I’ve noticed recently that certain UK business cultures are more open to investing in their people’s ‘soft’ skills; the mental and emotional skills that enrich a corporate environment. They include the ability to effectively communicate, openly negotiate, embrace change, respect diversity and have active and versatile team dynamics.
The 2 company types most likely to encourage maximum release of potential in their teams are:
- small businesses (50 people or less) with fast decision making abilities, ambitions expansion plans and the founder still at the helm; and
- super-large corporates (1000 +) with products and services in demand in most countries on the planet.
Executive coaching makes sense for leaders in these 2 categories because:
- it provides a confidential space to talk through the possibilities and to test how convinced an MD might be about the next 12 months of growth – and when they’re convinced, they’re convincing (streamlining buy-in from group heads and inspiring collaborative action taking)
- the more aware their leaders are the more likely they’ll make a smart decision first time round – saving time and money
- directors who are coached are generally more satisfied with work and life; and a business that invests in its talent is more likely to retain it
- coaching creates clarity which in turn creates confidence – and confident people inspire others to question the status quo and to push the boundaries beyond those of the competition
- it encourages leaders to question their assumptions and limiting beliefs and replace them with innovative thinking
- a regular conversation about what’s going well and what could be going better means that issues aren’t left unattended long enough to gather momentum
- there’s never a moment where a leader knows it all. Lifelong learning, with an aware and conscious coach, will expand knowledge, enrich communication skills and contribute to bringing out the best in colleagues and clients alike
You may notice that not one of these points directly has a dollar sign directly against it. And that’s because there’s an emerging new era for what defines corporate success. People come first. The money flows afterwards.
Executive coaching contributes to happy employees, who in turn do extraordinary work every day to satisfy clients and customers.
The knock on reward from happiness and satisfaction is repeat business and multiple customer recommendations. There’s genuinely no more effective a marketing strategy. From that starting point, you can (in the simplest terms) leave the financial bottom line to take care of itself.
Numerous times in my 12 years of coaching and leadership development I've been asked by clients whether I think they'd have got to the conclusion they reach by themselves. I almost alway say 'yes'. When an answer needs to be found and layers of assumptions need to be let go to find it, that process will inevitably happen. Conversations will set you thinking, choices will present themselves, learning opportunities will occur, people will leave your team, others will join and gradually the vision you were holding will get closer and closer.
So what's the point in investing time and money with an executive coach if you're going to get there anyway? The answer is clarity and speed! Everyone learns a methodology of thinking and of working that comes to them with the education they've had and the experiences they've accumulated. Successful corporate leaders recognise that the process of acquiring more knowledge and refining what they know is ongoing (sometimes on a daily basis because change can happen so fast). A committment to lifelong learning inevitably sets the super-achievers apart from the pack.
Along with the specific wisdom you acquire you also collect specific assumptions and habits. They may have served you well last year or in your previous role, however today those tools might be the exact thing that's going to slow you down on your journey to achieving the big goal.
I had the priviledge very recently of talking with on of the UKs top masters squash players. He has national and international events coming up over the next 6 months and was talking about his training program. It included daily gym work for stamina, court work for accuracy, and sparring with other equally-levelled opponents for reactions and maintaining match fitness.
'Who's your coach?' I asked. 'I don't have one right now' he replied. (What?!!). We then had the discussion about all the training he was investing in right now and how it was great for sustaining fitness and perhaps even slightly improving his game over the next 4 months. However, alone he'd quickly reach a plateau and cease to be stretched by his sparring partners. When the World Masters arrive he'd absolutely want to bring his 'A' game and he'd be more likely to do that by working now with a coach. A trained, experienced eye to observe his game from the outside, making small (or perhaps significant) changes and partnering him in defining and achieving some stretch goals delivering the best competitive advantage when the tournament season comes round.
As much as this makes sense in sport, it makes the same sense in business. Directors, CEOs and team leaders can fast-track their growth and their 'business muscle' by partnering with a great executive coach. This coach isn't going to run your business day-to-day, nor will they put in the hours that are required to reach your ulimate vision. What they will do is to ask you some excellent questions, challenge some subtle assumptions, push you to stretch your comfort zone.
The knock-on effect of working with an experienced executive coach is that your clarity will grow, you'll have key conversations more suscinctly and confidently, you'll know who to draw closer to you and who to distance yourself from and instead of achieving your goals in a year or two's time, you'll notice them taking form in just a few short months. Leadership development is an ongoing investment in keeping key directors clear, motivated and action-orientated. If one of those leaders is you, the ultimate result is that your productivity soars and you achieve twice the success in half the time.
