You wouldn’t expect to become a professional sportsperson without an expert coach to guide you. So why do we expect to navigate our work careers without coaching and support?
To get to the pinnacle of professional sports is incredibly difficult. You need the natural ability, the dedication to train hard day after day and the determination to keep going in the face of adversity. On top of this, a crucial factor is to have a great coach – ideally someone who has been there before, experienced the same pressures and knows how to succeed.
Think about the England football team, a young team – getting through to an unexpected World Cup Semi Final – even winning a penalty shoot out, drawing on the experience and vision of their coach, Gareth Southgate.
Similarly, the triumph of the England Netball team in the Commonwealth Games in April was the coming together of the talent and determination of the players with the invaluable experience and mental toughness of their coach, Tracey Neville, who had been an England great herself.
Nobody questions the fact that coaches are an essential part of sporting success, and yet for the vast majority of people, whose careers are not in the sporting arena, coaching is often never considered.
The first question: ‘do I need a coach?’
Most people never even ask themselves this question – so why not?
One of the reasons is that people don’t come across ‘professional’ coaches very often in a work environment. An effective boss, or a helpful older colleague might give you some good advice along the way, and for many people, this is what they consider ‘coaching’ to be. But a professional coach is different – they will typically have a wealth of experience from working with a wide variety of clients and will be adept at helping with both organisational and, most importantly, interpersonal skills.
Another reason is that it can feel like failure or weakness. By asking the question ‘do I need a coach’ you are facing up to the fact that you may not have all of the necessary skills or experience to do your job as well as you would like to do it. It takes self-awareness and a willingness to ask yourself some uncomfortable questions.
One factor that can prompt this question is when you take on a challenging new role or have a sudden increase in responsibility and expectations. In my case, being the CEO of a startup company and closing a Series-A funding round with three VC firms was the catalyst. I knew that it was time for me to raise my game and also to help the exec team collectively to step up to the next level. I was a bit hesitant to admit this to myself at the time. After all, isn’t a CEO meant to be confident and exude calm leadership? Would it undermine my credibility to take on a coach and effectively ‘admit’ that I needed help? These were some of the thoughts that I struggled with.
I am now firmly convinced that contrary to my initial fears, it is actually a good thing and a sign of maturity to ask yourself these hard questions and to be willing to seek support. I had a very positive response from my investors and senior colleagues once I started working with a coach, and it definitely helped me to do my job better.
The second question: ‘how do I find a good coach?’
Once you get to the major milestone of being open to the idea of taking on a coach, you then have to face some important practical considerations. The first, and most obvious of these being ‘how do I find a good coach?’
I was tempted to list a few websites listing directories of professional coaches here, but the truth is, this is not how I found a coach, and I have no idea how good such lists are. I can only imagine that they are helpful and that many good coaches can be found this way. However, a better way, I would suggest, is through word of mouth and recommendation from friends and colleagues. In our hyper-connected world, I am willing to bet that someone in your network has worked with and can recommend a good coach. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to expand your network by attending conferences, workshops and other industry events.
In my case, I was attending the ‘Business of Software’ conference in London, in May 2017, when I was introduced to Gareth Marlow, who is a professional coach at eqsystems.io in Cambridge. It turns out, in that hyper-connected way, that Gareth and I overlapped at Selwyn College for a year or two, when Gareth was on the technical staff and I was an undergrad, but I didn’t really know him. But he did come highly recommended by Mark Littlewood (Mr Hyper-Connected himself) and as we chatted over a beer I got the feeling that he could be a helpful guy to remember for the future.
The third question: ‘Can I afford a coach?’
By asking the question ‘do I need a coach’ you are facing up to the fact that you may not have all of the necessary skills or experience to do your job as well as you would like to do it. It takes self-awareness and a willingness to ask yourself some uncomfortable questions.
It had to be in the future, rather than immediately, because we were, at that stage, in ‘Startup Swan Mode’. Everyone knows the mythical beast that is the ‘Startup Unicorn’ – that statistically improbable company that defies all the odds to grow its valuation past the magic $1billion mark. The lesser-known ‘Startup Swan’ is an altogether more common animal – above the waterline it appears to be swimming along serenely towards its goal, whilst below the waterline, the legs are thrashing and the founders are desperately pulling every trick in the book to close the next funding round, whilst trying to make customers happy, retain and motivate staff, juggle creditors and generally turn water into wine.
It was a full six months later by the time the Series-A funding round had been closed and money was in the bank. Suddenly, it was time for a shift in gear. Now was time to start putting the money to work and delivering against the plan. It was November, approaching the end of the year, and at the December board meeting, I needed to present and get approval for the operating plan and budget for the following year.
As a company, we had always prided ourselves on being agile, nimble and unencumbered by excessive bureaucracy. Indeed, our latest venture that had attracted the Series A investment was a classic pivot away from our previous business into an exciting new area. One consequence of this, however, was that drawing up a robust, detailed operating plan and budget was a task that seemed a bit daunting. Especially with a tight deadline and a new board ready to give scrutiny.
It was at this time, that I remembered meeting Gareth Marlow back in May, and suddenly the idea of taking on a professional coach seemed to make a lot of sense. We had an important and well-defined goal, a tight deadline and a motivated team. And crucially, we had money in the bank. I spoke with Gareth and got a proposal from him that in retrospect was very reasonable, but at the time still made me question: ‘can I afford to do this?’ especially as we hadn’t put money for coaching in the budget. However, the more I thought about it, the more the question seemed to flip itself around… ‘can I afford not to do this?’ If a modest investment in some coaching allows me and my exec team to develop a really strong operating plan that is right for the business, then it is no-brainer. Of course I should do it!
So here we are nearly a year later. I am pleased to report that the coaching engagement was a genuine success. With Gareth’s help, we defined and followed a solid, creative process that yielded a very good operating plan and budget. I ended up extending our contract with him, from an initial 5-weeks to 5-months, with a tapering time commitment as I and the team grew in confidence. During that period, he helped me to tackle a variety of tasks with my team, often involving some complex interaction between strategic, operational and people-centric issues. It was particularly helpful to have someone giving me honest feedback on my own personal strengths, weaknesses and character-traits and to help me to make positive changes over a period of weeks and months. I look back fondly on a particular 1:1 review session after an exec team call when Gareth said to me: ‘so how do you think that went?’ I said: ‘Er, I think it was pretty sh*t actually’. He said: ‘Yes it was. Now, let’s analyse why it was so sh*t and make sure that the next one is much better’.
In my opinion, a key requirements for a coach is that they must be able to tell it how it is as well as being able to tell you what it can be and how to get there.
So, should you be getting some coaching?
I would suggest that you should, at the very least, seriously consider it. I doesn’t necessarily need to be a paid gig. You may not be in a position where professional, paid coaching is an option. Nevertheless, if you have a goal, if you know where you would like to get to, but are not sure how to get there, then coaching can be super helpful.
As Dr Pepper said: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
The lesser-known ‘Startup Swan’ is an altogether more common animal – above the waterline it appears to be swimming along serenely towards its goal, whilst below the waterline, the legs are thrashing and the founders are desperately pulling every trick in the book to close the next funding round, whilst trying to make customers happy, retain and motivate staff, juggle creditors and generally turn water into wine.