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Coaches don’t just help athletes perform: top ceos and aspiring business folk are also seeking tips to get ahead too. According to a 2020 report for the International Coaching Federation, executive or career coaching is a €2.8bn industry – and an unregulated one at that, so buyer beware. Globally, the number of coaches had shot up to 71,000 by the end of the past decade. Is this a case of “those who can’t do, teach”? Would a customer be better off seeking therapy? Is this just management consultancy with Californian packaging and snake oil thrown in? monocle sent three writers to find out. 

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Breathing in 

High Performing Coach, Global

Joel Burgess says that there’s a big difference between counselling and the business coaching he offers. Even so, there’s something therapeutic about our session. Clearly someone who takes care of himself, the physically fit, yet softly-spoken coach tells me that he focuses on breathing for the first five minutes of every class – a seemingly eternal period of time that’s enough to slow the mind of even the busiest ceo, entrepreneur or, in this case, a rushed magazine editor. “The first thing people tend to say afterwards is, ‘Wow, I feel amazing,’” says Burgess, a professional business coach who also trains other coaches as managing director of High Performing Coach. He’s right. 

British but Madeira-based, Burgess criss-crosses Europe to train businesspeople. Some of the techniques his “holistic approach” employs echo those of a psychotherapist: teaching clients mastery of their own minds and to contemplate their decision-making. While counselling is about “determining the present from the past and unpacking trauma”, Burgess says that his coaching looks forward. 

Whether trying to stay at the top, climb the ladder or become a business coach themselves, clients come to Burgess for help. When we discuss meditation, the coach recalls a session with a ceo who’d just raised €12m for his venture but wasn’t interested in “mumbo-jumbo” mindfulness. “I persisted and now he loves meditation because it allows him to work skilfully with his mind. He’s less reactive.” Taking a beat allows professionals to better assess tough situations when the wrong move can cost millions, he adds. “It might be as simple as saying, ‘Can I get back to you on that?’”

For Burgess, an entrepreneur who moved into coaching after founding London-based food firm Nutrifix, no two clients are the same. Some come to him for help with a task, while others are there for the long haul. His customers are mostly managers. Rather than micromanaging, “The best managers teach their teams how to think,” says Burgess. 

“When you begin this journey you learn to take responsibility for your actions. I’ve seen huge changes in myself and in my clients”

I relay how I struggled when I was promoted from a writer to an editor and became suddenly responsible for managing unruly journalists – an occasionally temperamental bunch. He assures me that I’m not alone. Burgess invites me to consider the coder’s dilemma (many of his clients are in tech). “You get these chief technology officers who, because they’re the best at coding, rise up the ranks quickly,” he says. “Suddenly they’re given a team to manage and they think, ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to code.’ But if the cto is able to empower these engineers to work effectively, the engineers, the company and the cto win.”

The key to empowering those employees? Listening. “The best salespeople talk the least,” he says, adding that those who listen learn to not just ask the right questions but to do so at the opportune moment. Developing that empathy will be appreciated by others. Burgess schools his trainees in asking “powerful questions”: the ones we avoid asking because the answer might yield a response we’d rather not deal with, as opposed to the ones at the top of a self-regarding Linkedin poll.

He tells me about one client, a ceo with hundreds of staff, who was always a few minutes late to sessions. “By the fourth time, I challenged him on it,” he says. He told the executive that his tardiness undervalued the coaching and asked where else in his life and work he was behaving like this. “It forced him to get radically honest with himself,” adds Burgess, and to inject his company philosophy with much-needed accountability. 

I’ve learned that training for professional improvement is worthwhile, even if it touches the occasional nerve. Burgess says that his job is rewarding. “When you begin this journey you learn to take responsibility for your actions,” he says. “I’ve seen huge changes in me and in my clients: better health, better business, more happiness.”

Burgess charges €23,000 for twice-monthly meetings over six months, a weekend retreat in Madeira and support over Whatsapp and email between sessions. 


Enhanced thinking

New York Life Coaching, New York

I didn’t expect to be thumping my chest or doing war chants à la Wolf of Wall Street but a session with Annie Lin on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was far less intense than I anticipated. After all, New York is a city of strivers. You don’t have to look far to find an ad for an executive coach, the witch doctors of the working world, who smile out from magazine centrefolds promising to double – maybe triple! – salaries with their advice or propel their students to the top of the corporate pyramid.

“A lot of my clients call themselves perfectionists but they’re actually scared. Accept that fear, I say”

Lin, however, is a different operator. She holds sessions in her home, a calming apartment decorated with carvings and artefacts gathered on her travels around the world, drawing on the teachings of the Tao to lead her clientele of ceos to their higher purpose. “I believe in the power of coaching,” says Lin, who was born in Taiwan and migrated away from a career in finance to what she describes as a calling. “It’s about seeing a vision of your future self and letting that pull you forward. The only way to get out of uncertainty is to have a defined vision of the future. That’s why ‘positive thinking’ is insufficient; it has to be more personal than that.”

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Lin makes no bones about her style being a mix of business and life coaching. “A lot of my clients call themselves perfectionists but they’re actually scared,” she says. “‘What if things go wrong?’ ‘What if others judge me?’ Accept that fear, I say – allow that to be your reality.” There’s no question that our 75-minute session has a whiff of therapy. Yet unlike the drier executive coaching of finding one’s own “personal kpis”, she, like any good therapist, allows you to talk yourself into an “ah-ha” moment. In fact, once we started I wouldn’t shut up.

