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Mentor - Pushing skills further

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Bringing in a management coach can help individuals and teams boost performance. Sally O’Reilly reports

No matter how effective you are in your role, getting the best out of your staff can be difficult, but working with a management coach can be the answer.

Unlike a mentor a senior person who will work with you in an advisory role for an indefinite period a coach is someone brought in for a specific length of time to deal with a particular skill or issue that you want to address in the short or medium term.

While the concept of coaching is well understood in local government, there are a number of ways of approaching it, according to Richard Masters, programme manager for managerial leadership at the Improvement & Development Agency.

“Coaching is about offering support to senior managers with the aim of improving their performance in terms of outcomes and deliverables. It’s a brilliant way of building up skills internally,” he says.

But getting this right means coaches and clients need to spend time before the process starts working out what the aim of the sessions is going to be, and how their effectiveness will be measured. “This is about outcomes,” says Mr Masters. “From the outset, you need to work out what you are looking for in terms of change to performance and supporting improvement.”

Clarity is 'essential'

Jane Kershaw, a consultant with coaching firm Magela Consultants, agrees that clarity is essential when looking at the bigger picture. And the ‘touchy feely’ image of coaching can be a stumbling block here.

“Coaching is not therapy the aim is to improve certain aspects of performance rather than address personal problems,” she says. With that proviso, however, she sees coaching as particularly useful for developing areas such as managing relationships and developing influencing skills.

“People can consider questions such as: ‘How do I come across to colleagues?’ and ‘How can I communicate better?’ Coaching can help people understand how to behave in different contexts, or assess a particular situation and adopt an appropriate response. It’s highly individualised.”

Staff recently promoted to a more senior role can also benefit. “Coaching can help you think more strategically, as well as looking at specific areas such as business planning and presentation skills,” Ms Kershaw points out.

While coaching takes place at work, it’s a chance to step back from immediate concerns and be more objective.

“Coaching works on many levels to boost confidence. That’s because people develop their understanding of issues, expand the options available to them and take positive steps towards achieving their goals,” Ms Kershaw says.

Typically, Ms Kershaw and her colleagues will work with a client for three to six sessions, either face-to-face or by phone calls spread over the same number of weeks.

“A clear contact between coach and client is essential,” she says. “You have to know what you want to get at the end of the process. I also like to review the situation mid-way. Two things are essential the individual and the line manager must be committed to the process, and there must be clear outcomes identified, for the coaching and each session.”

Coaching 'not cheap'

The benefits may be widely understood, but coaching does not come cheap. One way of making coaching available to as wide a group of staff as possible is to set up a regional coaching pool. This is the approach being taken by 12 councils in the West Midlands. They are working with the West Midlands Local Government Association to develop a pool which will deliver coaching services across the authorities free of charge.

Councils taking part include Birmingham City Council, Staffordshire CC and Wolverhampton City Council, and the project is financed by the Regional Capacity Building Fund. It is hoped that over 4,000 hours of coaching will be available.

Even for authorities who buy in coaching services, taking a team-based approach can be very resource-effective, says Ms Kershaw. “Team coaching means we are asking the question are you working as a team, or just as a group?”

she says. “Often, individuals have to learn how to be team players, but coaching the entire group in the workplace can make this easier. It’s a way of developing relationships within the group so that it can become greater than the sum of its parts.”

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