The ear of a discreet professional may be worth paying for.
Coaching is not just for athletes. Anyone who pushes himself (or herself) to accomplish difficult things should derive benefit from sympathetic encouragement on a one-to-one basis. But does that really apply to senior managers? Business coaching is hardly an unknown phenomenon, but nor has it ever much caught on.
Business coaches are generally independent consultants with senior management experience who have learned additional counselling skills. 'We offer objective analysis which enables senior managers to review strategic issues and evaluate risks,' says Sue Bloch, director of corporate relations at GHN Management Consultants, one of the very few firms in the field. But the key to their role is confidentiality. 'Top managers are often isolated,' Bloch points out. A coach can provide a confidential sounding-board. However, coaches should not be confused with advisers. They don't recommend particular courses of action. 'They are there to listen, and allow a person to think out loud. They are not company doctors,' emphasises Jenny Sweeney of The Industrial Society.
One executive who has found coaching useful is Michelle Silver, a 39-year-old director of FDS Market Research Group. Since February, Silver has met her coach for an hour-long discussion once every three or four weeks. These sessions are supplemented by exercises to 'help maintain the thought process outside the meeting'. Silver believes that she has gained in confidence as a result of the exercise. Coaching, she admits, provides 'a safe environment' in which she can talk openly about herself. 'It allows you time to think about yourself, and, if thinking negatively, to stop that. It has made me realise what my skills are, and helped me to present myself more positively.' Simon Barrow, 55-year-old chairman of the HR consultancy People in Business, meets his coach three or four times a year. 'You can talk to colleagues, your family and people such as your bankers and accountant, but none of them are really able to give you the kind of help you need,' says Barrow.
Coaching is not for every manager, however. 'I feel that there is an important link between helping someone to develop personally and their performance in the company,' says Janet White, also a director of FDS Market Research. But, she adds, 'Not all people see the connection.' Besides,coaching is expensive in terms of both time and (at maybe £130 an hour) money. The results are uncertain. Or they can be slow to materialise and, even then, may not be obvious to anyone other than the coached.
For those who believe a self-aware manager is a better manager, the ear of a discreet professional may be worth paying for. Sceptics and the psychologically well-defended need not pursue the subject.