A decade ago it was still relatively rare for corporate senior team each to have an executive coach; that’s not the case now. Human resource professionals have long championed the concept of keeping their key leaders clear, confident and collaborative by supplying them with regular external coaching conversations.
Executives themselves are now sharp to the fact that they perform better and are generally happier when they have an independent, confidential place to work things out.
In over 12 years of delivering executive coaching in media, retail, medical, technology and energy industries here are the top 5 benefits I’ve noticed in executives who have regular conversation with their executive coach:
1. They are more productive
Someone who thinks clearly can filter out the distractions faster, communicate with purpose and target the most important next steps first time round. Also, a director with clear goals can monitor their progress and get other team members and stake holders to buy in to the effective delivery of those goals.
2. They make decisions faster & with more confidence
When a leader plans things in their mind, or even talks them out with their fellow directors, there can still be a blinkered, corporate approach to the ‘route to success’. When a strategy is discussed with an independent person from outside the company (and confidentiality is guaranteed), assumptions are challenged, new angles are explored, great ideas are affirmed. All these elements contribute to the forward motion of a project as you’ll realise ‘I am clear’; ‘I do know the answers’; ‘this is a great product/service and we need to let people know that’.
3. They communicate clearly and with awareness
Communication is key to getting any sort of high level business results. Whether that’s with your team, your peers, your CEO or with customers, clients, readers or viewers – they have got to be clear why engaging with you is a good idea day after week after month. So tailoring the same message a new way so that it’s equally as inspiring is a skill worth developing. Talking through who to influence, when and how is something all great executive coaches will ask their clients to be clear on.
4. They see opportunities ahead of time
You’ll have seen certain people spot a niche, a trend or an idea way before the rest of the pack are any where near, right? Well when a mind is primed for patterns of activity, or it spots a common question being asked by the company, the customers and the market generally, it’s going to form those commonalities into an action plan more quickly than someone who’s still focussed on last year’s activity. Investing 30 minutes every fortnight with an executive coach keeps you sharp, aware and open minded – the return on that investment can be off the scale.
5. They are happier
It’s a funny thing to measure happiness. Does someone laugh more, do they get more things right, do they lift the mood of a room just by being there? Who knows. What 12 years of coaching executives has shown me though is that a single conversation asking the right type of questions and allowing the right sort of information to come forth can change a person’s life for ever. A huge statement I know, however I see leaders, CEOs, MDs and senior directors who appear to the outsides world to be already successful (because most often they are!), take their personal and professional lives to a whole new level. They listen better, ask more constructive questions and acknowledge the changes and the progress in a way that makes their corporate and home life altogether lighter.
Executive coaches are not for the faint hearted. They are for corpporate pioneers, games changers and team champions. If you’re a leader in business and are considering what ‘more’ could look like – the right executive coach will open up new ways of thinking, new choices and new life results.
How easy is it to get to talk with your CEO or board directors? If you’re like most people in medium to large corporates you won’t have clear access to the majority of the senior leaders. And to some extent it has to be like that. Heirarchy’s are not there for the vanity of the directors, but to protect their time so they can think and deliver in ways only they can do.
We’ve all heard the water cooler chat about ‘they should stop spending money on the marketing and spend more on the product’ or ‘if I was running this show I’d never pay those contractors to be on call – save the money and hire some permanent staff’ – the expert opinion of those not in the know.
However, sometimes there can be priceless feedback from employees – and that different business angle from a new view point can be insightful, simple and financially rewarding to a company. How does that employee get their idea from their head, up 4 levels of management and still have their concept be as authentically represented as when they thought it up? Plus, how do they ensure the acknowledgement of the idea comes back to them and doesn’t get allocated to a career-hungry senior manager somewhere up the line?
So there are a few things that probably need to be in place to get your ideas to your CEO. Your success with this might well be influenced by:
• the size and culture of your company
• the professionalism of your manager (and therefore his/her ability to influence)
• your capacity to grasp the big picture within which your idea sits (especially if your company owns many brands or has a number of different products or services)
Here are 5 ways to get your idea to the CEO:
- Write the concept down and email it to a colleague or a friend so that there’s written confirmation that the idea originated with you
- It’s always a right first steps to talk with your manager and ask him or her for their feedback and whether they think the idea has value enough to go to whatever height of leadership has the decision making power. This may be all that’s needed and once progress is made, or the idea adopted, the acknowledgement comes straight back to you
- You can email or phone the CEO’s assistant and ask what whether you can have some time in the diary. Be prepared to explain what it’s for as it’s a PA (or EA)’s job to gate-keep for their boss and to make a first judgement as to whether this will be a valuable use of their time. If that answer is to send something to the PA first so she/he can review it, by all means do that then follow up in a day or two to check what he next step might be.
