Two years ago, MLC sales executive Michael Downey started to notice some small changes among a few of his colleagues. No one had changed dramatically but during various catch-ups and meetings, the sales manager noticed some of his fellow executives were behaving differently.
“The change is hard to describe because it wasn’t a single thing, I suppose I just saw there were lots of little adjustments in their behaviour,” he says. “Whether it was in the way they engaged their team or the way they managed up or even in their personal lives, I noticed a positive difference.”
Downey discovered these changes were not by chance; each colleague had worked with an executive coach.
“I’d read a few things about coaches and it became clear to me that lots of very successful people in MLC were using them and benefiting from it,” he says. “I did some research, spoke to a number of people who had used one and decided it was probably the right time in my career for me to try it.”
Coaching is big business around the world. IBIS World predicts that roughly $9 billion is spent on coaches each year in the United States. There is no equivalent figure in Australia, but the Australian Institute of Management estimates that 70 per cent of its member companies engage coaches.
Author and coach Shannah Kennedy says 12 years ago, no one in Australia had heard of coaches; now they are almost commonplace among executives and business owners.
MLC’s Downey, who is 46, has worked in financial services for 25 years and thought he might benefit from working with an objective person to improve his performance at work. He hired Kennedy 18 months ago and quickly noticed improvements in his personal and professional lives.
“It has been pretty rewarding,” he says. “You can be sceptical about what you’re going to get out of something like this but it has had a big impact.”
Professionally, Downey says he interacts with his team of 28 much more meaningfully than he did before. In the time since he began working with Kennedy, he has had only two staff depart, both for internal promotions.
“I’d like to think that’s a reflection of me as a leader but it’s probably a function of a few things,” he says.
“We have created a pretty solid work environment though and I’m sure it’s part of the reason turnover has been minimal.”
Downey’s wife and three daughters have also benefited from his coaching.
“I am much more conscious of the quality of time I spend with my family,” he says. “From the moment I walk in the front door after work it is their time. My BlackBerry goes off and I’m really aware of being upbeat and positive for them.”
Planning is the single biggest change coaching has produced in Downey’s daily life. “The big learning for me has been the importance of structure and it has changed the way I run my day, week, month and year,” he says. “People who succeed every year plan for it and I now apply real discipline in the way I structure my time.”
Kennedy says clients who seek out coaching tend to be successful and driven but want an opportunity to step back and consider their plans.
“They might be feeling a bit stuck or like they’re coasting and they want to break out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves,” she says.
“Whether they need clarity around achieving better balance, or they want more personal direction or need to develop long-term vision, they benefit from having fresh eyes look at their life.”
Many executives have such busy work environments that they tend to overlook aspects of their lives outside of work.
“The process of getting back to basics, about what drives them, is quite enlightening and refreshing for people who haven’t stopped to think about their values or personal goals for a long time,” she says. “It makes them think about things they might change and encourages them to look at their life more holistically.”