Coaching: an investment in leadership
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Coaching: an investment in leadership

Leadership coaching is helping to keep business leaders on track in these turbulent times, but is also an important tool for hothousing and retaining rising talent

Coaching session
Credit:RoBeDeRo/Getty Images

Executive coaching - Key takeaways:

• Can improve chances of success when restructuring a business

• Set clear boundaries at the outset between the individual, the coach and the employer

• Find the right mix of guidance, listening and establishing trust for each individual being coached

• Don’t take self-confidence as a given; rising stars may suffer from impostor syndrome

• Investing in coaching is a way of showing talented employees they are valued

Leadership coaching is a boom industry. In 2018, PwC estimated that it was the second-fastest growing sector in the world. The overall value of the training market is estimated at $15bn, with coaching accounting for about $2.4bn.

Mirroring the rise of mental health as an issue, coaching recognises that even high-performing people do better with support instead of just being told to get on with it. This is even more true in the turmoil of 2020.

Whereas at one time having a coach was seen as a weakness, now it is often an indication of success.

Coaching takes many forms – from the chief executive’s external confidant, through individual managers supporting team members, to company-wide programmes.

In a time of flux, management consulting firm McKinsey reckons leadership coaching can transform the chances of success for business restructuring by increasing cooperation between managers and improving employee trust and morale.

But McKinsey also says that without a firm grip on what is meant to be achieved, all that money and effort can go to waste.

Insider Engage spoke to coaches and senior people in the (re)insurance industry to get their views on what coaching means and how to make it work.

Set the boundaries

Sophie Beeley is an executive coach whose mainly female clients include leaders and future leaders in the (re)insurance industry.

She says personal and professional issues inevitably combine when clients are trying to find a way forward.

“Some clients use coaching as a way to talk through what’s going on for them and to discuss their approach and how they manage it,” Beeley says. “Others have specific things they want to work on, like confidence or anxiety.”

She says it is essential to set clear boundaries at the outset between the individual, the coach and the employer.

“As a coach you need to be in a completely confidential relationship with your client and not be expected to report back to the organisation. Ideally you will have a three-way meeting to begin with to agree goals and targets.

“The business is paying and they need to be happy with what’s being worked on. Then you would work with your client and they would feed back to HR.”

Beeley says her job is to help the client find the answers they are looking for but not to direct them. “That can come from mentoring or consulting,” she says.

But Alison Chadwick, a coach who works mainly with creative industry leaders, says there is a balance to strike and that often clients want more input from the coach.

“One client said to me: ‘I hope you’re not just going to ask me questions’,” Chadwick says. “Some people think a coach is always going to say: ‘That’s interesting. Tell me more.’ If you’re going to be a muscular thinking partner you need to show up with your own values and opinions – but that’s not the same as telling them what to do.”

Strengths and blind spots

Ann Haugh, president of global markets at Axis Re, says her company often employs external coaches to help people transition to roles with new responsibilities - for example managing colleagues for the first time or moving from sales to underwriting.

“When you engage with an external coach for one of your team members you have to be very clear about where you see their strengths and their blind spots.

“I’ve always encouraged the outside coach to speak to the person’s colleagues to find out how they are perceived. What a lot of people struggle with is understanding that perception is reality and how you see yourself may not be how others see you.”

Haugh says she has acted as a coach for her team members for many years and stresses the importance of finding the right mix of guidance, listening and establishing trust.

“Some people like lots of touch points and real-time feedback where you can highlight successes and share examples of where they can improve. Others want a more hands-off style,” Haugh says.

“They need to know that you have their back and that if they make a mistake you’re not going to abdicate responsibility and leave them hanging. They need to feel that you’re supporting them.”

Rising stars

When it comes to coaching future leaders, sensitivity and certain approaches may be necessary as they get to grips with fresh responsibilities.

“My tip for coaching rising stars is don’t assume that they are as confident as others might think they are,” Chadwick says. “They are often very humble, which is one of the things that makes them good, but they can suffer from impostor syndrome and think: ‘I’m not as good as everybody thinks I am.’”

In a fiercely competitive market for the best people, Chadwick adds: “If you’re the boss and you don’t have a plan for your rising stars, someone else will. Investing in coaching is a way of showing them they are valued.”

Rapid change and increased complexity are two of the reasons for the rise of coaching, as leaders have grappled to adapt. 2020 has intensified these trends as Covid-19 and an increased focus on companies’ responsibilities to wider society have combined.

Kelli Clark, Aon’s head of culture and change, says coronavirus and the response to the death of George Floyd in the US have prompted a comprehensive review of how the company engages with its people.

Aon has introduced coaching programmes to help managers develop teams working online that used to interact in the office. It has also experienced a surge in demand for programmes about diversity, equity and inclusion, she says.

“As we make more progress in this area we need to get a suite of resources available for colleagues to use and create a common language and cultural norms around coaching and mentoring,” Clark says.

Chadwick says she is meeting clients more often as they grapple with the fallout from Covid-19 and its economic impact. Personal resilience, supporting teams under stress and thinking about leadership in the future are high on the agenda, she says.

“If you are a CEO going through a year like this you need to bring confidence to your team,” she says.