Learning experience

Learning experience

Business coaches will not fix problems for you, but rather empower you to boost your own career and company. By Silke Colquoun

‘A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you always knew you could be.’ These words by US football coach Tom Landry, although spoken in a sports context, also apply to business. The reason for any coaching – be it to improve your own business, your executive leadership skills, your personal life or to excel in sports – is to take you somewhere where you cannot take yourself.

‘While there is no definitive answer for when to hire a business coach, a good benchmark for knowing it’s time is when you say “I don’t know what to do next”,’ advises a Forbes blog.

Business owners, executives and professionals at any career level shouldn’t wait until a serious crisis requires remedial coaching, but should hire a coach to refocus, set goals and achieve them.

‘Coaching is a powerful intervention to enhance performance, embed sustainable change and develop strong and resilient leadership in organisations,’ according to the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) coaching programme at Pretoria University. ‘Corporate institutions are the largest and most dominant buyers of coaching as a service as it has a direct benefit for creating sustainable growth through strong leadership and a pool of talented people.’

Grow yourself and your business

But that doesn’t mean they’re the only organisations that can benefit. In South Africa, much focus lies on developing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as part of the government’s job-creation and entrepreneurship drive.

‘Business coaching is a valuable tool: Even if you’re running an amazingly successful business, there’s invariably some area where you can improve. We’re here to pinpoint which areas the SMEs in our programme need to work on,’ says Amanda Urban, programme manager at Edge Growth, who strengthens black-owned SMEs in corporate supply chains (through a dedicated enterprise and supplier development fund established by the Association for Savings and Investment SA).

She explains that the fund’s structured business development includes general business coaching and specialist one-on-one mentorship coaching, in addition to group ‘boot camps’. The benefits range from networking opportunities and sharing experiences with other entrepreneurs (‘knowing you’re not alone’) to the opportunity to bounce off ideas and use the business coaches as sounding boards. ‘That way entrepreneurs can test their logic and thinking on someone who is experienced in a particular field’, says Urban. ‘We track the progress through monthly updates from both the SMEs and the coaches.’

Some of the small businesses that have successfully gone through the two-year programme get selected for capital funding. Again, this involves coaching as the funding team provides post investment support for seven years.’

‘It’s important that the coach and coachee jointly agree which goals to pursue’, says Vivian Reddy, a business coach at Edge Growth. ‘I spend time to get a rounded picture of the business and the entrepreneur, to understand who the person is, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weakness, their background, and what drives them. I also share my own journey so they can see my strong points and my vulnerabilities. Both parties need to feel comfortable with one another.’

Thinking partnership

But don’t expect a coach to fix problems for you or advise you. ‘Coaching is not mentoring, tutoring, training, advising, consulting or therapy,’ says Alison Reid, director of personal and applied learning at GIBS. ‘The definitions are muddled because the terms are often interchanged and the lines blurred, for instance, mentoring can blend advising and coaching.

‘In the professional sense, coaching is a thinking partnership. A coach is a reflective witness and companion on your journey, and the nature of a companion is to provide space for you to think in your own way and not lead you in their direction.’

A widely quoted analogy says a business coach will help you understand how and why you ride a bicycle, help you identify what’s holding you back from cycling properly and jog along as you ride your bike. A consultant, on the other hand, will explain why one bicycle is better than the other, teach you how to cycle and, if required, ride the bike for you for a while.

When it comes to mentoring, the difference lies in it being an informal and ongoing relationship compared to the more structured coaching, which usually has regular meetings scheduled over a set duration, says Dale Williams, an executive coach in private practice, who is also a coaching instructor for online education provider GetSmarter. ‘Mentoring focuses on career growth and personal development, and coaching on development and organisational efficiency. Coaching is about two people sitting down together. It’s a conversation that takes place at the intersection of a person’s business and personal life, with the intention of having a positive impact.’

And this is an ideal opportunity to let your guard down – which is especially crucial for senior executives and business owners as they move up in their organisation, says Williams. ‘Who do you talk to when you’re at the top? Many company CEOs or owner-managers are very lonely. Coaching gives them a space to open up and have an unbiased conversation.’

Here, as in all coaching, confidentiality is paramount. ‘You can only be comfortable to talk openly when you know that everything spoken about will be treated in complete confidence,’ he says. ‘If your company is sponsoring your coaching, then agree how you and your executive coach will report back to the company or your manager. It’s especially important to agree what is confidential (hint: everything other than what you would like your company to know).’

Creating trust

In order to feel safe and confident to talk freely, you should personally connect before committing to a coach, either by picking up the phone or during a so-called chemistry or meet-and-greet session, says Reid. While personal rapport is necessary, she believes that personality type and leadership style don’t necessarily have to be closely matched: ‘In fact, some senior leaders deliberately choose coaches who differ to them in some way because they want to move out of their comfort zone and be challenged.’ The coach is there to help navigate the paradoxes and messiness of business and leadership, to adapt to the complexities, ambiguity and uncertainness, says Reid.

But in the end it’s up the client to find their own solution.

Photography: gallo/gettyimages, istockphoto


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