Turning leaders into winners

The executive coaching business was on a growth trajectory in Singapore, but is now facing the Covid-19 challenge

IN the hit TV series Billions, badass billionaire hedge fund founder Bobby Axelrod runs a tight ship of A-type portfolio managers, whom he counts on to be on their toes all the time. When they falter or feel less-than-invincible, they walk down the aisle to go to their in-house performance coach, who talks them up again.

Never mind that they then continue on their merry way, chalking up financial shenanigans that would put Gordon Gekko to shame. The portrayal of workplace coaching as de riguer exemplifies how the previously niche profession of executive coaching has taken off in the last decade in the US and UK.

In Singapore too, demand for executive coaching has opened up in recent years, thanks to the current waves of succession and disruption in business throwing up young heirs and startup leaders who seek coaching to move on to the next stage.

But just as businesses around the world are dealing with the fallout of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the executive coaching industry in Singapore is also facing a pullback.

With safe distancing limits in place, coaches find themselves pushed to change the way they interact with clients, putting a dampener on demand. Prospects of new business also appear to have dried up, as companies hunker down and focus on keeping themselves afloat amid the crisis.

But before things went south, executive coaches in Singapore were seeing an upswing in a relatively new market.

Coaches BT spoke to say that in the last few years, they were seeing new, young clients - in their 20s or 30s, with some as young as university undergraduates - pass through their doors, a contrast to the senior executives they have been used to coaching.

Suman Balani, managing director of Flourish Consulting, whose clients include the likes of Fraser and Neave and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, says her company started receiving requests to coach young clients about two years ago. Since then, the proportion of her company's work arising from that segment has been growing, she says, without revealing specific figures.

Such clients tend to be heirs to family-owned businesses or leaders in startups. They may also be mid-level executives in global corporations that are being positioned for bigger roles in future. But generally, these young upstarts are largely perceived as looking to fast-track their development of leadership skills with the help of executive coaching.

The International Coaching Federation's (ICF) chapter in Singapore says: "We are seeing new or younger CEOs or leaders undertaking coaching to help them attain leadership skills which previous generations of leaders gained whilst working their way up the corporate ladder."

Coaching is also important for young leaders because the complexity of the world today means they can no longer rely on traditional methods of leadership, adds Henrik Bresman, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, where he directs a management acceleration programme.

"If you look at leadership models from not that long ago, they basically said, you lead in different ways depending on the situation we're in. One of the most successful and widespread leadership models is called situational leadership, and it's basically a two-by-two matrix... The world is far too complicated these days to be able to reduce into something so simple."

Veteran business coach John Bittleston says: "The business of mentoring and coaching is the fastest-growing in the world. The number of well-trained mentor-coaches has increased but not nearly as fast as the market demand. Available business is many times what it was when we started thirty years ago. I estimate that it is growing about a steady 20 per cent a year. There are signs that this will increase."

The founder-mentor of Terrific Mentors adds: "Mentoring-coaching content is wide and ranges from career planning and strategy-setting at one end to personal communications and presentation at the other.

"At times we can be an emergency service for someone who has been dug into a hole either in career or in personal life terms. We are also retained long-term for many years to act as a sounding board. Some clients are with us for a couple of months; others, for ten and more years."

Demand for team coaching has also emerged in tandem with leadership needs, largely because teamwork and leadership are linked. This is typically conducted for leaders and the teams they head up.

"I think this is one of the biggest challenges young people face, they don't know how to connect with the team. And in the team, there may be people who are older than they are, which they get very perturbed by. So this is where it's kind of correlated," says Ms Balani.

Kevin Kan, the founder of Break Out Consulting Asia and who recently joined the Forbes Coaches Council, also points out that teamwork has become more essential amid business restructuring, with headcount or cost cuts forcing leaders to collaborate more and leverage their organisation's existing assets.

One-to-one interaction

But as Covid-19 continues to bear down on economies everywhere, coaches here are having to adapt quickly to stay in business. Coaching is a practice that involves certain closeness with clients, and much one-to-one interaction.

Clients have cancelled or put coaching on hold as they prefer sessions done face to face, according to the ICF in Singapore.

Those clients who are open to moving coaching sessions online are taking up video conferencing tools like Skype or Zoom, even using WhatsApp's video call function at times.

The ICF has also set up a landing page with resources and tips for its members globally to help them make the shift to online coaching.

"A lot of the group sessions meant to take place in person are now postponed, although the one-on-one sessions are still proceeding because we can use Zoom. Even if clients request to meet in person, it's not so bad as we can sit apart and manage that way," says Flourish Consulting's Ms Balani.

What's hurting the trade now is businesses reprioritising and holding back on what they feel are non-essential expenses. "They feel responsible for looking after their companies in the current situation and making sure that operations are running. It's back to basics, nobody's thinking of (leadership) development now," Ms Balani says.

