Those expecting a big career change can now prepare themselves by taking a confidential course of `executive coaching'. Roger Trapp investigat es
Imagine the situation. You have come to a stage in your working life where you are facing a transition. It may be that you are moving from a position of managing through expertise, where you know more than most of the people you are in charge of, to managing as a generalist, where most of your staff know more than you do about their own specialisms. Or it may be you find yourself at the top of the organisation and feel isolated. Or it could be that your organisation is facing changes as a result of a merger or acquisition. Or it could be all kinds of situations in between.

Whatever the circumstances, says Ashridge Management College, the experience is always unique. However, it claims that there are predictable patterns linked to the transitions people go through in life and that identifying and managing such patterns can "enormously aid your navigation through the significant `hinge point'".

The college's solution to the problem is to offer confidential executive coaching. The college - set in wooded parkland outside Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire - is not the only organisation offering such assistance, but it does maintain that its ability to draw upon a select group within what it calls "the Ashridge community" helps it to provide a very high standard of help.

It breaks the process into four stages. In the first, Stage A, there is a brief telephone interview in which the executive provides information that helps him or her and the college decide whether executive coaching is appropriate and if so which particular coach is best suited to the task.

Stage B involves an exploratory meeting lasting about two hours with one of the executive coaches. It covers the situation in which the executive is involved, his or her background and the suitability of coaching.

If the executive decides to go ahead on the basis of this meeting, he or she will be required to go through a written exercise that goes back over their life and career.

If that were not enough, they then have to submit themselves to about 10 hours of coaching meetings, which, says Ashridge, may be taken in two- hour chunks, half-day meetings or even a day and half of continuous activity. In an effort to gather as much information about the executive as possible, it is recommended that they submit to 360-degree feedback - under which peers and subordinates and possibly customers and suppliers as well as superiors - give opinions on his or her effectiveness and psychometric tests.

The idea is that the executive and the coach work together on the issues they decide are key to the current situation and future growth, with the aim of developing action plans and practising specific and relevant skills. To help with this the coach might shadow the executive for a day, though it is stressed that nothing can be done without the executive's "full and express agreement".

For many this is the end of the process. However, some clients elect to maintain some form of link with the college under what is termed Stage D. This typically involves occasional meetings between the executive and coach to review progress on some of the issues identified in the earlier stages.

The process is not especially cheap - typically coming to about pounds 4,000, plus VAT. But Kate Charlton, development director at Ashridge, maintains that it is proving popular with individuals who feel they are facing a variety of problems and feel that they have a shortage of people with whom they can discuss them in confidencen