Business coaches are providing top-tier professionals with the support they need to reach their career peak. But as with any successful partnership, the trick is finding the right fit, explains MAGGIE ARMSTRONG.
“Coaching,” says Hannah Carney, business coach and consultant, “is creating a space where people feel listened to, understood, moved forward. It will often veer into the personal, because it is the essence of the person that will drive the business.” Carney breaks the process into three steps: looking at your career as it is, finding out where you want to go, and figuring out how to get there.
Joanna Fullerton, business psychologist at Seven –Psychology at Work, describes coaching as a kind of investigation of the spirit. “The magic of coaching is creating that reflective learning space, where people stop and look inward. What makes you tick, what motivates you, what are your values, when are you at your best? How can we create the conditions for you to flourish? Coaching creates space for you to stop, speak, plan and reinvigorate.” Fullerton says there are two elements necessary for a fruitful experience. First, a desire to learn about yourself. Second, finding the right fit, the correct “chemistry” with your coach.
Jane Maguire (not her real name), a solicitor and mother of two, had a coach recommended to her by a friend after she was headhunted to work for a commercial law firm in Belfast, which although a wonderful opportunity, was not going well. Hearing that this coach had also worked as a lawyer encouraged her to make the call. “Part of me felt that asking someone for help was admitting that I couldn’t do my job,” she says, “but [my coach] immediately reassured me. Even the tone of her voice brought me to a calmer place. Physically, I could feel my body relaxing.”
Although technically proficient, Maguire wasn’t prepared for the delicate job of managing a team as a newcomer in a high-profile firm. “I felt that everyone was a lot more capable than I was. I felt like an outsider, a pretender. I had come from being a big fish in a small pond to being in an environment where everything around me was strange. This eroded my confidence,” she says. “I started questioning whether I could do the job.” Maguire says her coach listened to everything she said, even though she felt at times that she was rambling incoherently. “She offered interim suggestions to help me deal with my situation until we were both able to meet for a longer, more intense session. And she gave me simple tips to help control my breathing and anxiety, and language that helped to take the heat out of difficult conversations at work.”
“Part of me felt that asking someone for help was admitting that I couldn’t do my job,” Maguire says, “but [my coach] immediately reassured me. Even the tone of her voice brought me to a calmer place.”
The premise of business coaching is that you know the answers to your own questions; a coach’s role is to help draw out those answers. Maguire agrees: “Effectively her advice was, ‘You have been headhunted to do this job because people believe you can do it, you just don’t believe in yourself’. She made me reflect on what I’d achieved, what my skills were.” But not all of the sessions were as palatable, she recalls. “We talked about how I had interacted and dealt with challenges to date, why my approach hadn’t perhaps worked, and how a different approach could have yielded a better outcome.
But we also looked at other situations in which I had displayed leadership without knowing it.”
She describes the experience as a searching process. “[The coach] asks you difficult questions about yourself. You feel exhausted but exhilarated too from finding the answers. It’s about looking inside and discovering what’s already there,” she explains.
Coaching was once associated with low performance, as remedial. Now Google, Facebook, Microsoft and eBay, and closer to home, Deloitte, Ulster Bank and KPMG, are investing in in-house coaching at senior level. It is employed to make high performers do even better, like giving maths grinds to honours students. So what are the drawbacks, if any? Well, it is time-consuming, arduous and expensive for those whose companies don’t offer the service in-house – between €150 and €300 per session. But coaches such as Hannah Carney, Grattan Donnelly, June Duffy, Mary Collins, John Fitzgerald and Joanna Fullerton are making an impact.
Niamh O’Donnell, who had been executive producer at Project Arts Centre for 13 years, sought coaching to help her with a career move and discussed the fee in advance. “I told my coach how much money I had, and that I needed to do it within that range,” O’Donnell says. She had five sessions over one month with Hannah Carney. “I needed to find a space to carve out something more of myself. That sense of stepping up and being less afraid of speaking out,” she recalls. They talked through O’Donnell’s tasks to see how she worked, looked at what she had achieved and considered the job spec for a post she was interested in. “My coach had really fresh eyes. She helped me to see more clearly what motivated me. I felt very reassured with her. It more clarified my confidence than built it,” she explains.
“I needed to find a space to carve out something more of myself. That sense of stepping up and being less afraid of speaking out.”
O’Donnell is now artistic director at a Wicklow arts centre. And the most important thing she learned was what her values are. “At the beginning I was able to say I was passionate about the arts, but I misunderstood what motivated me. I’m motivated by what the arts offer to local groups,” she says.
It makes sense for organisations themselves to offer training at a deeper level than academic up-skilling – this is investing in human capital. The law firm Maples and Calder runs a senior associate coaching programme, which Elizabeth Bradley availed of when her boss put her forward for partnership in 2012. Bradley, a “people person” and an extremely hard worker, met her coach monthly over the course of a year. “It was a private and a safe space. I could be honest and frank, I could admit, ‘I’m having difficulty with this’,” she explains.
The first four sessions involved brainstorming: “spider diagrams and lots of scribbles”. The process became more rigorous as she prepared a business plan and rehearsed for her interview. Bradley was promoted to partner in 2013. “Coaching gave me an edge, polish, fine-tuning,” she says. “I came out enthusiastic and energised about my job. My coach was able to extract from me what I already knew. I was already performing at a certain level, but coaching gave me an added limb, an extra string to my bow. It gave me self-belief.”
The challenge of course is how to keep hold of that music box of nice phrases you aquire and apply them practically. According to Bradley, this comes naturally, “because the experience is so personal. It’s not just hypothetical.”
With career change a certainty for many people these days, coaching could help us during that terrifying time when we have to ask ourselves whether we can do better.