Learning from the coach

the literary flaws, a new novel about coaching is an original way of looking at
executive development, writes Stephen Overell

Some weeks ago (Research viewpoint, 4 June), I speculated that the workplace
might one day inspire a new genre of fiction called the management novel. Dread
of dreads, it seems I was behind the times.

Published this month is The Coach by Lee Bryce, a coach herself at The
Change Partnership1. The book’s hero is Simon Bruce, son of a Scottish tenant
farmer who has progressed to chief executive of Andecis, a multinational
pharmaceutical company.

Simon is married to the nagging Emily and has two children, but is having an
affair with Grace, an oriental virago who is hell-bent on breaking up his
family. Meanwhile, there are work problems of tumbling shares, drug
regulations, a critical press and a shouting boss called Piers.

Enter Angela Jones, a coach who delivers a talk at the Institute of
Directors called ‘The Terrible Twins of Leadership: Fear and Control’, so
beginning Simon’s inevitable resurrection. As well as dealing in the usual
coach-type mush of ‘we write our own script’, Angela is not averse to making
remarks about more philosophical matters. "When you change your focus away
from ‘how can I protect myself’ to ‘how can I contribute to those around me’,
you gain authentic power," she tells him.

Thin stuff for a novel, you might think. But throw in Red Roger, a
soap-dodging animal rights activist who kidnaps Simon, love interest in the
form of Carolyn, the green-eyed marketing director, and a clutch of lame sex
scenes (‘you certainly know how to play a tune on my piano’) and it rattles
along gamely enough. Shame about the dialogue, though: "Because you’ve
created such a climate of empowerment we all feel that we can challenge you,
even when you revert to command and control," coos Carolyn to Simon,
during pillow talk.

As redemptive fiction, the principal flaw is that Simon starts as a smug,
narrow twit and finishes as a smug, narrow twit: so much for coaching. Yet the
literary worth of The Coach is not our primary concern. What is it like as an,
ahem, learning tool?

Here, Lee Bryce deserves some credit. She has attempted to convey the
peculiar alchemy of coaching in a brave and original format. True, in trying to
illuminate the mystery, there are some unforgivable lapses into managerial
humbug: "See a world of incompetence, deviousness and danger and it comes
to be confirmed," trills the simpering Angela; such a pity Red Roger, the
only character with principles and backbone, did not kidnap the coach.

Yet the format of the novel does provide a glimpse of the coaching
phenomenon – the use of open questions, the refusal to directly advise in
reaching decisions and the way energy is intuitively communicated. For insight
into the breathtaking fees, however, we shall have to wait.

The novel is interesting, too, for what it says about contemporary debates
about coaching. Simon’s coaching is part of a wider change programme that
affects senior managers and functional heads at Andecis. He is not the only
person being coached and the object of the exercise seems to be about
instilling a coaching culture at the company, without cascading it too far down
the hierarchy. The message is this: coaching should not be a one-person initiative;
it needs to be externally, independently facilitated; yet there is little point
going much beyond director-level executives.

This gels with some of the research. A survey by the Hay Group involving 170
HR professionals found that 70 per cent believe coaching is more effective than
training as a means of changing the behaviour and improving the performance of
senior executives and high flyers (my own italics)2. In other words, coaching
is exclusive.

The book is faithful to the research, too, in the way that coaching is
associated with gloom. Simon’s personal and professional woes are the spur for
becoming Angela’s client. In the real world, coaching is seldom linked with a
positive climate – rarely used to help organisations build for growth, for instance3.

In the novel, the success of coaching is demonstrated by the way that the
coached executive radiates like a moral philosopher, while corporate problems
are smoothly vanquished. Life is not so compliant. A study by the then
Industrial Society from March this year found that while a striking 80 per cent
of employers claim to use coaching, only a third ever bother to evaluate its
effectiveness4. This feeds a distorted appreciation of its impact. Those who
are being coached give an ‘overly rosy picture’ of its success, while others
are rather less appreciative, according to the Institute of Employment

Yet, arguably, something so wholly personal as the coaching experience does
not lend itself easily to rigorous, statistical analysis. Many organisations
seem happy enough leaving measurement in the realm of anecdote. In a case study
that could well have furnished the inspiration for the novel, Autoglass, the
car window specialist, put 17 senior managers through an 18-month programme and
are now reporting its success in terms of better financial procedures, faster
turnover of repairs and replacements and improved customer perceptions6.

HR director Carol Madeley said at the end of the programme: "It gives a
manager energy and motivation for the job in hand and cultivates a willingness
to develop personal skills and get the most from a team."

Now that management is mostly a matter of persuasion and inspiration, rather
than instruction, it is hardly surprising that coaching has become such a
dominant motif in business life. The figure of the coach brings together
personal development with corporate goals – the ultimate embodiment of how work
and life are truly, unavoidably intertwined.

Yet as a few observers have noted, it is unfortunate that coaching is
leading to a perception of managers ‘becoming nicer’ – a perception that forms
the basic storyline of The Coach. In the long term, it won’t serve anyone very
well. "If strong coaching isn’t balanced by strong management, you’re
losing the game," argues Myles Downey, from the School of Coaching.
"You have to be able to hold people to account."7


1 The Coach by Lee Bryce, Piatkus Publishing, 2002

2 For more on this study, see Personnel Today, 4 June

3 See Is Coaching Being Abused by Margaret Kubicek, Training Magazine, May

4 School of Coaching, www.theworkfoundation.co.uk

5 See Kubicek, above

6 Training Magazine, January 2002

7 See Kubicek, above

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