So you survived the outsourcing wars and the IT budget squeeze of the last few years; you have created a stable technology platform, organised business processes and perhaps implemented a viable service management culture. Your job is complete, surely?
Well, yes and no. If progressing beyond a technology niche is the ultimate aim, then the bad news is that no matter how elegant your management of inhouse technology has been there is still much to do. To really progress, coming across as a fluent and competent business leader is the order of the day.

A small but growing band of senior IT executives are evaluating business coaching, a form of personal development concentrating on firming up a given individual’s management, communications and leadership abilities.

According to John Campbell Ricketts, a business coach for an organisation called The Confident Club, who has done this kind of work for the head of IT in a local authority: “A business coach helps someone develop the non-technical aspects of their role in order to further their career. The people who turn to business coaches are those who are at the top of the tree in terms of professional knowledge but who have neglected their career development.”

Coaching is different in this aspect from mentoring. In that approach, which again is centred on a one-to-one style, the mentor is seen as imparting his wisdom to the pupil. Coaching is more about drawing out solutions from inside the candidate’s head and own individual experience. The emphasis with coaching is very much on growing as an individual, not as an expert. It is a common practice in sales or marketing but is not yet widely adopted at the top of the IT profession. “A lot of IT people tend to stay in their comfort zones,” says Judith Nicol, a business coach with her own company, Judith Nicol Associates. “They tend to function at a level that isn’t very visible to their peers in the organisation – so they have little sense of what it is they do or how they are contributing.”

All on board

In Nicol’s view this can be a drawback when the IT director tries to expand his range of opportunities. “To make the transition to board level clearly involves going outside of your functional area and influencing others. This is where IT people in particular can come unstuck. They can lack confidence in projecting themselves and getting buy-in from other people as they have so little experience in it.”

The idea of the business coach as a confidential resource for the candidate is a big part of the appeal for converts. This also explains why specialists, like FDs or CIOs, feel they can get useful insights from outsiders who do not know the specifics of their jobs. In the words of one prominent website in this field, actioncoaching.com, ‘you need someone who can see the forest for the trees, an outsider who isn’t blinded by the industry and by too many years in your business. Being a business owner can be a lonely job. Having a sounding board, a mentor and coach, a friend to talk with and go see about your business problems is just a small part of what a coach does but often it can be the most valuable.”

Tough at the top

“The CIO’s position is a lonely one,” echoes Philip Unruh, senior consultant at financial services consultancy Catalyst.

“Typically they won’t have an internal opportunity or forum to discuss their thoughts and options. They can also be operating in quite a ‘political’ environment where they feel that to raise questions or express doubts about how things are going can be seen as a sign of weakness. Actually such thoughts are more a sign of their status, not weakness, but they don’t know that yet.” Unruh believes that judicious use of coaching can help executives clarify their thinking and get the benefit from the experience of others. “Being a leader and being seen as the leader isn’t easy if you come across as an uncertain person. Use business coaching to develop confidence in this area.” But he stresses this is not for everyone. “It’s for those people who have got to the stage in their careers where they know they need some help to get to the next stage and that no one in their firm is really equipped to do that.”

“The best candidate a coach can work with is the one who is curious, has an open mind and is ready for someone to challenge their assumptions about how things should be done,” says Nicol. “It doesn’t matter if they are CEO or HR director or in charge of IT.”
Nicol says the opportunity to take advantage of coaching usually happens in bigger organisations. However, there is no reason why even entry level people cannot benefit from this approach. At least one company, Graduate Success, concentrates its efforts on intense coaching of graduates so as to move out of college and into industry as successfully as possible. “There are many excellent graduates out there but the problem is the sheer volume and companies want to find that little bit extra if possible,” says its MD Simon Reichwald. A sentiment that should resonate with CIOs as much as any other job seeker.

Career progression

So could business coaching work for heads of IT as much as other kinds of business leader? Unsurprisingly, the coaches say yes – but admit they have fewer CIOs on their books than other executives, at least at the moment. But they still urge IT professionals to start thinking along these lines. “Business coaching is about identifying different ways of doing things, whether this remains within the company ethic or revising and challenging the company ethic,” says Campbell Ricketts. In Nicol’s view, the time for CIOs to start taking advantage of this technique is more than overdue. “There is no question that the CIO has as valid a claim to be at the top of the tree as the FD or the marketing director. It’s just that they may lack some of the tools to argue their case and this is where coaching can help them make the most of their achievements and get set to play the bigger game.”