Leadership

Stuck for a leadership coach? How to find someone you trust to help grow your business

Emma Koehn /

Females in Food Chelsea Ford

Females in Food founder Chelsea Ford. Source: Supplied

Females in Food founder Chelsea Ford

Red tape is a massive bugbear for entrepreneurs, but there’s one area in Australian business that is pretty much completely unregulated: business coaching. Anyone can claim to be a consultant, professional mentor or coach. The trick is knowing which ones will actually deliver benefits for your business.

While few founders would claim you can grow your brand successfully while flying completely solo, many of the entrepreneurs SmartCompany and StartupSmart speak to are hard-pressed when asked to identify a person that’s had a major impact on the growth of their business or their leadership skills. They often say that while they’ve happened upon these people accidentally, they’ve never really been taught how to go out and find someone who is the right fit.

Everyone knows engaging in mentorship or coaching relationships can have value: Harvard Business School researchers say sharing skills via two-way sharing relationships is key to keeping talented staff at smaller firms, while businesses owners regularly report the benefits of coaching from some of the world’s biggest names through incubator programs and competitions.

But if you’re an entrepreneur with limited time and are in need of a business confidante, what questions do you need to ask before forming a relationship? Especially when connecting with other people in the world of business is enough like speed-dating as it is.

Here are three key questions experts say you should ask before agreeing to have coffee with someone who says they can help push your business further.

What do you want, and what do they have?

Two of the most common forms of professional development relationships are mentorships and business coaching, and while these formats are very different, business owners need to think carefully about compatibility issues with both before they agree to any guidance.

A mentorship can be formal or informal but is not usually a paid-for service, while business coaches ask for a fee to guide you through challenges.

Jennie Hill, founder of business coaching firm Sharp Pencils, has 25 years of executive-level experience working in other companies, including Rio Tinto. She now offers services as a professionally certified coach, having completed the International Coach Federation Training. She says the lack of regulation of the coaching consultancy space means small businesses need to do their research, and make sure their needs actually match the qualifications of the person on offer.

“If they’re a business owner, I’d say ask a couple of key questions: What training has the person does? Are they accredited? What is the process of coaching?” Hill says.

While some people are keen to sign you up for the full year, Hill says you should be sceptical of anyone that wants to see you all the time.

“You might agree to work together for six to eight months, but then it should be renegotiated. I believe if we’re doing a good job, you won’t need to see me all the time,” she says.

More importantly, however, is knowing what you actually want out of the relationship. If your business needs advice on growing overseas, for example, Hill says there’s no point wasting time with someone that has never expanded internationally.

“It depends what they’re looking for. Sometimes [people] want accountability — there are things that they know they should be doing and they’re not. Sometimes they’re looking for an independent sounding board,” Hill says.

Do you trust them to just listen, or will they want to steer?

Once you know what your looking for in a leadership expert, there’s something else you should consider. A lot of the research shows that having a mentor or coach might not actually help develop your capabilities, says Peter Gahan, director of the University of Melbourne’s centre for Workplace Leadership.

“The evidence from the research is that most businesses don’t seek advice, and that when they do, it can then have some positive consequences,” he says.

“It shows is that mentor are good for certain things, but that they won’t necessarily be effective in developing abilities. You’ve got to think about mentoring as one bit of the puzzle,” he says.

Finding these relationships can be critical for business owners to stay focused on growth, but they work best as a sounding board to clarify ideas and goals, boosting confidence rather than your abilities, Gahan says.

“One thing is that as you start to talk things through, your ideas begin to clarify. You’re able to develop your own thinking,” he says.

“It’s also like a mirror and [you] get a sense of how valid your ideas are.”

Founder of professional networking group Females in Food, Chelsea Ford, says in her experience helping people with their business, too often companies just want her to fix things, when there is really more benefit in her being that sounding board.

“I’ve very much had people [clients] just say, ‘Chelsea, just tell me how, just tell me how,’ she says.

Having also been mentored and coached herself, Ford believes the most important thing a third party can do for a business is show they are able to listen, rather than take all the action on your behalf. Founders should think about whether the person they are considering is a good listener, and if they can get across the worries that you have.

“I think a really big thing to notice is, do they listen and understand the problem? One of the things I experience often is that people really don’t know or understand my business,” Ford says. 

What are you willing to do the hard yards on? 

Business owners have previously told SmartCompany the whole process of finding other people to help them with their leadership skills has taken a lot of work — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I think it’s hard to get off your arse and find mentors,” Shootsta chief executive Mike Pritchett said last year.

Pritchett advocates picking up the phone and asking your dream contacts whether they’d consider taking some time out to give advice, saying that showing that initiative can have a big payoff.

But for leadership coaching to be successful more broadly, the business owner has to be willing to do the majority of the work, say experts. This includes recognising when you might need some assistance and then taking action early, says Ford.

“Particularly in SME-land, a leader [being] uncomfortable can really ricochet across the business, so it’s important for them to do it early, before they’re in dire straights,” she says.

Once you’ve identified the need, start to view the coaching process as one that you will have to complement with your own actions, and perhaps with the help of a network of people, rather than just one guru, suggests Gahan.

“Think about multiple mentors. In the same way we talk about cross training, it has similar kind of effect, [by] demonstrating different kinds of leadership in contrasting ways,” he says.

Most importantly, however, have an eye on what knowledge you plan on beefing up during the mentoring or coaching relationship, and come armed with information about where you might be able to learn this.

“Finding the opportunity to do it in modules and smaller chunks so they can fit in in with their busy work lives is pretty important, but even a lot of employer associations now provide good basic training,” Gahan says.

“You have to complement these [relationships] with actual skills development.”

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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