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Steer and cheer leaders

In the first of an occasional series on management matters, Afiong Edem and Simon Western look at the rise of the personal coach

Most people think of coaching as something that parents arrange for offspring struggling with maths, French or chemistry - to get them through exams. Alternatively, it conjures up images of potential David Beckhams or Paula Radcliffes being prepared for sporting stardom.

But coaching is also a fast-growing method used by colleges to help aspiring managers develop skills, improve motivation, help with time management, handle stress and sort out finances.

In the past, seeing a coach usually meant that you were failing and needed help. But coaches are now being seen as invaluable for all individuals, groups and organisations to build on existing success and improve their performance.

As the number of principals and senior managers retiring or quitting colleges reaches record levels, coaching is also seen as an essential tool in grooming future managers and spotting new talent.

Learning professional coaching techniques can be useful for both teachers and managers - and they will have an important role to play at the new Centre for Excellence in Leadership launched last month for the post-16 sector.

Mike Stanton of the firm Hay Management, which provides coaching, reckons it works because it focuses leadership learning on the individual. "We all know how difficult it is to change our behaviour - recent research is confirming that we're pretty well set in our ways by the age of three. Yet leaders do have to change. Their jobs demand that they do.

"As they move from department headship to multiple responsibilities to general management and principalship, they are presented with challenges they have never faced. Those who learn to adapt, succeed."

Coaching uses a mix of skills from counselling and consultancy. What makes a good coach is the ability to bring together people skills and organisational knowledge. Building on trust, the coach becomes a critical friend. He or she supports, challenges and presents new options and insights to their client, while keeping them focused and on task.

What is the precise role of a coach? You might get a performance coach, such as the sports coach who tells an athlete to run faster, or a life coach, who helps their client identify and reach their personal goals.

Coaches usually work with individuals but coaching teams are also an option.

In the business world, the coach's role is somewhere between that of the performance coach and the life coach. Their job is to improve the individual's performance but also to help the client find new ways of behaving and thinking that have a lasting impact. Coaching is a fast growing profession, especially in the US, but still in its infancy. It lacks the rigour of counselling and does not have the or therapist training and professional checks, required for therapists. There are excellent coaches out there, who are some way ahead of the training available but the selection of a coach to fit with one's personal needs is vitally important.

Simon Western is a Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University Management School. Afiong Edem is an adviser at the Learning and Skills Development Agency

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