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Now it's personal

Success at board level is dependent on your personality and your ability to understand, motivate and manage people, as much as it is dependent on your technical prowess. So, say personal trainers, it is time you honed your people skills.

Barbara Moorhouse, group finance director of London Stock Exchange-listed, Kewill Systems, is looking at a picture. It shows a man sitting at a desk staring through a window at an industrial scene. The picture is a silhouette so that any interesting texture or detail is removed. Her task is to write the story behind the picture.

Later, Moorhouse’s personal coach, Susan Bloch, head of the coaching practice at Hay Group, will discuss the story with her. To Bloch’s perceptive eye, the story that’s written will reveal some of the motivations and values she has in her business and personal lives.

Welcome to the world of personal coaching, where FDs who feel happiest crunching numbers embark on voyages of personal discovery in the company of highly-paid professional friends.

Bloch says there’s been a sharp upturn in demand for coaching during the past year, partly because FDs are operating in a “very ambiguous and foggy economic climate”. More fundamentally, the reason FDs are turning to coaching is because they recognise that world-class performance increasingly rests on soft skills such as people management and team work.

Moorhouse first tried coaching when she was group finance director at construction company Morgan Sindall. Now, at Kewill, she decided on a second round because she wanted to check that she’d put into practice what she’d learnt, before moving onto the next stage.

Her first step was a feedback exercise in which colleagues from around the company commented on her performance in anonymous questionnaires.

Moorhouse also completed one herself, so she could compare her view of herself with that of others. Bloch co-ordinated the exercise and discussed the results with Moorhouse afterwards.

Moorhouse says: “We’re a geographically dispersed company and I found the people I don’t have much direct contact with didn’t rate me as highly as those who did. It showed I needed to do better with those people I see less often.”

She is convinced coaching has helped her learn about herself. “Coaching helps you understand what forms of communication are most effective in what situations,” she says. “You also get a better perspective on the job. It’s very easy for people who work long hours to lose that. I’ve certainly learnt to manage better – using my time more effectively and setting priorities.”

Moorhouse also believes she has learned to perform better at the boardroom table. “Because I’m looking at my role more strategically, I’ve enhanced my ability to contribute to setting a direction for the business, rather than just reacting to day-to-day events,” she says.

FDs may be wary of spending time out of the office on coaching sessions. But Moorhouse has tailored her coaching to fit her busy schedule. “My coaching programme started quite intensively, but now it involves less frequent meetings,” she says. She has established a relationship with Bloch which means she can always go back for advice, even after the formal programme.

“When I was thinking of taking the job at Kewill, I took Susan’s advice on the kind of issues I should think about,” says Moorhouse. “When you’re taking important decisions about life or business, it’s useful to talk them over with a coach.”

Bloch believes coaching is valuable for somebody stepping into an FD’s shoes for the first time. “The transition from an operational role to an executive one is huge,” she says. “You need to understand how you are going to add value rather than just do a job. And there’s a whole new agenda of issues about how you communicate with colleagues and become an asset to the board.”

Bloch points out that being a success as an FD is increasingly about being able to create a positive impact on people you deal with. “If FDs can understand how they can energise and motivate people, rethink what they’re doing and how they might need to act differently, they can perform better,” she says.

And, in case any FD has the impression that coaching isn’t much more than a series of feel-good sessions, Bloch is quick to add that measuring specific outcomes is the way to gauge success. She quotes the example of an FD of a medium-sized company run ragged with 80-hour working weeks. Her solution: appoint a personal assistant to project manage his office. “He recently told me his self-management is better, he feels physically stronger and is worrying less,” she says.

Moorhouse says: “My ideal would be to work in an environment where the whole senior management team was coached. They’d gain shared insights and collective understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and could take both into account as they managed the business.”

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