Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Skilling up: Hiring a coach

When Ian Smith, the CFO of challenger bank CYBG, has taken on new roles in a a diverse career he has often turned to the services of executive coaches for support.

One time that using external support proved particularly valuable for Smith came after a turbulent period at the height of the financial crisis when he was deputy CFO of retail bank HBOS and then the same role at Lloyds Banking Group, the renamed group after Lloyds TSB acquired HBOS.

Afterwards Smith returned to accountancy firm Deloitte to help build an M&A transaction business focusing on financial services, and used a coach to help him adjust to the new role. “I found coaching quite useful, as a means of causing you to pause and reflect,” he says.

Considering some of the more hubristic behaviour witnessed in banking in the build-up to the financial crisis, he says: “It goes back to that thing of not thinking you’ve got all the answers,” he says.

“I’ve worked with coaches who have helped me think things through, and that’s not because they’ve had particular insight, but because they ask some challenging questions and cause you to reflect carefully in what you do. I’m a great believer in that,” he adds.

For Kelvin Stagg, the CFO of Page Group, having a coach on board was a valuable aid when taking on the first big plc head of finance role when he joined the recruitment firm. “I got an external coach to help with the whole thing,” he says.

“I think we both agreed after about six months, having met once a month, that we weren’t quite sure what we were getting out of it, but I think it was as much as anything a sounding board.

“He did a 360 degree analysis for me, at the beginning and came back with bits of feedback, which was quite helpful. We said: what are the things I probably need to do and don’t- and haven’t done for a while,” says Stagg.

Power of a coach

“A coach is ‘a qualified professional who works with individuals to help them gain self-awareness, clarify goals, achieve their development objectives, unlock their potential, and act as a sounding board,” says Susie Clements, co-managing partner, Global Financial Officers Practice at global search firm Heidrick & Struggles. “Coaches usually refrain from giving advice or solving their client’s problems. Instead, they ask questions to help an executive clarify and solve their own problems,” says Clements.

Clements says she has worked with a coach for the best part of 18 years, whom she is close to, and trust implicitly and who knows her incredibly well. “So much so that I can never get anything past him.  If I am trying to sell myself on a taking a course of action, or on accepting a specific promotion that I don’t in my heart of hearts really want, but am contemplating because I feel in some way beholden, he is the first person to call me out.

“He knows what challenges me and what I get bored with, he knows where my strengths and weaknesses can be brought to bear for the best and, given the depth of our relationship, we are able to have distinctly honest, open and robust conversations that truly get to the heart of the matter.

“I have never been terribly good with the ‘academic’ version of a coach who simply plays back to you your own concerns and asks you to answer your own questions. What I need is someone with great business experience, a clear opinion that I can agree with or argue against, (which in turn answers for me how I truly feel, and a big brain to lead me on a debate of any number of topics, whilst I explore where I fit in the business world around me. Robbie is exactly this; he is full of no-nonsense, ultra-pragmatic advice.

“When we talk about what business reading I am doing, the challenge is both fair and direct: “If you are not reading a good newspaper daily, and business books on a regular basis, how can you expect to have an interesting conversation over dinner when you finally get that meeting you wanted?” There’s no arguing with advice like that. And there’s no arguing with the value of a trusted relationship built over many years,” says Clements.