Setting up in business – 3 essential character traits from an executive coach

Since being a teenager I’d imagined I would own my own company at some point in my life. I’d come from an entrepreneurial family – but still at 30 years old had no idea how I was going to make the move from my comfortable London corporate job into the grit and fast-tracked hustle of entrepreneurial life.

Ultimately the decision was made for me (as often happens when we hold a vision that we’re not taking sufficient action to realise!). In a challenging 12-month period in the second year of the new millenium, I left my marriage (an empowered choice), bought a new home (an inspiring space), had my first child (an eternal blessing), took a short maternity leave (14 weeks) and returned to my Commercial Director role … where 3 months later I was made redundant (with a healthy pay off – a lovely silver lining!).

As a single mother it made sense to invest in the flexibility of running my own business. It took a full 6 weeks of conversations and meditations to work out what product or service would most inspire me. There were no executive coaching schools in the UK in 2002 so I did a post graduate degree out of the US – that was a juggle!

I took on my first executive contracts while I was still studying and within 5 years had clients from some of the biggest media companies in the world – directors, editors, publishers, actors, authors – what a delight. The next 5 years I expanded to coach leaders in finance, medicine and new energy – CEOs, MDs, marketeers and financiers. From there I began to work with business owners of small and medium sized companies who themselves had made their own leaps into entrepreneurship and were conscious to keep aware and ahead of their game – thus their seeking out an executive coach in London.

There are people who will be driven at some point to go into business on their own. There are others who enjoy the cultures and routines found in most salaried jobs. If you think you’re one of the former, here are the top 3 character traits that got me beyond decade one:

  •  A healthy relationship to risk: there are points when you ask, borrow or say ‘yes’ for something way beyond what you think you can deliver. Growing pains are an essential part of expansion. The wisdom lies in defining healthy risk: too cautious or too gung ho and you may not make it through to your crucial year-3 tipping point (where it often gets easier – extra confidence and experience perhaps)
  • A strong support network: this could be family (although they’re often not the best people to help you stretch beyond your comfort zones) or could equally be other business owners who’re a few (or many) steps ahead. I’ve found that mentors, business coaches and mastermind groups have all enriched my journey to date – and I continue to invest in an executive coach for my own ongoing best performance.
  • A philosophical mindset: there’s just no way you can foresee the challenges or the opportunities that show up month to month. What helps though is to define and hold a clear vision of where you’re heading. What difference is your product or service going to make to each person who encounters it? And then, what difference is delivering that service seamlessly year after year going to make to your quality of life and your ability to give back?

As an executive coach in London and now increasingly in Scotland, I see people every day who’re choosing to make extraordinary changes to their life – personally and professionally. If you want the same … consider the leap!

How conflict affects the bottom line

Succeeding through conflict at work can be one of the most valuable skills any leader develops. A team whose differences are respected amongst each other – strengths, work patterns, communication styles, personalities and life choices – is a powerful team. A manager who encourages diversity and is equipped to manage difference skillfully is an asset to any company.

One of the most stressful things in any professional’s life is heading in to work every day knowing that there’s someone they have to interact with that will cause them stress. To do this day-in-day-out, for weeks and months on end is like slow torture and can lead to anxiety, sick days and physical and mental health issues. All too often this is not the result of 2 people in a team who can’t get on, it’s the result of a manager, not being equipped to spot relationship difficulties amongst their people, and if they do spot it, not having the skills to manange the process towards awareness, resolve and active professional development.

I have seen and heard of extraordinary examples of badly managed teams AND badly managed managers. These include:

  • public humiliations of jobs done badly around a table of 14 team leaders – with projects critically picked apart in front of peers ‘why did it happen?! what were you thinking?! this is worse than useless?!’;
  • an manager avoiding a growing conflict situation between 2 members of her team. This escalated into a violent outburst from one team member who was subsequently (understandably) signed off and hospitalised with acute stress. The future investigation focussed on the actions of the 2 employees, and not on the manager as requiring intensive further training and development;
  • a 22-years-in-the-business director whose team turnover was extensive. His managers were constantly fed with non-timely, incomplete information, given little direction, and were used as scapegoats when projects or tasks failed to hit timelines or budget. This director played a very political game within the board of the company (very old school), undermining (over time) his managers, who ultimately took their skills elsewhere. Important to note that the company in this case had invested £0 in the professional development of this director in over 2 decades.

As a corporate and executive coach I mainly deal with high performing, aware professionals who strive to be clear about their strengths and their ability to contribute to the maximum in the roles they’re in (like a formula 1 car receiving fortnightly tuning). However, in at least a third of cases I’m asked to consider, a director or manager want’s me to ‘fix’ a person who reports in to them to ‘make them see’ or ‘get them to understand’.

In these situations I have to explain (sometimes to the point of losing the contract) that if I ‘fix’ this person without having the ability to coach their director to increase his/her skills and awareness it’s a poor time and money investment for the company. It’s like teaching a child to speak clearly then leaving them in a home where the parents mumble – it just increases the child’s frustration that the culture they live in is not evolved enough for them to fully thrive.

The issues for companies with potential conflicts between employees are:

  • how to justify the investment of time, money and productivity once a conflict situation gains its full momentum (employees, leaders, human resources, knock on effect to team morale)
  • how to skill up staff to ask for help before a situation escalates
  • how to train managers to know the difference between normal creative friction and ongoing, stress-enhancing, detrimental behaviour
  • how to continue to invest in the development of teams and leaders regardless of there being issues and conflict situations (being proactive in keeping professinalism and awareness high)

I’ll lighten it up in the next post and look at the top 5 ways to succeed in managing conflict at work!

Leadership development – can I do it myself

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.