Rob Bier, managing partner of 6:30 Partners, says he's focusing on supporting existing clients and not looking at securing new business for now.

It's not the easiest time, he adds, with most meetings moved online and others, like team coaching sessions, "not happening".

"Team coaching is a lot (of) face to face. Facial and body expressions are harder to see when you're online... it could also be harder to get to a conversation where there's a high level of trust," says Mr Bier, who counts startups like Warburg Pincus-backed image recognition technology firm Trax, and the Indonesian, family-owned Gunung Sewu Group among clients.

For Mr Kan, it's largely business as usual as some clients, keen to consult, have asked to move individual sessions forward, while team coaching has been deferred.

An in-house coach working for a global, energy-related maritime organisation, who declined to be named, also said the company has put external coaching programmes for executives on hold for now, as part of precautions amid the virus outbreak.

Bringing out their best

The structure for one-on-one executive coaching or team coaching can vary; either type of coaching can also be very expensive.

For individual coaching, some coaches have been known to charge S$350 an hour, while others charge S$10,000, depending on factors like the person being coached and whether the company paid for them.

In team coaching, coaches could be brought in to facilitate teamwork on an actual company project. An engagement over a six-month period, with one coaching session per month, could cost anywhere from S$5,000 to S$10,000.

Vinnie Lauria, Singapore-based managing partner of venture capital fund Golden Gate Ventures (GGV), thinks the investment is worth it.

In the startup scene, most of the interest in engaging executive coaches comes from companies that have completed a round of fundraising and are moving on to the next stage of expansion.

Some of GGV's portfolio companies have reached out to ask for executive coaching before. Sometimes, GGV recommends it to the startups as well.

"It's about taking companies to the next stage," says Mr Lauria, whose fund has invested in over 50 companies across Asia since 2011. "You're getting into a really matured market, you're facing intense competition... you've got a lot of money, you want to make sure you're operating really well in terms of strategy, decision making, priorities and motivating the team."

Vihang Patel, co-founder and CEO of Finaxar, has plans to engage executive coaches for other key leaders in the fintech firm, having experienced the usefulness of it in two executive coaching programmes. The most recent one took place in Bali last year over a few days.

"I went for it because my company was shifting in terms of scale," Mr Patel says. "We were 20 people and we were going to about 70 people. It's a pretty big scale-up that we were anticipating in a very short period of time, about less than a year. We were also bringing some senior executives into the company."

He felt that he needed more guidance in people management. Many startup founders, including himself, come from technical backgrounds and tend to focus on execution, while overlooking the people aspect of the business, he adds.

The coaching was helpful in giving him directions, he says. "The idea of executive coaching is not that they have answers to our problems... but to help us get to an answer or solution... A lot of (the coaching) was around the kind of structures and approaches that have helped previous founders get this direction."

For global corporations, the intent behind coaching young leaders may be similar in terms of setting them up for the next level, yet different.

Standard Chartered Bank has a coaching programme for senior executives, but in 2017, it introduced a separate programme for its young leaders - mid-level executives with the potential to become business heads or C-suite executives.

They are coached on areas such as relationships, purpose in life and influencing - with the mind to instill the bank's culture in them early.

"The whole idea of coaching them is to say that they are very good leaders or at least, they show potential. And this is where we want to change their mindset, intervene in their way of doing things right from the beginning," says Charlotte Thng, head of human resources for Singapore, Australia and the ASA (Asean and South Asia) cluster markets.

"What we have in mind, at the end of the day, is that they (coaches) bring the leaders... congruent with the bank's mindset and mission to serve clients," Ms Thng adds.

The young leaders also undergo team coaching to supplement the individual coaching, although those are one-off sessions as opposed to individual coaching, which is regular.

As for the effectiveness of the programme for young leaders, Ms Thng says the proof is in how the bank has ready successors for critical roles.

Crunch time

One could also argue that it is precisely during times of deep crisis that the need for coaching becomes crucial.

"There is an increase in the number of people seeking help. Some simply want someone to talk to - they are lonely for intelligent discussion about their situation. Some want to review their work situation and the progress they are making. Many of these want to improve their work-life balance," says Mr Bittleston.

"Some see it as an opportunity to plan the strategy for their work for the next few years. Almost all want help to focus on the shape of the new world they see emerging because of this threat which they rightly perceive as a somewhat longer-term event than does the President of the United States."

Some of the issues executives are mulling now range from cost cutting and business continuity planning, according to coaches.

Specifically, some companies are weighing letting go of employees to free up cash, against future growth. Others are trying to manage employees' anxiety over job security and working remotely.

"In coaching, we always have a clear goal or vision and work towards that. But right now, people just cannot see beyond one or two months," Ms Balani shares. To help, she guides her clients in thinking through different scenarios, which broadens their perspective and helps them calm down.

Agreeing, Mr Bier adds that sometimes the best help is simply being present for clients and giving them a space where they can "get out of racing around fighting fires, and into thinking deeply and long term".