Below is the content of an article in The Sunday Times on Sunday 26th October 2014, featuring myself and a client, Morgan Browne from Intelligent Information Systems.
More than a half-time team talk
Coaches provide important advice and new focus for the bosses of SMEs
After a year of deal-making and negotiation, Morgan Browne successfully led a management buy-out of Intelligent Information Systems (IIS), based in Sandyford, Co Dublin. The euphoria lasted all of two months.
“That was February 2008,” said Browne, whose company provides business-management software, support and services to small and medium-sized businesses. “Two months later, the world collapsed into recession and the business was thrown into survival mode, where it stayed for the next couple of years.”
It was a horrendous time. “I couldn’t see how I was going to pay wages,” he said. “The bank was withdrawing the small facilities we had, and it was getting harder and harder to get paid ourselves.”
IIS had a turnover of about €1.5m and employed 13 people — a responsibility Browne felt keenly. Yet it was increasingly hard to see how the business could survive. “I was struggling to find coping skills, couldn’t understand how to drive the business forward and just couldn’t see the wood for the trees,” he said. “It was overwhelming.”
A chance referral to a business coach proved pivotal. “We went for coffee and had a chat and eventually he said, ‘Fifty per cent of your revenues come in in two months’ time — what are you worried about?’ Just having that outside perspective was key.”
Browne began meeting the coach on a regular basis. The same coach now also works with IIS’s senior management team. Coaching helped identify the difference between perceived problems and reality. “A lot of your mindset as a business owner is the result of your response to certain triggers,” said Browne. “Having one-to-one sessions with a business coach helped me identify what my triggers were, what my own personal fears were.”
It helped him break out of a recession-driven “bunker” mindset and focus less on threats and more on opportunities. Today, IIS employs 70 people and has a turnover of €7.5m. “I can see the benefits of the business coaching across all aspects of my life, too, not just the business,” said Browne.
It’s a result that business coach Shane Cradock is used to seeing. “All of my clients have goals which I call ‘there’, and ‘here’ is where they are starting from,” said Cradock, who is based in Co Wicklow. “The gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’ is the problem — many people focus on the wrong thing to solve it.”
The gap, he adds, is skills. “Sports people know this — that’s why they work on their skills continuously. Yet how many business people do?”
Every business owner needs both inner and outer skills, just like sports people. “The outer skills are the usual suspects such as time management, leadership, selling and financial management,” said Cradock. “Inner skills are the state of your mind, your beliefs and your focus. You can know what to do, but if you’re off mentally, then everything is off.”
Cradock has been coaching business owners and chief executives for more than a decade. Typically, clients need support around clarity of vision and prioritisation, or may have issues related to particular personnel, or require coaching around a specific area of their work.
In most cases, people know what they have to do but for some reason are not doing it, said Cradock. The business coach helps them figure out why, acting as a sounding board.
Often business owners will not talk about a problem to staff or management for fear of appearing weak and they also do not want to worry a spouse. “A sports person is not in the game all the time,” said Cradock. “The business owner is, so they have far less opportunity to take time out and reflect.”
The recession changed perceptions of coaching, said Cradock. “The biggest thing about running a business now is that you have to be mentally strong enough.”
A business owner’s frame of mind has a direct impact on the bottom line. “When they walk in the door to work, everybody looks to gauge what kind of mood the boss is in,” said Cradock. “It can dictate the mood of the entire business, right down to affecting the next customer-service call.”
Also, he adds: “You move towards what you are focused on — so what are you focused on?”
Ronan Perceval has engaged a variety of business coaches since setting up Phorest, a hair and beauty salon software developer, in the early 2000s.
“I’m the kind of person who wants to learn all the time yet I found that it actually made a big difference,” said Perceval. “It helped bring structure [to the business], which in turn helped it grow from a point where we employed six or seven people to today, when we employ 50.”
He also found coaching much better than mentoring. “With mentoring, in my experience, it’s someone giving you advice,” he said. “Coaching to me is a little like therapy: you say what’s going on and the coach asks probing questions that help you bring whatever the issue is to a solution.”
Simply being accountable to another person can help motivate a business owner, according to Helen Burns of the Co Kerry-based ActionCoach. “Business owners are typically not accountable to anybody,” she said. “There is no one to check up on what they have done. The coaching process is all about asking those questions, the ‘You said you would do X, how did you get on with it?’”
Not being accountable encourages business owners to stay in their “comfort zone”, she said. “It’s human nature to fear change and to like your comfort zone. But everybody has weak spots and to get your business to the next level you have to identify those and work on them.”
Claire O’Leary, of Munster Fire and Safety, engaged a business coach to help her break out of a negative mindset that was holding the business back. The company, which is based in Millstreet, Co Cork , provides health and safety training and equipment and was set up in 2002.
Two years ago, she was introduced to a business coach as part of a small-business workshop run by her bank. “It’s not that it’s rocket science, but having someone to motivate you and keep you on the right track, focused on your business, has been massively helpful,” said O’Leary, who runs the business with Willie, her husband.
She added that the couple found the recession “very stressful”.
“There were times when I used to wish I worked at the checkout in my local supermarket rather than run a small business, because I used to think that at least that way I’d get a pay cheque,” she said. “But one of the things I learnt through coaching is that if you put the effort in, you will get the results.”
She now has weekly half-hour coaching sessions via Skype. “Empower used to be a word I hated, because I thought it sounded really new age, but coaching has genuinely empowered us to come up with ideas that work for our business,” she said.
Sales have increased by 25% in the past two years. “You could say that’s just the economic recovery but we know it’s not,” added O’Leary.
“Just because we had been doing what we do for more than 10 years, didn’t mean we were good at it. Now we’re doing different things and getting different results. We feel much more positive about the future as a result.”