Coaching during a recession…

A colleague pointed out that I’d worked through a recession and wondered if I’d got any tips? I don’t like talking about my own work too much, but the backstory might help explain the bullet points…

Coaching through recessions… what a great question!  There’s probably a workshop in there somewhere (and certainly a blog article)!  I’ve been through two.  In the first (1990-1991), I was mainly doing OD consultancy, and it was a case of hunkering down, car on the equivalent of SORN, using the bicycle for shopping, and respect for Tesco who started up their Basics brand!  The temptation is always to put on a front of bravado; “Well, things are OK at the moment!”  This is inauthentic, potentially a lie, and unlikely to be effective because people with a limited budget are likely to spend it on people that they like and who need it!

One client asked how I was finding things and then listened to my situation.  He moved me to a 12-month retainer arrangement for himself to give an upfront lump-sum and then a small but regular monthly income.  He then offered my services through HR to support a handful of executives who were being made redundant.  This was a kind of bespoke outplacement arrangement.  Everything was delivered by phone.  They were delighted, which led to a surprisingly positive external image/reputation, and the company eventually recruited quite a few of them back (which persuaded me of the value of “alumni” arrangements).  The practical learnings from this included proving to myself that coaching was something that I wanted to do, developing a raft of tools for outplacement which I would scale up a few years later, the seed of the idea of alumni-relations in a corporate sense, and the value of negotiating a retainer arrangement rather than one-by-one coaching session payments.

In the second (2008-2009), I was running my own coaching practice with some established clients.  The impact of the recession on the individual clients meant that they were asking if we could space their sessions apart more (6 weeks instead of 4, for example) and the focus was largely on finding a new job (even for those who were in employment – because they saw the cards on the table where they were).  By providing some very clear, structured, job-hunting tools they quickly saw the benefit of accelerating their search, so ironically the spacing became much more frequent (weekly and fortnightly in some cases).

I had also got one corporate client, where I provided one-to-one coaching and had an overarching OD monitoring brief (which would be described today as engagement and well-being monitoring) through the HR Director.  Two of us job-shared and as it was a geographically-complex organisation we had a small team working in individual centres across the country.  Initially, they wanted to stop our work completely.  However, we were actually doing a more widely appreciated job than the HR Director imagined.  When he mooted the idea of making us redundant, the Chairman and CEO extended our contracts and widened our remit.  We found ourselves providing one-to-one coaching support for specific target types of employees – all new joiners (one group middle managers with previous careers, and the other raw graduates in their first job), individuals who were managing dangerous or ethically challenging work areas, and… former employees at all levels, though largely mid- to senior-management (ie a full-blown alumni-relations scheme).  The key throughout was about culture and nurturing a positive new one as the organisation remodelled itself.  We continued this corporate work for another 18 months by which time the entire leadership team had changed and the recession was behind us.

So, what are the learnings for me?  

  1. Don’t desert your clients (however few there may be) as they represent the best chance you have at the moment.
  2. Be honest, authentic, constructive, without being obsessive, and never plead.
  3. See coaching as a style of delivery that can be used in many situations, rather than a rigid model of same length sessions at regular intervals.
  4. Find specialised applications of coaching and develop some expertise in them.   Of course, you need to know the essentials, but most people acquire their expertise experientially. (Outplacement and job-hunt work, for example.)
  5. Sell in blocks – with part of the commitment up-front and a smaller ongoing one (if necessary).
  6. Really understand what the challenge is that the prospective client needs to address and offer a solution to that.  (The external reputation in the first case, and building a positive new culture in the second, were examples.)
  7. Above all else, the importance of networking alongside coaching.  Every opportunity that I had came from networking, every opportunity that my clients had came through networking, all new business ideas came through networking and using coaching skills to learn about them.

I hope that helps.  If anyone wants to chat through their own situation, I’m always happy to do so.

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