Coaching for performance

How to lead the creation of a performance culture is one of the FD’s biggest challenges. But it is not for the faint hearted.

THE CHALLENGE facing every FD I know is: what is the finance function doing to drive performance? The finance function needs leaders who can be proactive, engage with the business, identify value drives and win support from the business to capture them.
This was the context in which I discovered the power of coaching.

As FD of Foster’s EMEA and tasked with integrating a major acquisition, performance was low; as individuals, teams and as a business. I had previously spent 20 years in high-performing global fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) businesses Unilever and Kraft – so this was a first for me.

My inspired HR colleague advocated coaching as a way of getting us back on the front foot. The change for me was dramatic and was noticed by every stakeholder group: a striking new calm, incisive judgement and communication, and a step change in effectiveness of some key relationships. How did it happen? It was nothing too complicated. A lot of it was just more conscious awareness of how I was feeling, which was significantly impacting how I was behaving and communicating. But it takes some tough conversations to admit this, accept it and do something about it.

The rest of the board were then coached – including my boss, the CEO – individually and collectively. This transformed our effectiveness as a team, and with a new strategic focus and alignment, things started to happen. Before I knew it I was training and qualifying as a coach – 15 days over six months, a big time investment. The next step was to roll out coaching training and workshops, and build a cadre of coaching champions – it was no coincidence that they were some of the key talent in the business who could see the power of this.

The business started to perform at a different level. There was a new wave of comfort, challenge, courageously accepting difficult truths and doing something about it. Soon the top and bottom line started trending upwards too.

The core secret behind all this is not rocket science: it’s about getting beyond the masks people are wearing, not allowing anything but the real person to show up in every situation. Coaching has some great tools to enable this: for example, how to deliver feedback incisively in a way which generates genuine motivation to change. Also, holding people to account to make the change, taking this as seriously if not more so than the results. People often assume this is happening in a business, but in reality it’s the stuff that gets lost in the busyness of the day to day. Yet these are the triggers for driving performance and achieving the business results – it’s the enabler for creating the right attitudes and the right behaviours, which in aggregate create the right climate: a performance culture.

But it was not easy. There was a lot of resistance at all levels. There are the fears about “opening up” and exposing vulnerabilities, concerns about confidentiality, scepticism about psychological mumbo jumbo and the soft, fluffy reputation coaching seems to have acquired. But to all this there is one very compelling question: which of the world’s top sportsmen don’t have a coach? More and more people are getting it now, but it needs strong sponsorship and involvement from the top.

Leading this as FD and then as sales director, I learnt many lessons the hard way – it wasn’t perfect, but we made it happen. I decided to move into leading change and transformation in a bigger business using coaching, and I’m now driving this kind of transformational change as a coaching consultant. There are many businesses that need this, and as I’ve been there and seen what works and what doesn’t, it’s time for me to unlock performance potential across a wider sphere. ■

Stuart Pickles is the former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now

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