- When you get time with your CEO, make sure you’re prepared. Your conversation may make a lot of sense to you and you may be very passionate about the area of the company in which you work. The Chief’s job though contains a responsibility for every employee within the organisation, plus the production and delivery of the product and service of your company, and the satisfaction of the clients who access those products and services. Her (or his) time is precious so you must know your information and how to answer reasonable questions around it.
- Relax. Remember that the CEO has work his or her way to where they are with victories and challenges along the way in the same way that you’ve had those. You’ve got the meeting because it sounded like it was worthwhile so be yourself and speak from the heart.
It’s a funny question to ask: who’s in for executive coaching in Aberdeen isn’t it? Why be so specific about a town, why be so focussed on senior leaders (CEOs, MDs, board members and senior directors)? And what are the benefits of answering ‘yes’ to this question? Are those who’ll benefit genuinely aware of how life could be richer (on every level)?
During the past 7 years UK businesses, like the rest of the world, have had challenges above and beyond anything experienced in 2 perhaps 3 generations. Funding from banks hit industry after industry, loans were called in, borrowing diminished, expansion came to a halt, businesses became leaner by cutting costs which meant jobs had to go, and with that tens of thousands of families had to make adjustments – some were major.
So, did this global financial adjustment impact all countries and all industries? Or have there been isolated sectors that have been relatively untouched (have some perhaps even thrived)? Well, here’s what doesn’t stop in the UK – a nation has to eat, a nation has to keep warm, a nation has to move its people and products around country and world in order to continue to trade. So food, energy and transport – untouched?
About 4 years ago I moved my family and my business out of London, 450 miles north to the east coast of Scotland. It was a temporary move for 18 months to allow me to write a book and to launch a new business brand. I arrived … and I stayed. In contrast to much of the country what I noticed was that Aberdeenshire was relatively buoyant in its industries. Energy, oil, sub sea solutions and supply, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals production were all continuing to hold their own … and in some cases they were expanding.
Energy in particular – which is what Aberdeen’s success is majoratively built on – continues to expand at an extraordinary rate.
So what does this mean for those leading the way in energy production, delivery and supply? It means that, for now, those leaders may well feel untouchable or they may feel under pressure – perhaps a bit of both. ‘It’s not going to stop any time soon’ (perhaps not in their own lifetime – not so for the next generation); ‘we don’t have time to look at what’s coming next, there’s still so much to deliver now’; ‘we’re still expanding – it’s all good’.
And those are not necessarily unhealthy mindsets to have for a CEO, an MD or a senior direct – a company needs them to be convinced as well as convincing.
So what is the value of an executive coaching in this scenario? It’s almost too huge to quantify. It only takes a glance at the list below to see why it makes sense though. Executive coaches are hired by senior executives to ensure that those carving out the future success of their industry:
- Are clear, inspired, motivated and motivating
- Have a plan for both product and people expansion
- See the opportunities long before they make sense to the competition
- Remain balanced in work and life
- Are creative and convinced when it comes to risk taking
- Have characters and lifestyles that inspire people to aspire
- Consciously seek to do business with integrity, resilience and grace
Back to the original question then. If it’s an executive coach in Aberdeen you’ve worked out your company needs, (or in fact in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Manchester for that matter), and if the above benefits sound attractive to you, I’d say you’re a step away from a breakthrough.
There’s something very privileged about the job of an executive coach – especially an executive coach in London. Those coaches that are sought after by executive from around the world all have one thing in common … word’s got round that they get results. When the time comes a leader doesn’t care if an executive coach went to the best coaching school, is accountable to a professional federation, or if they themselves earned multiple-7-figures in banking, media or science before changing careers.
A leader knows this: ‘you got results for my friend/colleague/associate – and I’d like you to do the same for me please’. Simple. It’s an executive coach’s skill-set that counts. Can that coach make a speedy difference in your personal and professional life, with your mindset, your communication skills, your clarity about what you want in your future, your overall physical, mental and emotional success? Yes? So, hire them … now.
