The concept of coaching is continuously evolving to meet changing needs. Despite a growing offer, many businesses leaders still find it hard to turn towards a coach to solve their problems. This is especially true for family businesses, where sharing concerns and problems with non-family members can be more challenging. In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the evolution of coaching and its benefits for family businesses.

This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

R: Amy, today we are going to be talking about a topic that you’re an absolute expert in  coaching. How long have you been a coach? What got you into this field?

A: I became a social psychologist, and that led me to some internships with some large corporations. People didn’t know what to do with me, particularly when I was in GE or some of the larger settings. They were asking, “Why do we have a psychologist in an engineering firm? What does she do?” In the course of doing that, I realised I was trying to support managers as they were thinking about their leadership styles in service of helping them and their teams create a better product or service.

It wasn’t called executive coaching when I began in the field. This was in the early 80s, and it was still an undefined field. Then, it became a lot more focused on things like, “Fix this person.” HR was not always the department that knew what to do with difficult people, but they knew there was something in between. Many people like me became that in-between kind of person. In other words, we weren’t going to say, “Fire this person.” We were going to say, “This is a talented person with some barriers who’s gotten derailed.” But it was all focused on remedial approaches.

Then, the field shifted. It became more focused on leadership development. This could be at any age in someone’s career cycle. Though the issues in their 20s are different from the issues in their 50s or 60s. The field began to focus on, “What are these people’s strengths? What are these people’s developmental needs? How can we create a relationship together where we learn from each other, and they can increase their self-awareness?’ It was designed to support their strengths. There are a lot of fine firms that offer leadership development classes and training, and they’re terrific. That was a precursor or one approach to leadership development.

Over time, from various people starting to talk about the field, it became a profession. Although, I wouldn’t call it a profession because people can become a coach from very many backgrounds. Some approach it through education, some through social work, some through being a small business consultant. There are a lot of different ways. Some are family therapists who focus on individuals.

But the model itself has always appealed to me. I didn’t necessarily want to be a therapist, but I wanted my work to be therapeutic in some way. My playing field has always been the organisational life. I’ve come to it from a variety of roles. It’s been heartening to see that the way people engage at work, the gratification that they get, and the way they manage themselves is being addressed in a supportive and helpful way.

R: You said the field of coaching shifted from an intervention style, where someone needs to coach a person through this difficult time, to accompanying people through growth opportunities. This is an interesting shift. We have noticed the emergence of an incredible number of coaches that have surfaced over the last decade, self-proclaimed or other. Amy, are there too many coaches out there? Are we making it too easy for people to call themselves coaches?

A: It’s not a credentialed field in the way that typical professions are. You don’t have to be licensed, but there is a certification for those who seek it. I think there are some excellent certification programs. Are there too many? I don’t know, but I think it’s important for every coach to be very clear about what their background is, how they came to it, and what is their experience in organisations. I think you need more work experience and the opportunity to reflect on that experience if you want to be able to coach someone. That’s built into some certification programs, that you have some kind of supervised experience.

An appreciation of the way organisations work is important, as is an appreciation of a helping relationship and how that works. But, most of all, it’s important for each coach to know and be able to articulate what their style is and what it is not because a coaching relationship is an intimate relationship and a partnership. Just as there can be wonderful successes and progress, it can also easily go awry, as in any relationship, professional or not.

People do have different styles. My business partner and former army officer, who is much younger than I am, is very structured and very clear. We’ve had very different organisational experiences. We’re very different people on a personal level, but we know what our styles are. I’ll know when I can say, “This one’s for you,” just as he can say, “This one’s for you.” I will tell my clients, “If you’re looking for a highly-structured person, I’m not that person.” I’ve had clients or potential clients say, “I’m not going to be comfortable with you.” It’s an important choice, and it’s important for the matching to be taken seriously by the potential client and the coach as well.

R: Let’s talk about the clients for a second, Amy. The problem in turning towards or finding a coach is that you first have to recognise that you need one. It’s not as simple as saying, “I’m sick. I have clear symptoms that I can feel concretely.” I think, in most cases, it comes on gradually.

I also see a lot of people around me for whom it would never occur that they might require coaching. They don’t realise that it might be something that would help them if they had that support. Can you talk about the top three symptoms that you see that often break the camel’s back for someone? What are the triggers that make people turn to yourself or one of your peers?

A: For some people, whether it be family businesses or not, it’s built into the learning infrastructure. It’s a necessary step in their development and credibility within their organisation. The match is still important, but people know that, if they’re going to progress in the organisation, they’re going to want and need a coach.

For others, if they’re the head of their business, if they’re simply struggling with something, or if they want to learn more, it’s a different kind of opportunity. Some examples that I deal with are simply role clarification. I coach family and non-family clients. In the family business sector, particularly early on, being clear about your role is vital. Being willing to say, “I’m not sure where I can make my best contribution,” is important, too. That’s certainly one aspect.

Another is the presenting question of, “How do I deal with a difficult employee?” Then, we gradually say the equivalent of, “What are you contributing to the situation?” I tend to say people want to increase their self-awareness. They want feedback they can’t get in other places. They need a trusted advisor. Many people in leadership roles are just lonely. That’s not an unfamiliar insight. They just want a trusted advisor. By exploring what’s behind the one key relationship that they’re struggling with, they can open the door to a lot of understanding.

