influencing skills can be a great way to accelerate them.’

Some comms directors will have a long-term coaching relationship, others might work intensively with someone for a short period of time – perhaps in response to specific feedback from the chief executive.

Like seeing a therapist, the relationship between coach and client is confidential. However, May says the following example is not untypical of the coaching that she now takes on, working largely with leaders in FTSE 350 companies. Coach and subject would typically meet every four to six weeks for a ‘fairly intense’ meeting. At the end of this, the subject would go away with a list of things that they would work on.

‘Last year, I worked with a very talented individual in communications who had just been promoted into a stretching leadership role. My role was to help them achieve goals they had agreed with their senior colleagues to become a respected and trusted leader, working on their personal style and the impact they made.

‘The individual developed very quickly, with their progress tracked and recognised through 360 degree feedback from their colleagues. Since the end of the programme, they have been given significant additional responsibilities in recognition of the strength they are showing as a leader. ‘

May thinks it is unsurprising that coaching is becoming more commonly used across the board. ‘These days there is a much greater emphasis on how much culture contributes to success and leaders need to be more collaborative, with coaching they can accelerate these skills quickly.’

She adds: ‘There is also an increasing focus on having a more diverse leadership team and companies are looking into talent pools that they may have previously dismissed. They want to get these people ready for leadership roles and coaching can help develop people who may have all the firepower, but not all the leadership skills or experience.’

Another former comms director who has become a fan of coaching and a coach himself is Tim Johns, former global comms chief of Unilever.

He learned to become a qualified coach as a way of ‘rebooting’ his skills, when he started out in consultancy. Johns argues that the basics of good communications have changed little in decades but that the environment in which they are practiced has changed fundamentally, due to the explosion of social media and the growing lack of trust of big business.

All the ways that we had communicated with people didn’t work. We were using push techniques, not pull. It was a hierarchical approach and as a result people were putting us on mute, they were just filtering us out.’

Johns came to the conclusion that coaching skills would help his clients communicate more effectively.

‘We are not very clever or rational animals, so telling people what to do can often be terribly ineffective. I wanted to help organisations be more relevant to society and it makes sense that coaching can be a more effective way of influencing behaviour.’

‘Coaching is non-judgmental listening – helping people to think through the decisions they are in. People often have artificial obstacles in their mind. Coaching can help people reframe issues, so they can resolve those problems,’ he says.

A coach will use a number of techniques – for instance, visualisation – to challenge people to think about what is really important. ‘It can help people to see themselves in a more realistic way. For leaders in the business this is important, because as they grow they set the tone for what the organisation is about.’

Comms professionals also make good coaches and many will be doing it as part of their job. It can be particularly useful for them, Johns argues, because they are often the people in a leadership team with high emotional intelligence, who intuitively understand issues.

‘They are often dealing with nuances and intangibles. They are used to dealing with high egos and are often dragged, so to speak, into the King’s Court,’ he says.

Directors of communications and corporate affairs directors can use coaching skills to help leaders self-reflect. ‘If you speak truth to power too often it shortens your career, therefore using coaching techniques can helping people to see their own issues through their own ideas. Leaders often create an artifice around them; they project a way of being. If they want to be really effective they have to know who they are and what their motivation is. Journalists can instinctively tell the ones who are real and the ones who are pretending,’ he says.

Now to tackle the F-Factor. Some see coaching as a fad. May, Gordon Shute and Johns all appear to cringe slightly when I make this suggestion.

Yes, they admit, coaching has become terribly fashionable. There are no significant barriers to entry, so it is quite easy to take a training course and then set up as a coach. Like yoga teachers, there seems to have been a surge in coaches in recent years.

Also, in some organisations having a coach is a rite of passage. Companies buy coaching services frequently and many executives use their coach as a none-too subtle badge of how important they are.

This means it is all the more important to find a qualified coach who understands the issues that you will face. Hopefully they will have worked in a senior position in an organisation of comparable size and it is usual to find a coach through recommendation, via your network.

Coaching is usually a temporary process – with a finishing line in sight. For example, Johns says he will begin the process by having an initial meeting – to see if the chemistry is right between him and client and then meet up to ten times over the next 18 months.

Just remember, coaching is not going to give you a whole new character – it is not about making someone nicer or putting lipstick on a tiger. But it could help you sharpen the tools in your toolbox.