Careers coaching is new to many colleges, but it is already changing attitudes to professional development, says Ian Nash.
Careers training for college staff is not easy to sell, says Ann Ruthven, one of the key people at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) responsible for promoting the service.
"People see careers literature and say, `I'm not sending so-and-so because they might leave'. In fact, there is increasing evidence that, with good training, people are more likely to stay - and they will do a better job as they are more motivated."
With the new national entitlement for lecturers and managers to a minimum 30 hours a year of continuing professional development, attitudes are changing and sceptics are being forced to think again, says Ann, CEL's careers service development manager.
Careers coaching is a relatively new kid on the CPD block. Whether someone is keen to rise through the management ranks or simply do better in post, the scheme dispenses with the vast piles of forms and questionnaires associated with classic advice in favour of one-to-one counselling.
"I have a team of highly qualified associates who act as an independent sounding board for people in need of help," she says. "Often people tell us they keep applying for jobs but fail to get shortlisted or don't succeed at interview, and they have no idea why."
People fail to notice how the repeated rejection is eroding their sense of confidence and self-esteem. As the downward spiral progresses, they fail to notice other things they are doing badly.
"It is amazing how many senior people have terrible CVs or do not plan sufficiently in advance," says Ann. "We have people who are asked to do a five-minute presentation coming up with a 20-slide PowerPoint show. They let things get out of all proportion."
But careers coaching is not just targeted at individuals. Colleges undergoing mergers and keen to retain leadership talent, or looking to build a high-performance management team, can call on the services of the CEL. Nor is it restricted to the job in hand, since people involved are urged to address wider issues of work-life balance and improve their critical thinking skills.
Some colleges have introduced internal coaching as a cost-effective way of changing leadership styles and improving performance management, says Ann. But one-to-one or telephone coaching are the schemes most in demand.
Julia Coleman, who set up a careers development service when she was at the Learning and Skills Development Agency, now offers her services as a coach through the CEL. She confirms there are hundreds of people in further education hampered by lack of self-belief. "It's amazing to see the rapid change when they are coached," she says.
"In FE, we know about careers advice for students, but don't have a tradition of careers development for directors, managers or even lecturers. We are still learning what can be covered in a session."
Julia coaches a wide range of people, from those who have lost all confidence to those on track to senior management. But they all share the same basic needs. "They have to learn what is really important to them in the first place.
"Everyone should take a step back and ask who they want to be, who they think they are presenting in an interview and why they want to change."
Failure to understand their true motivation is what prevents most people from getting the best out of coaching and makes them resist even taking part, says Julia.
"One person in his late 50s wrote to me, and I quote: `Before our meeting, I had wondered whether travelling back and forth to the West Country for a two-hour interview was good use of my time. I have to say, it proved well and truly worth it'. He got the job he wanted and, more to the point, he had learned a lot about himself," she says.
There are signs of a significant growth in the number of people wanting careers counselling. "It is not at the rate I would have hoped for," says Julia. "People mention their successes to colleagues, but it is still a big step to take on a coach."
Too often, people fail to identify their strengths. Julia has a catalogue of people who see their passion for their subject as a weakness, not a strength, or who resist direct eye contact with an interview panel.
One woman who was reluctant to look directly at people wrote to Julia after overcoming the problem and getting the job she was after. "Not only am I seeing more, but I believe people are listening more to what I am saying," she wrote. "Going into meetings now, I think they want to listen. The coaching helped me immensely with my confidence."
FROM SPREADSHEETS TO PEOPLE PERSON
Susanne Davies readily admits her biggest problem as a manager has been her lack of ability to handle people. "I'm a strategic person - a planner," she says. "Give me a spread-sheet and I'll happily colour it in."
From the moment she put her foot on the management ladder, Susanne found herself quick to take offence or take arguments personally.
The cause of her problems soon became clear. "I had had no training.
"I was employed for my teaching skills but was suddenly a middle manager, which demanded completely different strengths," she says.
"FE is like the NHS. It has hundreds of managers not doing a good enough job, and I include myself in that.
"You get promoted and are told to get on with it, when you actually need help to do a better job."
Rather than just whinge or quit, Susanne decided to get some training and signed up for a course with the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL). This carried a "virtual fund" of pound;3,000, giving her flexibility to pick and mix programmes.
The most valuable part of the investment proved to be careers coaching, face-to-face or telephone interviews with experienced further education training managers. "They help you identify your problems and work them through. It's a bit like counselling; the choice of words you use helps you clarify things."
Susanne found she could use her strengths as a strategic thinker to handle people better, finding original approaches to setting agendas for meetings and having pre-meetings with individuals who might otherwise prove difficult. "I learned not to personalise issues or see every argument as an attack on me. As a result, I have much more confidence in my ability to deal with people."
She chose the course after failing to get a senior management post at a Cambridgeshire college. "I came away from the interview with no idea of why I had failed. Feedback was vague and gave me no clues to the answers I was seeking."
She talked though the issues with CEL careers coach Julia Coleman, who helped her analyse her CV, her personal approach to the interview panel and the direction of her ambition.
After this, she applied to be deputy director of curriculum at Furness College in Cumbria and walked into the job with new confidence.
"I can't praise Julia and her colleagues enough," she said. "She is the reason I got the job and I will readily go back to her for advice."