Learning from the coach

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Learning from the coachOn 16 Jul 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Whateverthe literary flaws, a new novel about coaching is an original way of looking atexecutive development, writes Stephen Overell Some weeks ago (Research viewpoint, 4 June), I speculated that the workplacemight one day inspire a new genre of fiction called the management novel. Dreadof dreads, it seems I was behind the times. Published this month is The Coach by Lee Bryce, a coach herself at TheChange Partnership1. The book’s hero is Simon Bruce, son of a Scottish tenantfarmer who has progressed to chief executive of Andecis, a multinationalpharmaceutical company. Simon is married to the nagging Emily and has two children, but is having anaffair with Grace, an oriental virago who is hell-bent on breaking up hisfamily. Meanwhile, there are work problems of tumbling shares, drugregulations, a critical press and a shouting boss called Piers. Enter Angela Jones, a coach who delivers a talk at the Institute ofDirectors called ‘The Terrible Twins of Leadership: Fear and Control’, sobeginning Simon’s inevitable resurrection. As well as dealing in the usualcoach-type mush of ‘we write our own script’, Angela is not averse to makingremarks about more philosophical matters. “When you change your focus awayfrom ‘how can I protect myself’ to ‘how can I contribute to those around me’,you gain authentic power,” she tells him. Thin stuff for a novel, you might think. But throw in Red Roger, asoap-dodging animal rights activist who kidnaps Simon, love interest in theform of Carolyn, the green-eyed marketing director, and a clutch of lame sexscenes (‘you certainly know how to play a tune on my piano’) and it rattlesalong gamely enough. Shame about the dialogue, though: “Because you’vecreated such a climate of empowerment we all feel that we can challenge you,even when you revert to command and control,” coos Carolyn to Simon,during pillow talk. As redemptive fiction, the principal flaw is that Simon starts as a smug,narrow twit and finishes as a smug, narrow twit: so much for coaching. Yet theliterary worth of The Coach is not our primary concern. What is it like as an,ahem, learning tool? Here, Lee Bryce deserves some credit. She has attempted to convey thepeculiar alchemy of coaching in a brave and original format. True, in trying toilluminate the mystery, there are some unforgivable lapses into managerialhumbug: “See a world of incompetence, deviousness and danger and it comesto be confirmed,” trills the simpering Angela; such a pity Red Roger, theonly character with principles and backbone, did not kidnap the coach. Yet the format of the novel does provide a glimpse of the coachingphenomenon – the use of open questions, the refusal to directly advise inreaching decisions and the way energy is intuitively communicated. For insightinto the breathtaking fees, however, we shall have to wait. The novel is interesting, too, for what it says about contemporary debatesabout coaching. Simon’s coaching is part of a wider change programme thataffects senior managers and functional heads at Andecis. He is not the onlyperson being coached and the object of the exercise seems to be aboutinstilling a coaching culture at the company, without cascading it too far downthe hierarchy. The message is this: coaching should not be a one-person initiative;it needs to be externally, independently facilitated; yet there is little pointgoing much beyond director-level executives. This gels with some of the research. A survey by the Hay Group involving 170HR professionals found that 70 per cent believe coaching is more effective thantraining as a means of changing the behaviour and improving the performance ofsenior executives and high flyers (my own italics)2. In other words, coachingis exclusive. The book is faithful to the research, too, in the way that coaching isassociated with gloom. Simon’s personal and professional woes are the spur forbecoming Angela’s client. In the real world, coaching is seldom linked with apositive climate – rarely used to help organisations build for growth, for instance3.In the novel, the success of coaching is demonstrated by the way that thecoached executive radiates like a moral philosopher, while corporate problemsare smoothly vanquished. Life is not so compliant. A study by the thenIndustrial Society from March this year found that while a striking 80 per centof employers claim to use coaching, only a third ever bother to evaluate itseffectiveness4. This feeds a distorted appreciation of its impact. Those whoare being coached give an ‘overly rosy picture’ of its success, while othersare rather less appreciative, according to the Institute of EmploymentStudies5. Yet, arguably, something so wholly personal as the coaching experience doesnot lend itself easily to rigorous, statistical analysis. Many organisationsseem happy enough leaving measurement in the realm of anecdote. In a case studythat could well have furnished the inspiration for the novel, Autoglass, thecar window specialist, put 17 senior managers through an 18-month programme andare now reporting its success in terms of better financial procedures, fasterturnover of repairs and replacements and improved customer perceptions6. HR director Carol Madeley said at the end of the programme: “It gives amanager energy and motivation for the job in hand and cultivates a willingnessto develop personal skills and get the most from a team.” Now that management is mostly a matter of persuasion and inspiration, ratherthan instruction, it is hardly surprising that coaching has become such adominant motif in business life. The figure of the coach brings togetherpersonal development with corporate goals – the ultimate embodiment of how workand life are truly, unavoidably intertwined. Yet as a few observers have noted, it is unfortunate that coaching isleading to a perception of managers ‘becoming nicer’ – a perception that formsthe basic storyline of The Coach. In the long term, it won’t serve anyone verywell. “If strong coaching isn’t balanced by strong management, you’relosing the game,” argues Myles Downey, from the School of Coaching.”You have to be able to hold people to account.”7 References: 1 The Coach by Lee Bryce, Piatkus Publishing, 2002 2 For more on this study, see Personnel Today, 4 June 3 See Is Coaching Being Abused by Margaret Kubicek, Training Magazine, May2002 4 School of Coaching, www.theworkfoundation.co.uk 5 See Kubicek, above 6 Training Magazine, January 2002 7 See Kubicek, above Research Viewpoint plusRead related articles on this topic from XpertHR’s extensive databasefree. Go to www.xperthr.co.uk/researchviewpointJoin the Xperts take a free trialBy calling 01483 257775 or e-mail: [email protected] is a new web-based information service bringing together leadinginformation providers: IRS, Butterworths Tolley and Personnel Today. 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