More than wealthApril 22 2020

Software ‘With Skin On’ – The art of coaching By Phil Wall

4 mins read

Phil Wall

Principal Consultant at Signify

Phil Wall is a Performance Coach working with Senior Executives, Hedge Fund Managers and leaders across elite business and the sports sector (phil@significantleadership.co.uk ). With his wife, he is co-founder of the orphan Charity www.weseehope.org.uk that mentors, tens of thousands of vulnerable young people in Africa every year to help them build sustainable futures. Phil speaks to Sandaire about the importance of good coaching and why human interaction is so important.

Many of us are familiar with the role of a mentor – an older and more experienced person passes on wisdom to a more junior one – think Merlin to King Arthur, Alex Ferguson to David Beckham, Maya Angelou to Oprah Winfrey, or perhaps Obe-Wan to Skywalker. A more recent iteration of mentorship reveals itself in the growth of a thriving coaching industry.

The modern coaching phenomenon has its foundations in elite sports coaching. Tim Gallwey’s 1975 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, sought to resource athletes to ‘improve your game and discover your true potential by increasing your concentration, willpower and confidence.’ Drawing on a number of disciplines from the psycho- therapeutic world, this book established something of a fresh genre, which was very quickly adopted into management journals and business schools around the world. The transition from sport to business seemed complete when, in 2001, Jim Loerh and Tony Schwartz penned their Harvard Business Review article, ‘The Making of a Corporate Athlete’, using their experience of working with elite athletes to offer advice to corporates on how best to deliver ‘sustained high performance’.

Since these early developments, the term ‘coaching’ has grown and sub-divided. ‘Life Coaching’ focuses on personal growth and development and is normally paid for by a private individual. ‘Skills Coaching’ tends to be industry- or sector-specific and is often part of internal corporate development programmes. Finally, there is ‘Performance Coaching’, sometimes called ‘Executive Coaching’, which seeks to support and develop people normally in senior positions who want to enhance their contribution and optimise their performance. The ubiquity of coaching is such that there is hardly a serious corporation that doesn’t engage trained professional coaches.

Coaching is often deployed by businesses to address specific organisational needs. For many senior leaders, as they rise in the organisational ranks, their peer group of trusted colleagues falls away, and a coach can fill the gap. A coach will primarily focus on the future: future capabilities, future skills, future mind-sets, future behaviour, future influence, impact and performance. The coach will tend to be change-focused, supporting the client as he or she navigates through times of personal or professional change and/or leads others in a transformative process. This orientation towards future/change is, understandably, attractive to elite athletes (where it all began), to entertainers and increasingly to high net worth individuals, all of whom are using performance coaches in greater numbers.

Writing in Wealth of Wisdom Kelin Gersick said, “Family business owners, and stewards of collective wealth, need intergenerational relationships to be successful not only in family terms, but also as partnerships.” In the same book of collected wisdom, Charles Collier stated, “The best thing you can do for your family is to invest in their human, intellectual and social capital”, a key part of which is understanding and living according to espoused values. Where the pace of constant change and excessive expectation can be paralysing, an independent and trusted companion can be highly valuable.

For these reasons and more, wealthy families are also starting to engage coaches, not only for personal growth, but also to prepare their children to manage inherited wealth and privilege, with wisdom and impact. These are the families at the front end of preparedness as they seek to equip the rising generation with the intellectual, psychological and emotional tools required. Like most families, young people of this rising generation view with scepticism parental counsel and advice, so the coach, often parents themselves, sit in this sweet spot, giving voice to parental perspective and concern but from a more credible and authoritative place.

Even in this age of human redundancy and digital dominance a coach of flesh and blood is still optimal. In a coaching session, where trust, rapport and human chemistry provide a stable platform for development, a living being is critical. At its best, a coaching relationship is a place of safety in which to consider challenges and explore responses without fear of consequence. It is also a place of risk where clients can dare to step out of fixed patterns of behaviour, exploring new ground, encouraged and supported by a guide. Neuroscience continues to uncover new truths, such as the relatively recent revelations around the malleability of the brain. If our neural pathways can actually change physiologically, our mind-sets and thus our behaviour can change too.

This is revolutionary, and the best resource to support such change is an accountable, supportive, trusting and ongoing relationship.

Thus, the coach can be a listener, a truth-teller and an explorer, interrogating truth and reality in deep conversation. They can also be an objective sounding board and an independent voice asking incisive questions that others could never ask. Seniority can shield people from important conversations, yet the coach can speak truth to power, challenging assumptions and provide candid feedback. As one senior client recently noted, ‘The opportunity to be told the unfiltered truth is bloody painful but priceless for a bloke like me.’

A coach is both a challenging provocateur and an encourager-in-chief, or indeed a simple advisor offering a view – and none of this would be possible or effective without the warmth of human empathy.

So, until an algorithm can look another human being in the eye with conviction and compassion, this human touch will be essential. So many of the insights gleaned in coaching sessions are discovered in a location no search engine can ever go – the place of human connection. And thus, the coaching of choice, in our increasingly virtual, Artificial Intelligence, digitised world, will continue to be delivered by the kind of software which has skin on.