Coaching through recession: When the going gets tough

With the West facing the first recession since the early 1990s, coaching spend will come under scrutiny. Can it still prosper or will it be seen as a disposable luxury item?

One of the many depressing clichés about business survival in any economic downturn is that ‘training is the first to go’.

The jury is still out as to whether this will apply to coaching – the new-ish kid on the block – but there is an argument that demand for coaching may increase rather than decline.

“It would be bad news for the nation and managers if coaching were to be cut back,” says professor Stephen Palmer, director of the centre for coaching.

This sounds melodramatic, and even self-interested, but as Palmer points out, coaching has become part of the develop­ment landscape and fits in comfortably with most levels of an organisation.


Coaching has also given companies the permission to have a long, hard look at themselves. When an organisation is under pressure because of a slow economy, it should be reflecting on its direction. Coaching could be the ideal route-planner if it is implemented properly, with a three-way contract and a suitable coach.

“The key is to employ experienced coaches even more now,” says Palmer.

He suggests that such a coach would be business-focused enough to check the organisation is performing against key criteria, and confident enough to ask in- depth questions.

He also recommends that long-standing coaching goals be reviewed in the light of current economic conditions in case either the sponsor (the employer) or the coachee( the employee) are facing challenges that are not covered by the contract. “It may be worth looking at these goals and asking if they need to be revised,” Palmer says.

At Pinna, managing director and head of coaching Helen Bailey says coaches need to be prepared to ask the tough questions. “Some clients want to be coached in the specific actions they have to be thinking about, or reach an understanding about what’s not working.”

Despite the fast-moving economic picture, where every day seems to bring yet another gloomy announcement from the Bank of England, the rules for effective coaching haven’t changed, says CIPD learning, training and development adviser John McGurk.

“It’s the same as any other kind of coaching,” he says. “It depends on the business need. Coaching should be tailored to requirements.”

As McGurk points out, coaching is always about the context. So if a building business is facing a fall in demand, then the coaching should be about what is going to happen and about helping people to make drastic decisions.


The opposite occurs if it is being deployed in a healthy business sector, where it will be used to encourage entrepreneurial thinking to stay ahead or find fresh markets. However, in both contexts coaching could be used to help guide people to new skillsets or to reposition themselves.

“Coaching is the key technique for the times we live in when different skillsets are required and we might be looking for new directions,” he says.

“If coaching can be seen as the enabler of change, it will survive.”

McGurk expects internal line manager-type coaching, which is aligned to the business, to continue because it is easy to deliver and low cost.

Some uncertainty will always undermine any predictions of whether coaching has a role to play in a weak economy because of the relative newness of the subject. The practice was not in widespread use during the last major downturn (in the early 1990s) and it was a totally alien concept in the 1980s, during what economists refer to as ‘the Thatcher recession’, so the efficacy of coaching people through downturn remains unproven.

Current management styles, which tend to accommodate concepts of empathy, empowerment and employability, were not around in the 1980s, for example. And even the early 1990s were short on ideas for getting the best from people, as the 1992 chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont demonstrated. It was far better to leave people and their untapped potential out of the equation.

“If higher employment is the price we have to pay in order to bring inflation down, then it is a price worth paying,” Lamont said at the time.


Neither politicians nor employers think like that nowadays, or at least not aloud. Coaching has grown in a climate that nurtures talent, not sends it on its way to fend for itself. “Management now isn’t about being transactional,” says McGurk. “It is a more transformational approach.”

He emphasises that management style in the 80s was less holistic and so employers were more likely to cut people from jobs, rather than upskilling them or reviewing their skillsets.

But if coaching wasn’t around in the 80s or early 90s, neither were many of today’s line managers – or at least they were not in positions of authority.

Hence the need for helping those who have had at least 10 years of managing in better trading conditions and are shocked and afraid of working through a slowdown.

Such novices at surviving downturns are likely to need coaching help with their performance, says Caroline Horner, director of i-coach academy.

“People who are uncomfortable with uncertainty may find the current situation difficult, particularly in highly structured organisations,” Horner says. She sees a two-pronged benefit to deploying coaching.

“Coaching can be performance-focused when employers want maximum performance from minimum cost,” she says. “And it is particularly strong in supporting people to develop skills that are effective in managing the environment.”

Other providers believe now is the time to get those at the top of an organisation and encourage them to foster a positive environment. For Performance Consultants International, for example, the current economic gloom is a good time for organisations to sort out ‘their DNA’.


Chief executive David Brown says the consultancy is busy with cultural assessments of companies who are preparing coach training programmes for their senior people “to help them think outside the box and innovate their way through the poor economy.”

He argues that the current climate is the time when people who are successful get ahead because they can grasp opportunities and learn quicker.

Senior people who become executive coaches to better lead their staff should be far-sighted enough to eradicate the “fear-based” loyalty that can hold back organisations dealing with fast-moving markets, according to Brown.

He is so confident of the effectiveness of Performance Consultants’ approach that he will launch a three-level executive coach training programme in late September. The aim? To develop certificated – in line with International Coaching Federation requirements – master coaches who will have improved their skills in leadership and engagement.

“The coaching on this course is around developing essential skills for the leader of tomorrow so that they encourage creativity and innovation,” says executive director Tiffany Gaskell. “This will allow people to bring all of themselves to work. This is the future.”

Get motivated

US guru Mary Beth O’Neill is regarded as an expert in motivating companies through tough times. As a well-known coach on both sides of the Atlantic, she has given some thought as to what the downturn could do to the coaching profession.

“The current downturn reminds me a lot of the economic downturn that happened in the early 1980s. Before that companies expanded their training departments. When the downturn came, companies gutted those same departments because they saw them as extraneous to the bottom line. Since then, trainers and training departments have been much more astute about becoming strategic business partners.”

O’Neill predicts the same will happen to the coaching industry in this downturn, particularly in executive coaching.

She says that buyers who did not specify that coaching was aimed at increasing productivity or results will now either jettison coaching or ensure it is more business relevant.

“During these times, leaders have to do everything they had to do before but with more at stake, and they will have to mobilise people who have their own stresses and distractions to deal with,” O’Neill says.

“The coaching industry could come out of this even stronger if we show that we can be a resource to executives to address the very issues they deal with to be effective in these times.”

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