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Coaches help close the gap

Article by www.seek.com.au

Career coaching is gaining a foothold in Australia, several years after the practice became firmly established in the USA. It's an interesting tool that people are using to solve or address wide-ranging issues that cut across distinctions between work life and private life.

At 46, Lisa has had a mostly rewarding career with the Australian public service. Lately, restructuring and a new boss have seriously impacted on how she feels about her job. "I'm less than nine years away from being able to claim my government superannuation, but I want to enjoy the rest of my working life," says Lisa. "I really didn't want to spend the rest of my working life getting up in a state of misery to have another unhappy day in the office. Life is too short."

Lisa found an unexpected ally in a career coach. "It's been fantastic," she says. "It's given me the confidence to know that I can start a new working life, if I'm aware of my weaknesses and deal with them, if I'm passionate about what I do, if I'm prepared to think flexibly about solving issues."
One American coach describes his mission as "closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be." The gap might be the next promotion you want so badly or what work will really make you happy or how to better balance time between work and family and self. Coaching may be the answer, wrote a journalist in the Dallas Morning News "when people need a push in more than one part of their lives or guidance in setting broad lifestyle goals".


Practical Outcomes

Coaching isn't therapy, although many American coaches come from a counselling or psychotherapy background. Mostly, a coaching relationship is short-term. Coaching goals, solutions and methods are practical. The focus is more on changing behaviour that limits the client, rather than understanding the source of the behaviour. "A boss who sees a coach because of a tendency to belittle subordinates will be encouraged to find ways to control the outbursts, not explore childhood memories of a dominating father," Trip Gabriel writes dryly in the New York Times.

Interest in coaching has surged. A virtual university for coaches has sprung up, as has an International Coach Federation, complete with standards, practices and ethics. A number of reasons contribute to coaching's' growing popularity, says Trip Gabriel. As organisations flatten and middle managers disappear, senior managers are stretched further, often over areas and issues they do not understand well. This stress can show up gaps in personal and communication skills. At the same time, a younger generation joining the workforce is more diverse in all respects and is less likely to accept decisions without questioning. This is a challenge for older managers, used to "command-and-control" styles of leadership.

Lifestyle and career coaching also seems to fit with a growing rise of the service industry in general. It is a flexible practice that lends itself to working in different ways to attain different goals. Different coaches will work with clients over varying time spans. Some consider results must be generated within a few days while others commit to working with a client to achieve longer-term goals over months or a year or more. Coaching styles differ, from supportive and nurturing to demanding and critical. Some coaches work face-to-face, sometimes shadowing the client in his or her workplace. Others never meet their clients, working solely by telephone and/or email. Many coaches work directly with individuals, who may want assistance with finding a new job, returning to the workforce, making initial career decisions. Other coaches are hired by organisations, either to help key managers who are faltering, or as part of a standard programme of improving star performers. In the USA, corporates like Avon and Texaco offer coaching as a prerequisite to proven managers, "in the understanding that everyone has blind spots and can benefit from a detached observer," says Trip Gabriel.


Tough Love

Executive coaches, as organisation's hired guns are sometimes called, are among the toughest of their breed. "Usually the person hates me for the first three months," confessed one coach who spoke to Trip Gabriel. "But by the fourth month they'll love me. In a tactful way, you're holding [a senior manager] up on things no one's ever tackled them on before."

"Executive coaches are not for the meek, Claire Tristram writes in Fast Company. "They're for people who value unambiguous feedback. If coaches have one thing in common, it's that they are ruthlessly results-orientated. Executive coaching isn't therapy. It's product development, with you as the product." Submitting to a coach's scrutiny could be challenging, especially for an executive who's had no say in the decision. Some coaches will use tools like 360-degree feedback, where the feedback of superiors, peers and subordinates are all sought. Such techniques require a healthy dose of humility, but can produce powerful insight. "Coaches are best when they push you out of your comfort zone ? and don't let you back in," says Claire Tristram.

Lisa's coach (SEEK contributor Gail Dollimore, of Whatworks) uses a less ruthless approach. "I wasn't sure what I could get out of coaching, but I felt desperate enough to try anything," admits Lisa. "I wanted a bit of reality testing ? was I really on a good wicket but just couldn't see it? Anyway, being a longish term public servant, could I really do something different? Would I be able to survive, say, in the private sector, or even just set up a little business doing something I enjoyed? Would that pay the bills? Could I "compete" with everyone else trying to do similar things?"

The coaching process has been fantastic, reports Lisa. "Working with a coach helped me start back at the basics, go one step at a time, ask questions, bounce things off her, have ideas or values reaffirmed or affirmed. I've learnt from Gail's experience. She also approaches life from a "holistic" perspective and always from the heart. She was a good external adviser. She helped balance my thinking."

by Rachel Rose


First published by SEEK Communications, Australia's leading job search and career development website. Republished with permission. c SEEK Communications 2002.





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