MT business lifeforms: The executive coach

You have to be a good listener in this business, and Michael Norris has the time.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Michael Norris is down in town for a couple of days, staying in one of the better rooms in one of London's better hotels. He'll be seeing three clients today: a senior exec in his mid-forties, a woman on the UK board of a US multinational, and a thirty-something fast-tracker who is seen by his company as destined for great things. The first client is new, so he'll spend the session getting to know him; with his second, he hopes to tackle her 'limiting beliefs'; and, as for the third, well, he's still trying to divine exactly what this chap's goals really are.

Norris suspects that they aren't aligned with those of his employer.

Norris is an executive coach. He believes most of us only skim the surface of our 'well of potential'. This troubles him, and - through working with people over a series of six one-to-one sessions - he hopes to help them release the hidden possibilities. Why does he do it? He trots out the line that, in all his time in business, he enjoyed nothing more than bringing people on and helping them develop their careers. Cynics might add that an hourly fee that would make a libel lawyer blush, coupled with an absence of any real responsibility for his actions, probably doesn't hurt either.

If pressed, Norris will cheerfully admit there's some truth to this. His years working with the cream of British business have taught him that a little knowing scepticism dispels the suspicion that you're a snake-oil peddler. Plus, he'll give those unsatisfied after two sessions their money back. But if he's not some new-age kook, what is he?

Well, he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Before his reincarnation as a coach, he ran a couple of highly successful companies and sat on the board of others. Coaching grew out of discussions with a therapist friend. Norris decided that business needed therapy too. He left his post, studied psychology and, with the friend, set up Within Business, a mentoring consultancy that now employs eight coaches and has helped tap the latent potential of executives working for a host of household names.

As Norris points out, it's not like what he does is exactly new. Companies have always had coaching, but it was done informally, usually by a senior manager, an unofficial company sage, a vastly experienced lifer nearing retirement. But most of these people, with their priceless knowledge and 'rich corporate DNA', have long since been sacrificed on the altar of cost-cutting. And (such is the way of the world) these efficiency savings now go to pay for expensive executive coaches.

But what does Norris actually do? Well, like any good therapist, he spends a lot of time listening to people - after all, he needs to find out about his clients. But, more poignantly, many of Britain's upper managers have no-one they can talk to about their career hopes and aspirations. Where's an understanding, non-judgmental ear with no hidden agenda? For some, it's so lonely at the top that £500 an hour seems money well spent.

Norris never tells people what to do (they have to 'discover that for themselves'), but makes them 'aware of the choices available'. For instance, his third client is very good at his job, but hates it. Norris will talk to him about stepping off the treadmill. If, a year from now, the man is self-employed and living by a beach in Cornwall, Norris will have done a good thing. By his own lights, anyway, if not by those of the man's employers - who are footing the bill.

As for the woman in his midday slot, she's irritating, smug and interested in nothing more than material success. Norris has been trying to make her see this as the root of her dissatisfaction, but you can only help those who want to help themselves. So now, at session six, he'll just sit and listen to her complaining and navel-gazing, reflecting that sometimes executive coaching is like being a social worker - only for people who've got no idea what real problems are.

Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental.

NORRIS A LIFE COACH'S LIFE 1948: Born 12 December, Glasgow. Educated local grammar, Manchester University 1969-72: Graduate trainee, ICI 1972-75: Product manager, IBM UK 1975-85: Sales director, ERC Electronics 1986: Co-founds Norris Elderman Research 1992: Director, HJ Consulting 1998: MD, Floxing Biosciences 2000: Founds Within Business

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