Careers Guide: On board with the coach

Some charity leaders balk at the cost of executive coaching, but more of them are trying it in order to compete and do their jobs better. Emily Ford reports

There are some bread-and-butter aspects of corporate practice that remain almost taboo for charities. Private-sector executives are permitted to spend money on personal development, but such expenditure can seem like a luxury for their peers in the charity sector, with strict obligations to spend funds effectively.

Executive coaching is one example. To the unfamiliar, it can sound woolly and a little too close for comfort to the more baffling concept of ‘life coaching’. Add to this that a typical rate for a business coach is several hundred pounds a session, and it’s unsurprising that the reaction from some is less than enthusiastic. "I wouldn’t dream of spending charity funds on executive coaching," says one chief executive.

But others are starting to feel that it might be worth the money. "There’s a lot of evidence that coaching is being used more widely among charities as a means of improving performance," says John McGurk, a coaching adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Coaching is basically a cross between therapy and business guidance. "It’s highly individualised learning," says Chris Nichols, a coach and director at Ashridge Business School, whose clients include the Alzheimer’s Society. Nichols holds a masters degree in organisational psychology and was formerly a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It is the same investment as going on a leadership development programme," he says.

Rising to the challenge

Executive coaching is relevant to charities because, he says, they face many of the same challenges as other sectors, such as "brutal" competition and the war for talent. "Coaches help you to think through things in a robust and rigorous way," he says. "It’s a thinking partner. Chief executives don’t have time to go on long training courses, but a session every six weeks is manageable.

One of the draws is flexibility – the motive could be learning and development or a big presentation. Although coaches can help to develop strategy, McGurk warns that it’s not an "emergency fix".

Ed Tytherleigh, chief executive of homelessness charity Spear, uses a coach once a month. He has been in the sector for 10 years but, at 31, is young for a chief executive and says he lacked confidence in decision-making.

"At first it was strange how much we were there to talk about emotional support and how much about professional issues," he says. "But it gives me a space where I can talk about anything without judgment." Whereas mentors advise, coaches question. "She doesn’t really suggest new ideas," he says. "But she will bring in analogies from her own experience."

Tytherleigh says that having a coach who had previously been a charity chief executive was invaluable. "She understood the issues involving trustee boards, governance and management," he says. Nichols, by contrast, has no direct experience of the third sector, but most of his clients are charities.

It pays to choose a coach carefully. "I would look for someone with a track record and experience of working with third sector organisations," says McGurk, who recommends speaking to previous clients first. Accreditation such as EMCC (Eur­opean Mentoring and Coaching Council) or ICF (International Coach Federation) is a useful indicator. A good coach will also offer a free initial session. "Sometimes I say I don’t think I’m the right coach for you, then I find someone who is," Nichols says.

Another danger is that using an executive coach can become a crutch. To avoid this, Nichols runs six sessions at a time. If there is still a clear objective to meet, he then contracts for a further six months.

‘Broadly speaking, it’s a good thing’

So is it worth the money? Ralph Michell, policy advocate at chief executives body Acevo, says it’s important to bear in mind all of the options. "Broadly speaking, it’s a good thing," he says. "It depends on individual circumstances – what you want to improve on and what resources you have."

Acevo offers coaching from former third sector chief executives at a cost of £195 for 90 minutes. "Be really clear what you’re after," Michell says. "If you haven’t got the money, then mentoring can be a free way to get the same kind of thing."

It is difficult to measure return on investment, so charities should try to measure ‘return on expectation’. Once
the process is finished, the knowledge can be retained. "Even blue-chip firms train managers in-house," McGurk says.


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