Posted by Rebecca Ashmore on Friday, February 02, 2018

In Conversation with Gary Storer


Head of our Board Practice, Mike Gostick, and our new Executive Coaching lead, Gary Storer, talk about the issues facing the modern financial industry's risk and compliance leaders, and the benefits that bespoke, specialist executive coaching can provide in managing these.

MG:  Gary, why do you feel executive coaching for governance leaders is in the spotlight at the moment?

GS:  One of the reasons is that leadership is really tough at the moment. There are a multitude of pressures on leaders, ever increasing regulation, the new FCA Senior Management regime, Brexit considerations and so on. It’s a very tough market place and I think coaching gives the opportunity for leaders to sit back and think about the challenges they face personally, as well as the challenges that the business or their colleagues face.

MG:  Another aspect is that there’s loneliness in leadership at CEO and Board level; wanting to talk to your colleagues about uncertainty is not something you necessarily feel is open to you. You need a safe space to voice concerns, doubts, ambitions etc

GS:  We work at such a pace now as well, that I’m not sure that we always get that time to sit back and think about things. We can’t just go off on leadership programmes and courses.

MG:  Board meetings and other interactions with colleagues aren’t the time to sit back and think...

GS:  That’s one of the things about coaching - it doesn’t always have to lead to action. If you’re in a meeting either the ostensible purpose is to get somewhere; to have an outcome, some kind of action plan. But some of the best coaching I’ve done is actually just providing an opportunity to think about what that client is facing at the moment, organise their thinking, consider how they are going to deal with some key relationships, things like that rather than coming out with some sort of operational action plan.

MG:  I agree, there’s can be a germination process, post the meeting which allows those ideas to flourish, and turn into an action plan in due course.

GS:  In my opinion a good coach is someone who provides that support and creates that environment where people can think and reflect, but can also be quite challenging. Balancing support and challenge is the essence of good coaching.

MG:  Challenge is essential. Without challenging you are not doing your job as a coach, quite frankly.

GS:  It’s what many clients say they want and also what many leaders don’t get from their colleagues. If you haven’t built the right sort of environment or worked with colleagues for a long time, it’s difficult to get honest feedback.

MG:  Challenging without any implicit threat is also very powerful, because a leader can then express wacky ideas without being shot down, without fear of contradiction; rather just face challenges as to ‘why that, what else have you considered?’ etc. and really get the thinking process going.

GS:  And it’s important for the conversation to be confidential because clients are talking in the here and now about what they’re facing, which can be sensitive and has to be confidential.

MG:  And you can’t forget you’re coaching the ‘whole’ person. Once you’ve established a bond of trust you regularly go into areas well outside of business but which impact on their working lives, family, friends, relationships, whatever else it may be.

GS:  And pressures on leaders arise from relationships - with our colleagues, with regulators, with stakeholders, the non-execs; discussing these issues is sensitive and needs a confidential sounding board.

MG:  Particularly if you are having difficulties with senior colleagues and don’t know how to resolve them but something internally tells you a parting of the ways is a possibly outcome, then it can be difficult to get advice from within the organisation.

GS:  I was talking to the head of risk at one of the banks, and he said that ten years ago, if you were a senior leader with a coach, it was deemed that you had a problem. He said if you went and looked at most of the top 200 at that particular bank now, most of them would have a coach and would attribute to that coaching relationship some of the real success or breakthroughs that they’d had as a leader. I think the appetite is changing.

MG:  That sort of old fashioned stigma is why I make it very clear at the commencement of the engagement that performance management is not part of my brief. I’m looking for people who are expecting a positive change either in transition or whatever and not trying to do the job of management who fail to manage an underperformer.

GS:  I’d say 4 out of 5 of my current coaching assignments are not about performance problems. They are trying to understand where they want the business to go. They are seen internally as very successful people, that’s why the business wants to invest in their development.  So what do you think makes a good coach Mike?

MG:  There are myriads of coaching styles, for me the first and foremost thing is the ability to listen and be ‘present’ for your client so that he or she knows that they have your undivided attention; listening to every word and watching every movement. It requires serious concentration so that you can hear what’s being said - and what’s not being said - and make appropriate interventions: because without that key skill of listening, (and it’s a skill you have to develop) rather than just hearing, you become a very ineffective coach.

GS:  You also have to establish some personal credibility by demonstrating an appreciation of the sector and market place that the client is operating within and the challenges they are facing. It’s important, to be on the same wavelength as the person that you are coaching. Usually, by the time they reach a leadership position, they’ve built a huge amount of experience and technical understanding and business acumen as well. However, the issues that they really want to talk about tend to be a lot deeper in terms of their core skills as a leader, situations they’ve not experienced before, the changes that they are trying to introduce into their organisation.

So, when you start coaching, how do you establish whether you are the right person to be their coach? I find that the person I am coaching wants to understand me and my style, wanting understand if there is a ‘fit’ with them and what they want from coaching.

MG:  Coaching ‘chemistry’ is important and most people who understand the coaching process will make sure that the prospective ‘coachee’ has two or three coaches to discuss what they might do together before choosing a ‘best fit’ coach. I never forget that it’s a two-way process. I might feel that I am right for the individual but if the individual doesn’t feel that about me then it’s not going to work and vice-versa. And there are occasions where my feeling that this individual doesn’t need the sort of coaching that I might be able to offer.

GS:  How long does coaching a client take?

