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Athletes in the boardroom

Jennifer Holloway talks to John Murray about honing the skills of senior managers and sharpening their corporate performance by employing the techniques of executive coaching

If you believe the hype surrounding the rise of tennis stars such as Andy Murray, a personal coach can make the difference between being good and becoming a champion. So can the same principle be applied in the financial arena with the result that the managing director with the best coach takes all the prizes?

Certainly, there have been many advocates of this approach in the personal development business – the jargon masters who use a combination of psychology, counselling, training and motivational development to turn the Harvard high performer into a business leader extraordinaire.

So when I learnt that my friend Jennifer Holloway was forsaking her career as PR supremo at Skipton Building Society to set up an executive coaching business called Spark I was curious to find out more about enhancing management performance.

And on a personal level I was also curious as to why she had turned her back on the honourable business of spin for an activity that is arguably even less tangible when it comes to seeing end results.

We meet with a checklist of things on my agenda. Executives in the mortgage business aren’t paid a pittance I suggest in the nicest possible way, so aren’t they rewarded well enough to be able to make their own decisions?

“You’ve hit the nail on the head because that is the problem,” she says, her PR acumen obviously still present and correct. “Senior executives are expected to have all the answers and are judged by the outcomes of their solutions. It’s lonely at the top and a lot of people say – you get all that money so you should have all the answers.

“But ultimately you don’t want your business to fail and whether a person is being paid £300,000 or £20,000 you want them to work at their optimum. If that means spending a bit of money to give them some support in the form of a coach, surely that’s a sound investment.”

Holloway doesn’t mention churn at the top, job insecurity and the tenure time of chief executives which was around about 18 months before the fall of Northern Rock. Nor does she point to surveys that show that more than half of all recently-appointed senior executives feel inadequately prepared for their promotion.

Instead of all that and a smattering of psychobabble, Holloway focuses on the predicament of the individual.

“The thing you have to remember about coaching is that this man – it could be a woman but in this sector when we’re talking chief executives it’s a man – may have a best mate down the pub, a wife at home and a deputy or whatever,” she says. “But is he going to be absolutely honest with those people when it comes to how he feels about what he’s facing or decisions that went wrong? They all have some sort of claim on him but a coach offers something different.

“The thing is I’m not a consultant, I’m not telling him how to run his company so it doesn’t matter that he’s the chief executive and I’m the coach. It’s more a question of – are you thinking as clearly as you could be?”

That’s interesting. Are coaches called in because there’s a specific problem? What triggers or prompts someone to use executive coaching services? Is it because they are conscious of a weakness?

“Some professionals see coaching as the acceptable face of counselling,” she says. “But it’s not counselling – I can’t stress that strongly enough. Whereas some people would never admit to being counselled because it can be perceived as a weakness, coaching is often seen as a strength.

“So, for example, I may be brought in because a company wants to be seen to be investing in its executives. Or if there’s a problem, sometimes I’m brought in by the person being coached and sometimes by their boss.

“Part of the problem in the latter case is convincing the person I’m coaching that I’m there to help,” she adds. “They can be in denial and say – I don’t know why I need coaching because I haven’t done anything wrong.”

It seems that politics in business can be as Machiavellian as politics in Westminster because, as Holloway says “some professionals expect to use coaches to remove subordinates”.

Being a coach involves being pretty nimble when it comes to dealing with that kind of situation – it’s not about doing the organisation’s bidding.

“It is my job to be totally independent,” Holloway argues. “If a person doesn’t like working for an organisation and wants to leave that’s fine, but they shouldn’t go because the organisation wants them to think that.”

Executive coaching can work on several levels. For example, Holloway cites the example of clients who have to make a big decision – they don’t know how to do it and want to talk it through.

Then there are clients who have, as Holloway puts it, “thinking issues” and a coach has to focus on their thinking style.

“It’s assumed that today’s business leaders are quick thinkers who act decisively but if I’m sitting in a session with someone who has a reflective style they will go all around the houses and work everything through, then go away and think about it and finally come back to me,” says Holloway.

