The transition from being a start-up founder to the boss of a growing company can be a difficult one. Where once you had one or two employees, now you have dozens. Team meetings, which used to be done in your office or the local pub, now take place by videoconference. The success you yearned for has finally happened, but as the demands of the role increase you’re struck by the uneasy feeling: “Am I up to the job?” Some entrepreneurs are turning to executive coaches to help them improve their leadership skills.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an executive coach is a sort of business therapist, whose role it is to soothe the anxieties of stressed-out CEOs. Their role is nearer that of a sports coach, who helps a talented business leader to harness their skills so they can reach the top of their game.
That means getting rid of the “interference” which is stopping you from performing at your best, says Bill Knight of Praesta, a leading executive coaching firm. “To reach your full potential we need to get to the bottom of what’s distracting you and preventing you from doing what you know you need to do and to clear that out of the way. It’s very difficult for people to do that for themselves. They need to talk to other people, but particularly someone who’s trained.”
Been there done it
Executive coaches know how to help their charges clear their minds and focus on the task in hand, because they have faced exactly the same problems. Most led long and successful business careers before becoming executive coaches: Knight was a high-flying corporate lawyer who served as senior partner at the big London law firm Simmons & Simmons before retiring.
Knight says: “I believe that you can’t coach somebody unless you’ve been there and done it yourself. It doesn’t need to have been in the same industry as the person you’re coaching, but having been a senior manager and run a firm myself enables me to understand their problems and to ask the right questions. The duty of the coach is to understand, because if the coach understands the issue then eventually so will the person they’re coaching – perhaps for the first time.”
Coaches are very different from mentors, in that they don’t offer solutions to an executive’s problems, but instead provide a process by which the person can come up with the answers themselves. “A coach controls the agenda, not the results. We find it’s much more successful to not be directive. The problem with giving advice is that often people don’t take it. We start on the basis that the person we’re coaching already knows the answer – our job is simply to draw that out of them.”
Helping to see the bigger picture
Jon Pickering, MD of fast-growing technology consultancy Block Solutions, started working with an executive coach last year. “I told her I wanted to become a better boss and a more well rounded individual by developing my general leadership skills. I also wanted to learn what personal impact I had, so I could tailor my style to the particular audience I face: a presentation to a potential client, making a speech or holding an internal meeting.”
He speaks to his coach on the phone every couple of weeks to discuss what’s on his mind, and meets her every couple of months. Most entrepreneurs are so focused on growing their businesses that they tend to ignore the need to improve their own skills, he says.
His coaching sessions have helped him to plot a future direction for Block. “Anybody who has built up a business with 80 or 90 employees must be pretty good at what they do, but the danger is that, as your company grows, you lose sight of the bigger picture, because you become caught up with what’s happening every day,” says Pickering.
“Dealing with everything that arrives in your inbox won’t necessarily help you to drive your business forwards. Starting up a company can be all consuming, so you may still be doing the same thing in 10 to 15 years’ time if you’re not careful. Using a coach has helped me pull myself away from the day-to-day business to focus on the bigger picture. My coach doesn’t know the answers, but she makes me think through what the solutions might be.”
Since starting coaching, he has recognised the need to devote more time to telling his staff how the company is performing, what Block’s values are as well as the qualities they look for in the people they hire. “I realised that as the firm had got bigger we didn’t have the time any more to hold individual conversations with our employees about how things are going. So we’ve tried to ensure there’s much more consistency in the messages coming from the senior leadership team, because if there’s mixed messages people get unsettled.”
Pickering also believes that he and his business partner, Marc Chang, have become more attuned to each other since they separately started coaching sessions. “It’s noticeable how our thought processes have become much more aligned about how we want to take the business forwards since we have started seeing our coaches,” Pickering says.
He also believes his coach has helped him to improve away from work too. “Being an entrepreneur is all consuming, so even when I was with my family I’d be thinking about work. My coach has helped me to switch off from work when I’m at home. I set myself goals now to spend time with my family at the weekends, to sit and read with my kids or to help them do their homework. They’re simple things, but they are very easy to forget when you’re caught up in running your own business. It can be quite hard to be an entrepreneur and to be a well-rounded individual as well. Work always tends to come first. But I would now say I’m a better Dad and a better husband, thanks to my coach.”