I helped a friend get her CV up to date recently – it was impressive. My only comment was ‘take your school results off your resume; experience has superseded the need for them’. It’s the same with an experienced executive coach – 15 year and 1000s of clients down the line, they have an intuition, a knowing and a set of unique tools that are so deeply entrenched in them getting results with their talented leaders in diverse industries they probably can’t even tell you what some of those tools are … they just ‘be’ coaching all day every day.
I see this in my leadership clients sometimes too. They can be so busy proving to others that they’re worthy – reading the latest leadership books, putting their teams/organisations up for awards, getting the next letters after their names (MA, PHD, MBA) – that they’ve missed the uncut diamonds just waiting to be mined inside of themselves. This is no touchy-feely kind of treasure but a profound, extraordinary sense of what a leader (CEO, MD, board member, senior director – whoever) can contribute to this time and space that no one else on the planet can.
When you actively mine those diamonds, no approval or qualifications will have prepared you for what the future can look like. You’ll live on purpose. You’ll progress though life living out of that purpose, speaking from that place, contributing from it and inspiring others. You’ll respect that although your paths are crossing with tens or hundreds of others at this very moment, their destiny isn’t yours and and some point they’ll likely uncover their own diamonds and move on into their own inspired space.
Why am I highlighting London as an executive coaching hub amongst every other international city? Mainly I suppose because that’s where I personally have had the honour of working with the most diverse range of clients I could imagine: young, old, men, women, limited (until I worked with them!), empowered, upscalers, downsizers, solopreneurs, leaders of startups and generations-old corporations. Each extraordinary. Every one of them with diamonds now well-and-truly mined, designed, polished and sparkling with light.
Over the last fortnight, in the process of building an ‘extension’ onto my present business activities, I’ve met an extraordinary range of diverse leaders – some corporate, some entrepreneurial, most a bit of both. Here’s what’s been interesting to me – they have each been successful in their own way, achieving well (from my limited exposure to their work & home lives) and motivated – but not a single one of them had considered engaging an executive coach, a mentor, or an independent leadership partner to speed up the process of living their vision?
Here’s what I also noticed, when given the opportunity to talk one-to-one, every single one of them – after 30 minutes of me listening, asking some key questions and feeding back to them what I’d heard – said they felt clearer, more motivated and more confident in their ability to achieve the vision they’d been holding in their minds. They all said that they’d invest in regular coaching conversations if they were sure to achieve ‘twice the success in half the time’. That means that the expectations they might been holding for 4 years are achieved in one. Imagine the reality of what that means for work life, home life, family, fitness, finances … it’s got to be worth exploring.
Here’re the 5 questions I get asked most when a new executive leader is working out the value of coaching:
1. What if I don’t have any issues to talk to you about
Great, because I don’t work with clients who have issues, I work with clients who have unreleased potential. They’re already successful at what they do. What they want from me is perspective, clarity and someone to hold them accountable as they stretch their abilities beyond what they’d do alone.
2. How can you teach me if you haven’t done what I’m doing
I’m not a teacher or a consultant – I don’t have your answers. I’m a coach, I have the questions – you’ve got your answers. It’s a huge myth – perpetuated by trainers, consultants and mentors (none of whom are coach trained) – that executive coaches will offer up solutions. We won’t. I equip you to explore, get clear and expand. Your executive coach should be executive coach trained and preferably have 1000s of hours worth of relevant experience and quality client testimonials.
3. How can you help me get ahead in medicine (or construction, media, IT, retail, oil & gas) if you’re not a medic
Great leadership is about developing the courage and skill set to know yourself deeply. You can only engage, inspire and stretch your teams and collaborators to the point at which you’ve experienced that engagement, inspiration and stretching yourself.
4. Most of the directors and CEOs I know don’t use a coach
Don’t be too sure about that. And ask yourself, of the leaders I have access to, are most of them true innovators, creatives and ground breakers? Because if they are, you can be sure they’re smart enough to be investing in all the development available to them to be clear of their motives, to multiply their skill set and to drive their business forward at speed. You’d be surprised at how many stand-out leaders are quietly partnering with a great executive coach.
5. How do I know it’s going to be worth the investment
You don’t. But here’s the thing – if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to get the results you’ve always had. Expanding your thinking and your skill set is the quickest way possible to start to play a bigger game. To stretch your vision, your action taking, your confidence, your influence and your overall results. Do what you do with a new restaurant, a new sport, a new relationship – book in a date and have the experience.