“This is not going to result in a thrillingly dynamic coaching session but the person involved will still get an awful lot out of it.”

So it can be a bit like a confessional?

“Sometimes”, she agrees. “Sometimes people tell me stuff and I think – wow. But the thing is that when they tell me something that is quite personal or that might be perceived as unethical, I don’t react. I just sit there and ask – OK, what were you thinking when you did that? I don’t say – why did you do that?

“I think people like that. It’s all about listening rather than giving advice – not being judgemental and simply giving a professional the space to think and work out issues for themselves.”

In that respect, executive coaching is probably an easier job for a former PR practitioner to do than an ex-journalist who in a confessional moment might not be judgemental but would, like a Pavlovian dog, print and be damned.

However, I’m still puzzled as to why Holloway has turned her back on PR and turned to counselling. Why did she start Spark? Like with St Paul – was there a moment of conversion on the road to Damascus?

“Well, I spent a long time looking for a company name that reflected both what coaching achieves and myself, and that was quite a difficult job because a lot of coaches come from a training background and mine is in PR,” she says.

I begin to suspect that she has misunderstood my question but perhaps she’s just reacting to it at a tangent.

“Even when I was in PR I was always a bit different,” she continues. “Skipton does things a bit differently anyway, and I do things differently. So there’s a little bit of a spark there and also lot of coaches love the moment when their client says a light has gone on and declare they had never looked at a particular question that way before.

“I didn’t want to call my firm Lightbulb coaching – that would have been horribly naff – but I thought Spark was a nice word that summed it up.”

It is, but what sparked Spark I ask, grinning at the play on words.

Holloway is unperturbed. She must have coached people like me in the past, I think, but then again she’s pretty used to being interviewed by me and blithely goes on to attribute her career change to the way things are done at the Skipton.

“Skipton has a strong coaching culture and approaches executives to become internal mentors – it trains them for that role,” she explains.

“They’re called mentors but technically they’re coaches so I started coaching professionals internally. I was doing PR at the time I looked at my life and asked myself – what am I really enjoying at the moment? It turned out the answer was coaching.

“So I’ve done a qualification and passed it with a score of 85% – it’s a certificate in executive coaching and its now a question of getting my hours up in the practical business of coaching professionals,” she adds.

“I’ve just got a verbal agreement to do some work with a couple of executives from a building society.”

Coaching by phone and other alternatives

Executives too busy or too shy for face to face coaching have an alternative – coaching by phone.

“Face-to-face coaching has benefits – there’s a lot of body language and so on,” says Holloway. “But with telephone coaching there’s only a voice and the listening is done in a different way.”

She doesn’t like to write too many notes in a face-to-face session as there’s a danger that some clients may think that she’s not listening 100% to them.

“When I’m on the phone, it’s different,” she says. “I can feed back verbatim or take them back to the first thing they said, which is helpful.”

With face-to-face coaching she tends to meet clients in their office but believes there’s a lot to be said for meeting a short drive away so they can switch off during the journey. Apparently, sessions can get quite emotional and with glass-fronted offices, it’s difficult if someone gets upset and starts to cry.

In the first coaching session Holloway usually invites her client to talk about themselves.

“I once had a professional say to me – I’ve never talked to anyone about that before. I had asked them about where they came from and the school they went to, and they started talking about being bullied.”

The person involved, she assures me, isn’t a chief executive and the example shows she doesn’t indulge her clients in New Age mumbo-jumbo.

“Some coaches would have you envisage yourself in a waterfall with all your issues washing away,” she continues.

So I guess regressional therapy is not Holloway’s thing.

“No, that’s for counselling”, says Holloway. “What I do is common sense. When costs are being cut and fewer people are doing more work you’d think this is not the time to be spending money on a coach but in fact this is precisely the time. If a person is not working at their optimum, how can they have the best chance of steering their organisation through this tricky time?”

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