An innovative programme in the North East has highlighted the value of management development for the SME community, with the aim of developing leadership capacity within the region.

More than half of the UK workforce is employed in SME organisations (55 per cent), and these companies are responsible for 45 per cent of the country’s turnover. However, often they are the organisations where talent management and staff development are on the ‘wish list’, not an integral part of the company’s structure. This happens for a number of reasons:

• The company has grown from a family business or ‘one man band’
• No one within the organisation has experience of talent management strategies
• Businesses are focussed on surviving day to day, rather than considering long term development
• No advice or support has been available to help them develop a workable policy.

Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University has developed a strategic commitment to engage with regional employers to enhance leadership and drive regional growth. As part of this and with funding from the regional development agency One North East, it has offered fully-funded Executive Coaching to 25 senior leaders in SMEs in the North East.

The coaching programme involved five, two-hour, one-to-one confidential coaching sessions during which the coachee undertook self diagnostics, identified personal and business goals, developed their reflective and cognitive processes and worked on being a leader.

Jane Turner, Associate Dean of the Executive Development Centre, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, says: “The focus of an executive coaching process is determined by the coachee, however at the senior level, the nature of coaching conversations primarily focuses on enhancing/improving the leaders’ performance, determining strategic priorities and working out strategies to enhance the contribution to the senior team.

“The process enables the individual space and time to work on personal and business issues, resulting in the identification of clearly defined actions to move forward. The thematic feedback has been that the journey has been refreshing, challenging and rewarding, enabling powerful personal and organisational breakthroughs.”

The overwhelming response to the coaching programme from participants was that it gave them time to think about their behaviours, and offered them a ‘safe’ sounding board for issues and ideas. Without exception they all felt ‘lonely at the top’ and questioned their own abilities from time to time.

Stephen Brooks, a Director of Space Architecture and Management, had never had formal coaching before. He hoped to use it to build his confidence, having been recently promoted from associate director to director level of an organisation which employs 120 staff in Newcastle and 20 in Leeds: He says: “I wanted to know if I had the skills to make the step up. One of the things I learned is that I am far more cool and rational than I judged myself to be — others also view me as cool and rational too which was surprising, but positive.

“The coaching taught me to have confidence in my own abilities, and confirmed that often a lot of what I do is right.

“It’s something I would recommend to other people and I can see how it can help the business by making the directors and managers more productive and helping them to work more effectively. They will have more confidence and so the staff will have more confidence in us too.”

Chris Peacock, Managing Director of Peacocks Medical Group, also took part in the programme. He became MD in June 2007 of the company, a family business (4th generation), with 155 employees, 55 of whom have been employed over the last 2-3 years, reflecting a massive expansion in the company in that time.

He says: “It gave me several hours to be quite selfish about my thinking. We discussed private issues and I was very honest about my views. It’s commonly said that it’s ‘lonely at the top’ and while my father is chairman and I can talk to him, it can be difficult, so it was useful to have someone I could talk to confidentially.

“It’s highlighted the way I have to work with each director, and I’m learning how to get the best out of people. It will all have an impact on the business and how I develop it as I realise that I’ve concentrated on turnover, profit and systems, and neglected the relationships in the business. It will have an on-going effect.”

This ripple effect is common when coaching is introduced within an organisation as the impact spreads.

“All coaching is about helping people to enhance their performance and contribution to an organisation,” says Jane Turner. “Executive coaching is typically carried out by an external coach and is normally used for senior leaders in organisations. Equipping line managers with coaching skills is also now growing in popularity, using coaching as a management style internally rather than as an external intervention. Line manager coaching starts with equipping managers with the skills, knowledge and behaviours to understand, motivate and get the best out of their employees so they effectively become their coach. This form of coaching conversation can take place at any time and is not necessarily as structured as the executive coaching approach.”

Most businesses tend to benefit from a coaching approach, which is why it has gained such popularity over the last few years. Because its focus is on improving performance and enabling people and organisations to do this themselves, rather than relying on external advice, it tends to adapt to numerous business scenarios.

Coaching needs to be a continuous process rather than a on-off intervention if sustained changes are to be achieved. If you are looking to create a coaching culture in your organisation through developing the skills of mangers and leaders as coaches, then you should be thinking about approaching an organisation with a track record of developing coaches within organisations (see tips below).