This is different than people who say, “I want to give better presentations.” There are coaches who are skill-based, and that’s fine. Most coaches are not career coaches, but they might entertain the idea of helping someone think through their next opportunity, or how they can transition. Coaches who work with family business clients often hear something like, ”I’ve been here for a long time, and I’m sick of this situation. I want to leave, but I’m afraid.”

It’s about transitions, conflict and development. Some people will say, “I want to move to the next level.” That may be a role, but it also may be an opportunity to manage oneself in a new setting in a different way or overcome a conflict that’s truly a barrier to their gratification at work.

R: In cases where I see people triggered by factors such as the ones you just described, the first thing that we do these days is turn towards books and motivational speakers. I have turned to Zig Ziglar a few times, and I’ve never regretted it. I found it to be a motivating boost. When someone is motivating you, it’s an interesting premise. Sometimes it’s enough, but sometimes it’s not.

What about the people who can’t stop at the books, or who can’t derive any insight from those experiences? If I come to the point where I realise I need a coach or some kind of support, how do I find such a person? It’s unbelievable the number of people I hear saying, “I wish there were someone who could coach me”. I know so many coaches and so many people looking for coaches, but so few of them seem to find each other. Amy, how do you advise people to go about finding the right coaches?

A: Unless you’re in a pretty remote area, there are ways to find coaches. The issue is not finding them; it’s finding the one that will fit you.

You can look for a couple of things. Some people need a face-to-face experience. With Zoom or Skype, if that’s a modality that the coach and the client are comfortable with, you can coach people all over the place. It needs to be an important question for the potential client. “Do I want to sit behind my computer? Or do I need somebody in the room with me?” Answering that question cuts through the coaching clutter.

It does take some work. In the family business arena, there are different ways to get coaching. A well-structured business round table can provide you with marvellous coaching. A Chamber of Commerce will often have a list of coaches who are members and who may work with round tables. Family Business Centres can engage coaches or have them on a listing of some kind.

When you’re seeking a coach, it’s important to talk to two people, sometimes three. Develop a schedule of the questions you have and see what happens. It’s a bit like love. Sometimes there’s a chemistry, and sometimes there isn’t. When there isn’t, it’s not that the coaching can’t work. The wish to create the relationship is often very strong but can also be very challenging.

There are ways to find the playing field of who’s around. There are also international coaching organisations who do the credentialing, and they may be helpful.

R: Let’s imagine that we’ve narrowed it down, and we found a coach. In family businesses especially, we’re very much used to being discreet. It’s part of the package to not talk about the family problems. It seems most family businesses that last for a long time are the ones that tend not to broadcast when they’re coming across difficulties.

After a while, does it become difficult when clients are face-to-face with you, and they realise how much you know? Does that ever become a burden on the coaching relationship?

A: I think the big word here is trust. It can take five minutes to establish trust, or it can take five years. The issue of confidentiality is the hallmark of many fields, and it certainly is in coaching. If the coach says, “I’d like to do a 360 assessment, and I’d like to talk with members of your staff who are willing to give feedback,” it already becomes a little more public beyond the family. Particularly if a family business is managing a group of people who are not part of the family.

You know you’re seeking feedback, but what you actually talk about in terms of the family is something worth exploring early on. There are times when I think people just need to get over that hurdle of trusting that the coach is not going to go running around talking about the family. That’s true of attorneys, and that’s true of physicians.

To that extent, executive coaching is a profession in the sense that there are ethics and values. Most people in helping relationships of any kind are filled with stories and information about an individual’s life. I’ve found that, in a business round table, the peers will push each other so that the family story is known, but it’s within a very small group. Some people do prefer coaching remotely through Zoom or Skype because it’s somebody miles away who doesn’t know your family’s business. It just seems like a safer place. That’s an option for people who prefer that.

R: That might be a very good option. It depends on how much your family’s success relies on the immediate community around it and how narrow and tight that community is. In general, in your experience, are men or women easier to coach?

A: It depends. There are some clear differences, but in terms of easier, it’s all over the map. Some women want a man because a man – and here’s a generalisation – will give it to them straight. They know about business, and they think they’ll learn something they can’t learn from a woman.

Sometimes I recommend that certain women see a male coach because it will be a different kind of encounter. It may help them work with the men in their lives in a different way.

I think women are sometimes more accessible. Their feelings are more accessible, and their insights are different. They may focus a lot more on relationships, as opposed to the business side of things. Ultimately, when people are comfortable acknowledging what they’re struggling with, it allows the encounter to be helpful.

If someone is always defending against sharing their thoughts, it’s more difficult. You see that resistance in a variety of ways in men or women. Frequently, it’s around time. I have two clients now, one male and one female, who can never keep to the exact time of the meeting. Whether it’s Skype or face-to-face, it doesn’t matter. In each case, the feedback I give them is, “I think you have a time management problem.” It’s not so much that I get annoyed, which I do when my time isn’t respected. It’s more about what it can teach us about how you interact with other people.

As a coach, how you experience that client, whether it be male or female, is likely to be a good source of learning for that client. That’s what makes it all so unique, apart from generalising about gender.

That isn’t to say women don’t often struggle with their relationships with men. We know what those issues are: being interrupted, not being taken seriously – there’s a whole range. Men, however, may say, “Her cleavage is showing, and I don’t know what to do about that.” They become afraid to manage women because they don’t know if what they’ll do is going to be offensive. There are struggles for men around how they work around women, and vice versa.

R: Amy, thank you very much for this episode. We will speak again next week on another subject.

About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge: Amy Katz Daughters in Charge

Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses.  She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.