‘What does it take to be successful in top leadership?’, I’m asked by a client about to step up to an MD-on-the-board role. And I found my usual coach approach of ’empower the client to discover’ went right out the window. ‘If you really want to lead with style’, I said, ‘then genuinely be yourself’.
My experience has often been that by the time you, as a senior executive, are invited to be part of the elite leadership team that make up the board of a large corporate, it’s your character, experience and intuitive creativity that are really being called on.
You’ve done the journeying; the one that starts in the first years learning the formulas for acceptance which allow you to integrate into the company structure. As a team member you had to learn how to get on with colleagues, how to keep time, meet deadlines, produce results and communicate clearly, respectfully and using the language of the organisation.
Then you moved up to management; you learned the skills that allowed you to communicate clear goals, to motivate, to listen well, to spot your team member’s strengths and to influence their thinking as well as that of peers, directors and clients. You met deadlines and achieved results.
As a director, you felt the pressure and responded. You developed to know how to champion your business sector within the overall company vision. You inspired those around you to think more creatively, you knew which were the quick wins and which opportunities were best played out over a longer, more strategic time period. You worked out that to consciously invest in your own development at this point meant you could work less (yet smarter) and earn more. You hired teams knowledgeably and inspired with wisdom.
So now you’ve done your time, you’re ready for board level and your role from here is to oversee the business of a whole country or the negotiating of billion-pound contracts.
You’re part of a leadership team that together steers a healthy course of growth for products, services, customers and employees alike. What’s different from here is that there’s less instead of more structure because the market isn’t defined by past results it’s created by honoring the future. It’s time to downplay some of the rigidity that got you there and up-play some of the true you.
Successful leaders, over time, learn how to trust their intellect, their emotional intelligence and their intuition. The investment of time and personal & professional development has been focussed for the boardroom for a decade or more. From here your ability to create and to influence from a place of integrity and uniquely you-ness is massively leveraged. Competitors, customers and the rest of the company are watching and learning from your style. You may not know it yet, but in your part of the corporate world … you’re already a super-star!
As an executive coach, I’m sometimes called on when a leader, manager or company has too much going no – people, projects, development, deadlines, decisions – and they’ve passed the tipping point of working to full effectiveness. It’s not a weakness to have said ‘yes’ to so many things (or, more likely, for additional responsibilities to have been given to you because there was no one else to take them on) but too much complexity never delivers effective business results.
A call for your executive coach is a call to streamline and to simplify.
Earlier this week I had a conversation with a writer and film director. There were about 8 projects he could easily invest time in – networking, event organising, putting together his next creative team – there’s always so much going on. I asked him – why do you do what you do? He said ‘I love to write. And I love to create.’ I asked him – knowing that, what are your priorities today? He said ‘To finish this script. To get the movie made.’ And even simpler than that? … ‘To finish this script’.
Sometimes there’s a really obvious right next move; often it’s one that only you can do. That’s why it’s on your list and no-one else’s.Everything else you’re investing time in is a distraction, or a subconscious procrastination because it knows that the things only you can do will create the biggest ripple effects – and that in turn will change your world.
There’s a classic story (which is worth repeating …) about a professor who held up to his students an empty glass jar. Into it he placed some large rocks up to the rim. He then help up the jar and said ‘is it full?’. The students nodded ‘yes’. Next the professor took out a bag of pebbles and poured them into the jar. The pebbles found their way in around the spaces of the large rocks. ‘Is it full now?’ he asked. The students nodded ‘yes’. The professor then took out a bag of sand. He poured the sand into the jar and it filled in the spaces around the pebbles. He held up the jar, ‘Is it full now?’. The students nodded ‘yes’. The professor took out a beaker of water, he slowly poured it into the glass jar. The water meandered its way around the spaces of the rocks, the pebbles and the sand until it reached the rim of the jar. ‘Ok, so now it’s full’, said the professor, ‘So, what’s the lesson’?
One student raised her hand and said ‘Is it that we can achieve more than we think – but sometimes have to find new ways to do so?’. ‘A good answer, anyone else?’ said the professor. Another student put up his hand, ‘Could it be that if we assume a question means ‘more of the same’ we’re missing an opportunity?’. ‘Another good answer’ said the professor, ‘And here’s the lesson I want you to take away from today: I could only put as much into this glass jar if I started with the big stuff. In any other order, this quantity of rocks, pebbles, sand and water could not be contained. Prioritise the big things into your life – health, fitness, a vision, connection – and all the rest will fall into place around it’.
As an executive coach, I couldn’t have put it better myself!
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci