Anyone who thinks executive coaching is for the birds has probably never been coached himself. My one-hour session with organisational psychologist turned executive coach supremo Jon Stokes - who attends to the professional needs of the likes of Goldman Sachs, which is reflected in his pounds 500 per two-hour session fee - was a bit like watching a Wimbledon final in fast-forward. My first problem? Taking professional issues personally. The second? Not understanding the fundamental structure of the organisations that I work for.
In other words, if an editor doesn't return my phone calls, it's not necessarily to do with me. 'What you have to remember,' said Stokes, the former director of the organisational consulting service at the Tavistock Centre and now managing director of Jon Stokes Organisational Psychologists, 'is that, just because you're angry with them doesn't mean they're angry with you. For the most part, you are insignificant on their radar screen.'
A bit harsh, but true. Executive coaching is not unlike sports coaching, the foreunner of this very lucrative business. Had I been a tennis or football player, Stokes would have been drawing diagrams on blackboards (instead, we used the back of a napkin). Unlike Sampras or the CEO of Goldman Sachs, however, I was having real problems keeping up.
'In order to learn the tactics for survival in an industry, you have to understand the culture you work in,' Stokes explained. 'For example, are you in a power culture where the individual dominates (journalism, advertising); a role culture, where roles are important (banks); an achievement culture, which focuses on how well you do tasks (lawyers, accountants); or a feel-good affiliative culture, where feelings of well-being and belonging are essential to working for the company (McDonald's)?
Now we're talking. In other words, it's pointless to expect the managing director of a magazine publishing company to take my emotional grievances - blurted out over dinner one night - seriously because, as Stokes quickly surmised (after drawing me a snazzy competence and motivation chart), his was a Machiavellian style. In journalism, your self-esteem is always on the line but to expect McDonald's-style back-patting from the boss was, well, just plain stupid.
'What you need is to regain a greater degree of control and influence to get what you want,' Stokes advised. And this meant changing my strategy (another complicated graph describing the four kinds of power). 'If, for example, an editor is bullying you, this is them using personal power, which may be greater than yours.
'What you need to do is get the distinction back in terms of the power you have as an expert knowing your subject. This is about getting back into the right role of the journalist, rather than the victimised individual.
But you also have to be realistic about your expectations,' he warned.
This was no cheerleading session. 'People often expect too much.'
Contrary to popular belief, executive coaching is not about cheering from the sidelines. 'It's not ra-ra-ra, you can do anything you like,' says executive coach Hetty Einzig of the Sporting Bodymind Group, a company that employs six full-time executive coaches, including three sports coaches, and works with the likes of Barclays, BP, Ford, SmithKline Beecham and Jaguar. 'We don't come in saying we've run a pentathalon and climbed Mount Everest and so can you. What we offer is skills, understanding and empathy.
We're performance-orientated. Our job is to understand what an individual wants to achieve within an organisation and help him to get there.'
These days, it's not a question of whether you need a coach, but what's wrong with you if you don't already have one. Having a coach is an essential part of our self-care routine, right up there with the nutritionist and personal trainer.
'We live in a world in which the individual is responsible for himself rather than depending on an institution,' says Stokes. 'For social, political and economic reasons, self-reliance is now the name of the game.' As a result, financial institutions are using coaches as a way of retaining staff. 'We're carrot sticks: a benefit just like the gym or company car,' he says.
Coaching is not to be confused with psychotherapy or mentoring or even life coaching (which focuses on personal rather than professional goals).
Stephen Schneider, managing director of CPS, which describes itself as an executive mentoring and boardroom development consultancy, explains the differences: 'Coaching is often used as a generic term and is frequently confused with mentoring or counselling because people don't know the difference.
Coaching comes from the sporting world. It's a rectification of skills and knowledge for people who want to improve their game in an industry where it's important to keep up.
'The key methods are discipline and practice. The objective is new competence, just as in sport. Mentoring, on the other hand, is preparation for future change. I call it a journey of prompted discovery. This is about challenge and probing.
'Finally,' Schneider adds, 'counselling is about the social context, it's about removing barriers and looking backwards to childhood traumas to get to the negative aspects of one's personality. If a person has the tendency to get angry, for example, we would look at the underlying reasons for being angry rather than teaching anger management.'
When a company approaches CPS it is assessed by Schneider, who then decides which of the three methods are most appropriate for its individual members of staff. Years in psychoanalysis at the Tavistock Centre make him a shrewd judge of character. Though I flattered myself to think that I need the same coaching as his plc board member clients, he had a different opinion. 'I would refer you to a specialist who frequently works with behavioural issues,' he said (in other words, a psychotherapist).
Executive coaching generally takes place on a monthly basis and continues over a period of several years. Often, coaches are brought in when there is a change in the structure of a company, when a team (or individual) is not performing well, or where an individual - perhaps a CEO - has just been made a member of the board, where new skills are required.
With CEOs, for example, the very bullish behaviour that it took for them to make it to the top can make them unpopular citizens in the boardroom. 'The behaviour they've learned, which is often the result of their own performance as a star salesman or dealmaker, is the opposite of what they need in the boardroom,' says Schneider. 'Now they need to learn new skills such as the art of advocacy and how to influence colleagues.'
The Coaching House, run by Miranda Kennett and Isabel Bird, often coaches whole teams. 'We have a lot of media, telecom, press and advertising clients where you often get talented people at the top but where the whole is less than the sum of its parts,' says Kennett. 'You can move fast if you know where you're going, but if you have individuals looking out for themselves there's no smooth alignment.'
Those who pooh-pooh the whole business - for example, old-fashioned City institutions still operating on control-and-command principles, will pay the price, according to Kennett. 'What happens to an organisation that doesn't invest in management is that it starts losing people, and it finds it hard to recruit. If you've expended no effort trying to develop people, the staff decide to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Money becomes the motivation.'
For Mick Pilsworth, CEO of Chrysalis Visual Entertainment Group - now one of the most successful production companies in the UK - the decision to bring in an executive coach made the difference between success and failure. 'When I started working with Liza Charlton McDowell (of Amadeus International), I had completely lost track of my work time,' he says.
'I was working 18-hour days and had 30 different projects on the go. I felt I was slipping beneath the waves'.
The company that Pilsworth started in 1993 has since gone from pounds 1 million to pounds 90 million in revenues. 'Before then, we weren't even in the business,' he says. He and his staff worked with McDowell on a monthly basis over a period of two years. It meant clearing the diary for two hours, regardless of what appointments were inside.
'The first thing she taught us is that we must build a strategy from the bottom up,' recalls Pilsworth, who compares coaching to bungy-jumping.
'This was a radical change in attitude.'
Then McDowell got specific. 'The first question she asked me is: What are your goals and objectives 10 years hence? She said: 'Imagine you're on a porch looking back at your life. How would you like to be described in your obituary?' Then she worked through mind-mapping exercises.
'McDowell explained that there are four dimensions of a personality: the strategic, people skills, number-crunching and need for control. Most CEOs have a combination of all four, whereas entrepreneurs often have a massive need for control.'
Pilsworth's main problem was not being able to delegate, and compartmentalising his personal and his professional life. 'I had to choose someone in the company and delegate a task and, lo and behold, it got done,' he says.
To reinforce the idea that home and work have to be integrated, McDowell suggested Pilsworth bring photographs of his wife and children as well as his own furniture into his office. 'She pointed out that at home I used nurturing skills and ran a democracy but at work - a space I think of as belonging to the company - I went straight to applying left-brain skills and being the boss.'
McDowell suggested he blend the two together. 'Now when I have team meetings, I don't feel weak or indecisive if I ask their opinions. I feel we're a family. I think of myself as a member of the team rather than the boss.' Now, as soon as Pilsworth sees signs that someone is 'cracking up' he immediately calls in the coaches.
The key difference between psychotherapy and coaching is that, whereas the former is about trying to solve existing problems, coaching assumes that you're fine but could be even better. An American import, it's not surprising that many Europeans are still hesitant. 'If you said to an American, would you like to be more effective, they'd scream: yes, yes, help me,' says Michael Worrall of executive coaching firm Skills For Leadership. 'The European, on the other hand, may glare at you and say: Are you implying I'm not effective?'
Executive coaches are there to help executives run faster, not to trip them up, although Worrall admits one of the symptoms of coaching (particularly number twos) is that it sometimes results in the client deciding to leave the company. 'Coaching is often a catalyst to making life changes,' says Worrall, who borrows Harvard Business Review's definition of pornography to explain how his metier works. 'You can't describe it, you can't find it, but you know it when you see it,' he says.
Coaching resistance or rebellion is the obvious by-product of the business.
'There are people such as bullies who will resist any form of coaching; they'll erect all kind of barriers,' says Kennett of Coaching House. 'Inevitably, those who need it most are the most reluctant. But though many begin by being hostile, after a while the 'Why do I have to do this' turns into 'This is rather good, I'm getting my way more often'.'
In other words, it seems that there has to be a prize, like a promotion, worth working for. MaST International, one of the leading UK management training companies, with four full-time executive coaches (and many more consultants) recently had to send reinforcements into a leading City institution when the first team returned wounded.
'We had our first disaster when a woman walked out after five minutes,' says director Paul De Zulueta, who specialises in communication skills.
'One banker complained of lack of motivation. 'What's the point of earning another pounds 5 million?' he asked the young coach (struggling to pay his own mortgage). Another banker pinpointed his exact problem: 'I don't know how to deal with all the old people in my team (meaning the over-thirties),' he told the 46-year old coach.'
But don't underestimate executive coaches; they're a pretty impressive bunch. For starters, most of the practitioners bringing in the big bucks (some charge pounds 1,000 upwards per session) have advanced degrees in clinical psychology and have held senior positions in industry (most of the 17 directors of DHG, the largest coaching consultancy in Britain, were previously directors of blue-chip companies).
Maybe they couldn't do the job any better than the CEO in question, but they certainly have more tricks up their sleeve. For example, Christopher Connolly, a sports coach who also works with executives for Sporting Bodymind, uses a combination of mental rehearsal, visualisation and word or image association. 'The ideal model is to find a situation where the person has performed at their best,' he says, 'and try to transfer it to the present situation. Alternatively, we might then try the kind of visual exercise we use in sports, such as thinking of a jaguar or a cheetah to help develop grace and agility. When someone is having a protracted business negotiation, we'll suggest they visualise themselves as a tree, with deep roots in the ground buffeting them from the wind and reminding them of their values.'
In the case of one over-aggressive client, Connolly suggested that he think of himself as a German shepherd on a lead. 'This way, he didn't suppress his anger because he needed it: he just kept it under control.
Whenever he got irritated, he thought of the lead.'
For those who have problems delegating, De Zulueta has a five-step failsafe approach: 'Delegate early; be precise and clear; get feedback; agree to a review date; stand back, don't hover.'
Says Kennett: 'Coaching House uses the Grow Model for easy reference.
G stands for goal, R for reality (where you are now and what you want to do), O is for option (and ways to get things) and W for the where, when, how and why. Our view is: let's get this as specific as possible.' Her definition of coaching is the most succinct I have heard: Potential minus interference. In other words, the only obstacle in the way of success is you.
But rather than explore the big picture with years of psychotherapy, coaching targets precise problems such as communication, time management and social skills. The award-winning design consultancy, The Partners, for example, runs workshops for companies such as 20th-Century Fox and Nat-West solely to teach wit. 'We coached them to develop their soft side,' recalls The Partners' David Stuart. 'We helped them to bond with each other by teaching them to come out with snappy one-liners.'
Social skills are also coachable. Connolly worked with a successful broker at Lloyds. That is, until time for Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley came. 'He hated it because he just wasn't a good old boy,' says Connolly. 'So we came up with a strategy where he would work with his colleagues. Instead of taking the lead, he would throw a line at his colleague, who would throw it back at him. This way he would shine for what he was good at, the details and the insights; and the team, as a whole, would win new business.'
As anyone who has enlisted the services of a personal trainer knows, you do the work, not them. Coaches don't tell you what to do; they remind you what you wanted to do (but forgot because you were so busy), and they ask the right questions. Mirabel Edgedale, a fashion consultant with her own company, employed life coach Bob Griffiths of Robert Griffiths Associates when she felt her stress levels had reached an all-time high. Once a week at 8:30, she spends half an hour on the phone (preceded by an e-mail detailing the agenda), working through a list of objectives. 'When I started, Bob said I would have to be prepared to make fundamental changes or it wouldn't work,' says Edgedale, whose company represents Missoni, Pucci and Alberta Ferretti.
'We set out goals and objectives and kept an abc list. I used to always make decisions to do things and never do them; he always reminded me.
I said I wanted to give a singles party; he reminded me of this until I did it. He also made me write letters (to try to find new business as a consultant) and even suggested what I should say. Rather than beg for work, I learned to take an attitude and list what I could do for them.'
With these kinds of stories, it's not surprising that executive coaching and life coaching in particular (the cheaper variation on the theme, often done over the phone) is such a huge growth industry (the Washington DC-based International Coach Federation now has 3,200 members, more than double the figure in October 1999). In the UK it's also boom-time: the Life Coaching Academy in Portsmouth, which opened a year ago, already has 300 coaches on its books. And, according to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, between 35% and 75% of top executive promotions or recruitments fail. In other words, without mentors to guide us or friends to cajole us, we need coaches.
But shoppers beware: there is as yet no regulatory body for coaches, so background checks are essential. Moreover, if you think a few sessions with a coach will take you from the ranks of middle management to the heights of CEO, think again. 'The problem is that in life things are more complicated than coaches would have you think,' says Stokes. 'With no disrespect to my colleagues, the simplification that we can fix it with a few courses and techniques is temporary and superficial. Or it's just plain ineffective.'
The reality is somewhere in the middle, because most good coaches are doing a lot more than clients suspect. 'My wife turned to me one day and said: 'You realise that all this coaching you keep talking about is basically analysis,'' says Chrysalis's Pilsworth. 'I realised she was right'.
Coaching House: email@example.com; CPS: stephen @cps-ltd.co.uk; International Coach Federation: icfoffice@coach federation.org; Jon Stokes Organisational Psychologists: firstname.lastname@example.org; Life Coaching Academy: info@lifecoaching academy.com; MaST International: email@example.com; Robert Griffiths Assoc: firstname.lastname@example.org; Skills for Leadership: sklsfrlife@ aol.com; Sporting Bodymind: email@example.com.