MG:  While I don’t believe that one size fits all, a standard model is half a dozen sessions. My view is that if the request is for a single one session, that’s not going to work; that’s not coaching, that’s short term support. But, I would always ask for a review after 3 sessions anyway because we may have made better progress or we may indeed recognise that the problem is bigger and needs more work than the initial half a dozen sessions.

GS:  Halsey Keetch are a specialist search firm in the governance and controls space, working to place leaders across compliance, risk, audit and finance, and of course at Board-level too - what do you think about coaching as part of that offering and for people taking up new positions?

MG:  Well, considering my preference about working with leaders in transition, there’s clearly a good fit there; but from a search perspective, the search process and the identification of the ideal candidate is what the work is about. If a coaching need emerges out of that, all well and good, but it’s not what you’re there to do. However, I believe it sits naturally alongside ia search. Increasingly clients are seeing this as a continuum.

GS:  Many executive search firms are now establishing coaching practices. For anyone moving into a new leadership role, executive or non-executive, that first six months can be tough. And when you haven’t yet established your relationships internally to have someone known to them and who is confidential, it can be really helpful.

What do you think about team coaching? That often comes up, especially from a group or a board.

MG:  Team coaching I believe has potentially huge value, as you say, particularly for boards and senior leadership teams. It can be introduced for a variety of reasons such as removing historical differences or resolving tensions when they arise; new leadership teams trying to understand their dynamic-to understand their emerging ways of working. An experienced coach is a very useful way helping any team to function to its best ability quite quickly.

GS:  I think that’s right, the best boards and executive teams function when they’ve got a mix of different types of people rather than people appointed in the image of their leader. Stresses and strains will emerge within unbalanced teams; or it will simply perform sub-optimally. Having somebody who is seen as an honest broker trying to bring to the surface what might be happening in those teams, to get them working more effectively, can be helpful. I always think it’s difficult for a senior team to do this itself.

MG:  An outsider sees what the members don’t. You observe all sorts of behaviours that aren’t explicit but lead to whatever tensions may exist and you need to bring those to the surface, the elephant in the room, and an independent party is much better placed to highlight that.

GS:  A Board will focus on its governance role and on the tasks that it faces but not necessarily on how it works effectively, which for me, is one of the hidden aspects of governance. When I work with organisations as a consultant I sometimes discover that the reason the governance might be failing is because the Board isn’t working in the right way and looking at the right things.

What do you think organisations look for in selecting a coach?

MG:  For me, as we said earlier, some understanding of the organisation’s objectives, its industry, are important but equally I’d want to make sure that the coach themselves have got personal credibility, not necessarily through accreditation with any of the myriad of coaching bodies there are, because it’s still quite a wild west out there, but more from the client base that they’ve worked with, personal recommendation, or recommendation from previous clients, for me are key.

As a coach, you have to maintain and be able to demonstrate your training and competence through your own CPD, including Supervision, anything you do to keep on top of your game. It’s directly comparable to the T and C regimes within the financial services sector.

GS:  What do you think are the pressures on Non-executive Directors?

MG:  I think for them often it’s a question of balance, if you’re a non-exec, how much are you part of the business and how much are you the critical friend, advising and challenging the board. Therefore, how do you maintain an appropriate professional distance? It’s a very fine line to tread, and again for new NEDs, it’s sometimes a very difficult balance to find. Clearly they need to work closely with their Chair to seek guidance and advice but equally they might want some external advice as to ‘how much do I need to ferret about in the business on a day to day basis to make sure I am discharging my brief versus how much do I stand outside and let the executive do their job?’

GS:  Sometimes NEDs are also executive directors in another business. I can think of a client I am coaching at the moment who, when she took up the non-exec role, found that quite a challenge. Monday to Thursday she would be an executive director in a large business and then on the Friday would step back into her alter ego as a NED. She would say to me, ‘I think I’m being too executive again’. And with the Regulators increasingly focussing on NEDs and their accountability, it is easy to see how that tension arises.

What about heads of control functions, with whom Halsey Keetch deal. Do you have a sense of some of the things that they’re grappling with?

MG:  Well I think their world has become a) massively more complex, and b) personally risky, in order to fulfil their legal obligations to the Regulator. It’s an incredibly difficult role, it takes a special kind of resilience to handle that pressure on a day to day basis.

GS:  I agree, it is tough. When thinking specifically about leadership in the Control Functions, the most effective leaders I see appear to get the balance right, between being a fellow director and trusted advisor for the other Directors, and still get their hands dirty at times. But also they have the ability to stand back and take an objective view of risks that the business is running. And that can be quite difficult in terms of your relationships with your fellow directors. Very challenging. As you said it take a certain type of person. Interestingly we also coach people who are the ‘number twos’ , who are developing those skills. They will almost certainly have come from a technical background and are learning to develop influencing skills in order to deal effectively with the Executive.

MG:  Building leadership skills, as you said earlier, is one of the areas where I believe we can add some real value. If you’re a technical specialist put into a leadership role, knowing when to be ‘hard’ and when to adopt a more supportive approach is a key attribute. This doesn’t come easily - you often learn by your mistakes!

GS:  Yes - and I guess that brings us full circle to your original question about what coaching is. It’s real-time, flexible and focused development for leaders and executives to help them face the challenges they face in today’s complex business world.

To speak to Gary or Mike about executive coaching for governance leaders, please call our team on 020 7206 2757


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