Prior to meeting, Lin had sent a series of prompts for me. How satisfied was I with my career, wealth, education, relationships? What would a “10” look like for each? I wrote that I’ve always believed in letting my work speak for itself yet had the nagging feeling that that’s diminishing in a world where everyone is fighting to be heard. Harping on in the Twittersphere has never been my thing, I explain in Lin’s living room. I loathe writing bios; my website is pointedly plain. You want as many people as possible to read your writing but I’ve harboured a hang-up about online self-promotion – perhaps in part because monocle has also been careful on this front.

I’d half expected Lin to say, “That’s the way it is, sunshine; get with the programme,” and come up with various encouragements and social media strategies. Instead, we talked through examples of those who I felt had successfully put themselves out there, online or offline. “Let’s call it ‘personal branding’, rather than ‘self-promotion’,” she says, with a smile. “It just sounds less aggressive.”

As we talk, we come to the notion of acting “in service of the work”, which treads a fine line between self-help and corporatese, yet makes utter sense. We discuss a series of actionable things that I can do to make myself more visible online without having to wade into the maelstrom of Twitter. “So which are you going to do in the next two weeks?” asks Lin. “Having specific actionable items, which I’ll check in on after our session, is the main difference between this and therapy.”

The second half of our session spills into the stresses of anticipating a big project and the nature of fear – chewy stuff. The way Lin coaches is not for everyone. If you’re looking for someone who will dish out direct pointers on leadership strategies or nailing pitches, this isn’t it. But she extols a humanistic attitude to work, seeing career as something that’s shaped around your inner life, even the awkward bits; many people, I suspect, would benefit from that kind of thinking. More leaders in the workplace are being encouraged to show their vulnerability but it can get out of control: I think of one recent example of a ceo posting a tearful selfie on Linkedin about how hard it was to fire a bunch of people. 

Nevertheless, everyone needs someone to talk to and, unlike a traditional therapist, Lin is someone who has boxed in the corporate ring too. Executive coaching, done right, can work.

A three-month Annie Lin course is $2,200 (€2,200), meeting every two weeks.


Generational wisdom

Coaching Management Institute, Seoul

Letting your guard down with a stranger is rarely easy but on my call with former KB Insurance ceo Kim Byung-heon, who is now an executive coach, I find myself fidgeting in my chair more than usual. When you’re asked to delve into your professional weaknesses by one of the country’s former titans of finance, it’s tempting to feel that your problems are small.

After some initial awkwardness, though, I find myself opening up. Following our session I realise that Kim has been encouraging me in subtle ways. Beaming through my screen from his personal library, he hasn’t contradicted me once and has instead backed up my own assessments of my career. I’m not new to therapy but having a veteran businessperson empathise with me is validating, if not a little unsettling.

The history of executive coaching in South Korea is shorter than in the West but, coaches say, more leaders are recognising the need for their services as their companies go global. “Many firms have transformed from fast followers to first movers. This means that the companies that previously couldn’t tolerate failures now must embrace and foster a culture that encourages them,” says Kim, who spent more than 30 years in finance as well as in the strategy division at multinational conglomerate LG Corp. “Without a culture that allows taking risks, it’s hard to attract world-class talent.”

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In that vein, there’s plenty of demand for executive coaching in Asia’s fourth-largest economy. South Korea is known for perfecting smartphones and container ships but foreign investors have long viewed its companies as lagging in corporate governance and culture. At the top of the country’s largest conglomerates, professional managers revere the founders’ descendants and often rely on the families’ influence to push decisions through the boardroom, even though their stakes have been diluted significantly over decades of growth. Lower down the ladder, seniority can count as much as, if not more than, performance when it comes to promotions, and that frustrates millennials and Gen Z employees.

“Consultants prescribe solutions, whereas coaches prod you into thinking on your own” 

Seoul’s Coaching Management Institute allows clients to benefit from the wisdom of former executives (90 per cent of its coaches have such experience). Helen Hyonsook Ko, the institute’s founder and a management-studies professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, explains how the service differs from management consulting, comparing it to a discreet sounding board. “Consultants prescribe solutions, whereas coaches prod you into thinking on your own,” she says. Kim, who became a partner-coach after retiring from KB Insurance in 2015, adds that “in most cases, you already have the answer in your head”.

In our session, Kim tells me that he advocates going back to basics and letting the client take the initiative. He asks me to talk about my personal priorities as well as the reasons behind a professional dilemma I’ve faced. He shares ordeals from his career that might resonate but stops short of making a direct comparison. Coaching, Kim says, gives clients the push “to make the difficult changes that leaders lose sleep over” and it “gets you to stop and look at yourself critically”. I certainly found that injection of perspective helpful.

There’s something in it for the coaches too, besides their fee. “There was a retired ceo who used to joke that he was playing golf 100 days a year,” says Kim, laughing. “Some of his peers decided to become coaches because they still have the drive to contribute and improve.”

A session at Seoul’s Coaching Management Institute costs between €700 and €1,000 per hour and the number of sessions depends on each client’s needs.

Illustrator: Kouzou Sakai

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