Expert View: In a backstabbing workplace, talk to the truth speaker

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The Independent Online

The erratic behaviour I have encountered in the financial world has ranged from the eccentric to the seriously manic: the fund manager who built a wall of research round his desk, the executive who could not look anyone in the eye, the lawyer who coughed before every sentence. Successful people are never "normal" and often stressed.

The erratic behaviour I have encountered in the financial world has ranged from the eccentric to the seriously manic: the fund manager who built a wall of research round his desk, the executive who could not look anyone in the eye, the lawyer who coughed before every sentence. Successful people are never "normal" and often stressed.

Americanisation has increased workplace pressure and fostered a backstabbing culture. But at last, change could be happening. Enlarged human resource departments are moving personal development centre stage. The latest sign of this is the growing use of executive coaches by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Fidelity, Deutsche Bank ... and me.

Executive coaches lie somewhere between traditional (skills-based) trainers, psychoanalysts and ourbest friend. They perform the role Harvard professor Thomas DeLong called the "truth speaker". They use sophisticated tools such as neuro-linguistics - listening to the way we think and the language we employ - to encourage insight and development.

Various claims are made as to the benefits to business of this kind of coaching. The perhaps not entirely independent Coaches Training Institute has published a study claiming an average 5.7 times return for companies on their initial investment through improved productivity, etc. One case study at Marriott hotels found a 24 per cent improvement in staff retention.

I find numbers such as these frankly spurious, while that "initial investment" is considerable. An executive coaching session can cost anything from £70-£300 an hour to £2,000 for a full day, or £20,000 a year for unlimited telephone access. And in this still unregulated industry, the pitfalls and problems are legion.

While the psychometrics essential to coaching are fascinating, they rely heavily on the skill of the assessor rather than providing an empirical tool. In the hands of an unscrupulous company they are also prone to manipulation. The "one size fits all" is a pitfall to be aware of in the output of testing and in the coaching itself - there is no single way to be a good manager, or indeed to live one's life. We do not live and work in a perfect world, which is why so many self-help books come across as nauseatingly Polyanna-ish.

Also, there must be a very real danger, for companies that embark on a coaching programme, that their employees will go through an interesting voyage of self-discovery that may at best distract them from their daily work and at worst lead them to up-sticks. A career change is a very frequent outcome of coaching, and may not be what the employer intended.

With such thoughts in mind, I embarked on my own coaching sessions from a position of scepticism, particularly given an already high degree of introspection and a willingness to discuss anything and everything with friends and colleagues.

I am a total convert.

The friend who chats to you over a bottle of wine is not trained to ask the right questions or to challenge.

And believe me, a coach challenges: 360-degree appraisals - where your boss, colleagues, clients and staff say what they really think about you - are often part of this process. While in a corporate assessment context these are so often misused as individuals trade "I'll say good things if you will'', in my experience when used anonymously and in isolation for coaching, they provide valuable insights. If six out of 12 people unprompted use the same word to describe you, you're on to something.

Why not expand your tool kit? It's time to go and see the truth speaker.

Christopher.walker@tiscali.com

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