Coach drivers

Coaching has matured to an extent where the skills it bestows can be passed on from one generation of partners to the next. Nigel Spencer highlights the benefits to firms that are prepared to make the investment

Law firms are the archetypal people businesses, where the expertise and capability lie solely with the body of partners, associates and business services staff working in a firm.

When it comes to maximising capability in people businesses, executive coaching has long been recognised as probably the most powerful development tool one can use. It is a technique that has been used outside the legal sector for some time.

But where should the coaching be targeted? Across many business sectors there has been a welcome shift from the use of coaching in remedial situations relating to poor performance to a focus on getting one’s best partners and staff from ’great to greater’. That was the focus we put into our learning and development strategy six years ago, adopting coaching as a core tool in our firm’s worldwide development agenda.

At that stage only around 8 per cent of the firm’s partners had experienced coaching – so which strategies did we use to increase acceptance of our approach?

Core values

A key learning point has been to use coaching as a tool rather than as an isolated concept, with a specific purpose to underpin board-level business projects and core development programmes. The aim was to create a situation whereby receiving coaching, utilising it for each team and developing the individual’s own coaching skills was understood culturally to be ’the way we do things here’. For this reason we made coaching skills a core competence for both fee-earners and business service teams.

The coaching was beneficial for both partners and non-partners.

At the pre-partner stage, following promotion to our managing associate grade, individuals attend a ’development centre’ course where they receive feedback on their skills. They then receive a programme of coaching for the next 12 months to support the creation of career development and business plans.

For new partners our series of core skills modules include sessions where partners coach and provide feedback for each other and receive one-to-one coaching from tutors in follow-up sessions. This system has multiple benefits: partners experience being coached and thus understand the benefit others in their teams will gain from coaching, but also observe best practice coaching and thereby develop their own skills.

For partners in mid-career we developed a structured programme of coaching in what we have called a ’Career Development Review’. This allows partners to pause and review their careers as partners to date, their current balance of activities and to explore what they would like to focus on during the next phase of their careers.

Finally, for our more experienced partners, the learning and development team worked with senior partner David Dickinson and the board to implement a series of workshops entitled ’Broadening Partner Development’. Partners were encouraged to think ahead in terms of developing their skills and networks for future careers beyond the firm, with coaching a key component.

Team coach

An example of a key firm project where we used coaching to enhance the return on the investment was as part of the implementation of a global client relationship management system. Instead of delivering pure training sessions, we gave our business services teams coaching skills so that, in their daily interaction with fee-earners, they would be able to coach them to use the system over time. This was a much more effective way to embed behavioural change through the firm than by providing one-off training sessions.

Coaching is now widespread throughout the whole of Simmons’ international ­network, and the ’pull energy’ of requests for coaching from the firm’s partners and staff has replaced any need to ’push’ its benefits. This is a symptom of a fundamental shift from a position where in 2004 8 per cent of the partners had experienced some type of coaching to a figure now exceeding 70 per cent. The majority clearly understand how great its benefits can be and want to utilise it.

Many corporates, together with firms in the accountancy, banking and legal sectors, have experimented with developing internal coaching teams, often made up of learning and development team members. This move enhances the return on investment delivered by a firm’s learning and ­development function.

Inside information

Feedback indicates that these internal coaches are able to provide the same level of support and challenges that people receive from external coaches, but can do so with the added benefit of an intimate knowledge of the firm.

Another trend is the rigorous selection of coaches and ensuring that they are qualified and supervised professionally. Industry bodies and key coaching organisations such as the European Mentoring & Coaching Council, Meyler Campbell and the School of Coaching run accredited coaching ­programmes, use strict codes of ethics and have developed coaching competencies of skills they expect member coaches to develop.

The coaching industry is relatively young, but HR teams need to know what they are buying. An accredited ’badge of excellence’ will undoubtedly become more important as the coaching sector matures.

Nigel Spencer is head of learning and development at Simmons & Simmons