Can pounds 150 make you feel a million dollars?

Trouble with a boss or a partner? Telephone coaching could be the answer to all your personal problems. By Jack O'Sullivan
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The Independent Culture
I'VE ALWAYS fancied having my own guardian angel. Like the set- up in Randall and Hopkirk, where the star chats away to a figure who is invisible to everyone else and gets him out of scrapes. Particularly handy in the workplace for those occasions when it feels like a nest of vipers. Now, at last, I've found a Nineties version.

I'm sitting with Virginia Hornby in her small west London flat. The decor is Eastern and minimalist; lot of rugs, pots and candles. There is no television. In her bedroom, a double bed looks on to a calming mural of Hong Kong harbour, circa 1900. It all seems far from the busy trading- rooms of the City. Yet every few minutes the phone rings. It is one of Ginny's clients, ringing from the thick of the action, arranging to chat with her about how to sort out a working life.

Most of them have never seen her face. Just as in the days when confessionals were the source of intimate advice and support, these six-figure-salaried professionals know only her voice. Ginny is their telephone coach. She is the person they reach for in some quiet corner of the office when everyone else is out of earshot.

In case they are curious, that person at the end of the line is 31 and blonde, and tends to bounce on the balls of her toes in a jolly, English public-school way. She would make a great a netball team captain. She also radiates energy, which she fires down the line to her clients to help them to transform their lives.

And it is for that energy, plus insight and expertise, that clients pay pounds 150-pounds 250 a month. Paul, for example, a 32-year-old investment banker, whose confident drawl suggests someone not short of cash. He spent three months talking to Ginny. "It's exceptionally selfish," he says. "focusing totally on your own personal issues. Some people say you should talk to your mates or your wife. But to have the full attention of an individual who is very accessible is really useful. She raises the difficult questions which you did not want to ask.

"When I first called Ginny, I was unhappy with my salary. The organisation of my work and social life needed attention. I was working probably six- and-half days a week, 14 hours a day. For the time I spent, I didn't feel I was getting the productivity. Since I took coaching, I've managed to cut down work by a day a week, double my salary and give up smoking."

Christine, 33, from central Scotland, is another highly paid workaholic, who manages millions of pounds in sales from her manufacturing company to a large department store. "I've got a really good job. I have no complaint about that. But I needed help managing my boss. He was the classic type who comes in and walks all over you. You do all the hard graft and he takes the credit. There were also personal issues about fitting in time for me.

"Being coached has given me a tremendous calmness. It has taken the frantic pace out of life. I'm still doing everything I used to do, but it feels ordered rather than there being bombs going off in all directions.

"We spent four weeks preparing for a meeting which I called with my boss. I wanted to get the tone right, to keep my head and take the emotion out of it. Ginny helped me realise that sometimes it's better to be direct about what I want rather than trying to be nice about it. We talked right up to the morning of the meeting.

"I went in, and it was fantastic. I controlled the agenda. I got everything I wanted, including a company car. My boss really changed as a result. Now, at board meetings, instead of taking the credit he asks me to speak, so I have a much higher profile in the company."

Christine also dealt with niggling issues in her personal life. "I had three address books and it was so annoying not knowing where a particular number was. It took me three evenings to sort them out. It sounds straightforward, but I felt so much better." Then there was her boyfriend. "I used to make so much effort, but he never said that I looked fantastic. Ginny suggested that I should tell him. It made all the difference. It had never occurred to him to say it."

So what exactly is coaching? It is not therapy, emphasises Ginny. Navel- gazers need not apply. Where therapy is about healing, understanding and progress, coaching, she says, is about achievement, action and performance.

"I am not coaching people who are dependent. These people are successful and want to do better." The rules are also quite different from therapy. Clients typically have a 45-minute session three times a month. But they are also free to call her whenever else they like, whereas therapists are strict on time. "In one case," she says, "I spent about 10 minutes a day on the phone every day with a client trying to get over a particularly difficult hurdle at work." Nor is she afraid to tell clients about her own life, another act forbidden in therapy.

Ginny puts herself forward as an example of coaching success. A year ago she was a stockbroker with UBS, after several years of working in Hong Kong. Before that she ran a property search business, which she started at age 20. She had skipped university, having been expelled at 17 from a minor public school in Hampshire.

"I was 30 and had a job some people would have given their right arm for. A six-figure package; lots of respect. I could go where I wanted, speak to whomever I wanted. Yet I could not get out of bed in the morning. I'd been one of Thatcher's children. I'd thought life was all about getting a flash car, the house in Tuscany, weekends away, eating in any London restaurant you fancied. If shoes did not cost at least pounds 200 they were not worth buying. But in the end I felt that wasn't the life for me."

She ditched the job, took a pay-off and consulted an American coach (there are 15,000 there, compared with 150 here). "The first thing I discovered was that I am not financially motivated, which is a handicap if you are stockbroking. But was a great relief, because it made sense of my decision."

By June, she had decided that she would become a coach herself. She is currently training by telephone at the US-based Coach University. "It's a virtual university. It's like a class, with perhaps a dozen people in the telephone conversation. Instead of putting up your hand you say your name and then make your point." She already has clients in London, Scotland, New York and Hong Kong. Isn't it a bit soon to be practising on others, I ask, as she sits under her cubby-hole, beneath the stairs, from where she chats on her headset?

"In England," she retorts with exasperation, "people get hung up over qualifications. They wonder how you can set up without doing a degree for three years and 10 years' work in psychiatry. But this is a business for the Nineties. I'm dealing with successful, intelligent people. They would not spend time on the telephone to me if they thought it was a waste of time. Qualifications in terms of tangible, certificate stuff, are irrelevant."

Ginny's in the caring world now. But she has brought with her the tough attitudes of commerce. "This is a no-bullshit industry," she says. "It's simple. If coaching isn't working, people will not use me."

Virginia Hornby: 0171-289 2516. Coach University: www.coachu.com

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