Business Performance and Executive Coaching – Does it work?

We talk to four senior executives about their executive coaching experiences and ask whether the guidance provided was useful.

Coaching for Senior Executives

Sarah Lafferty, co-founder and director of Round Earth Consulting, was formerly managing director of a US company’s European subsidiary that went through a restructuring two years ago. She acknowledges that being responsible for making redundancies put her under strain.

‘When you’re running the show, it’s hard to know exactly how you’re perceived by others. So I was interested in finding out how I was performing as a leader,’ she says.

Lafferty hired an executive coach for a series of two-hour monthly sessions that ran for nearly 18 months. The decision had major consequences.

‘I started to evaluate where I was heading with my career,’ she explains. That led to a life-changing decision: in October 2010, she founded Round Earth Consulting with a business partner.

Change of heart

Chris Stanley, MD at pension services company Go Pensions, first had coaching seven years ago and returns to his coach regularly. He started out expecting each hour-long session to yield at least ten points for action. That didn’t happen, but through the coaching he realised that his relentless focus on the business’s end goal was preventing him giving due attention to interpersonal relationships.

‘What I took from coaching was that if I engaged with people a little more, took my time and didn’t rush to where the business was meant to be going, it would be more enjoyable for me and more enjoyable for my employees,’ he explains.

Stanley now offers staff at Go Pensions the funding to receive coaching. He regards it as all the more important as the company’s policy of encouraging remote working means that team members often miss out on face-to-face communication.

‘In our quarterly reviews, if an employee identifies behavioural or personal issues that they want some guidance on but that we can’t provide internally, they might want to go to a coach,’ he suggests.

Executive needs
Dr Jeremy Ridge, chairman of the Association for Professional Executive Coaching and Supervision, says that one-to-one coaching has seen an explosion in popularity because it enables bosses to bare their souls in an environment of confidentiality.

He adds, ‘What executives like about coaching is that it provides, at its most effective, attention to their unique circumstances. Especially at higher levels in organisations, life is more complex than the theory textbooks often present.’

Business Performance Coaches

Steve Driver is MD of Spirit Circuits, a Hampshire-based manufacturer of printed circuit boards. Three years ago the company was in trouble. ‘There was no real harmony among the board of directors. They were going in different ways because there was no overall direction,’ he admits.

The situation was especially bleak as Driver had spearheaded a management buy-out of a division of his former company that he had, in turn, put into liquidation. Seven months later, ‘the new company had the old behaviour’ and was ‘haemorrhaging cash’.

It was Driver’s accountant who suggested he contact a business coaching organisation. He attended a presentation by Shirlaws and liked what he heard. He says: ‘When I put it to the board that I wanted to use a coach, it was deemed an unnecessary expense at a time when we were losing money. But I absolutely believed it was the way forward for the company. I am the MD and the major shareholder, so when I told the board what I wanted the answer had to be “yes”.

‘Two people objected, so they were removed before the company could go forward or else it would have been a dead programme.’

Mike Wheatley, CEO at Envisional, a Cambridge-based internet security specialist, also experienced a lukewarm response when announcing he wanted to introduce a performance consultant. ‘People are very cynical. They like to joke that bringing in a mentor is pink and fluffy,’ he says, noting that the mentor he used soon illuminated faults in the team. ‘We have got rid of people. That is not the object of this, it is a side effect.’

Leadership styles

Kate Tojeiro established and runs the business coaching outfit Xfusion. Working with organisations of all sizes, she focuses on areas such as leadership styles and building effective communication techniques.

In practice, she says, this may mean going into an office one day a month to facilitate group and individual coaching sessions – perhaps using a business tool like psychometric testing or organising day trips – to understand whether the leaders in an organisation are geared towards the same goals.

For an MD or chief executive, the objectivity provided by a good consultant can be invaluable. Spirit Circuits’ Driver says that after bringing in a mentor, the board were forced to ask questions like:

  • Who’s leading this company?
  • Who’s giving direction?
  • Who’s looking after finance?
  • Who’s generating sales?

Eventually, the company shifted its business model from concentrating purely on production to providing a good service.

According to Driver, there has been a 25 per cent growth in turnover and a 35 per cent uplift in profit. ‘We’ve gone from being a loss-making business to a very profitable one in the space of 18 months to two years,’ he says.

As for the length of time you use a mentor, Driver notes that after about a year of coaching he recently put a stop to it. ‘We were using it too much as a sounding board as opposed to a coach. It was turning into a management meeting and we weren’t yielding anything from it.’

That, however, isn’t the end of the sessions. ‘It’s more of a sabbatical,’ says Driver. ‘We’ll revisit it in six months and take it to another level.’

Todd Cardy

Todd Cardy

Todd was Editor of between 2010 and 2011 as well as being responsible for publishing our digital and printed magazines focusing on private equity and venture capital.