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Why Coaching Matters to Creative Companies

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

Having looked at The Business Impact of Coaching, I’m now going to focus specifically on companies in the creative industries – such as advertising agencies, design studios, TV broadcasters, computer games developers – and explain why I believe coaching is vitally important to their success.

In this context I should really refer to coaching as ‘coaching’ or even coaching – creative people are often suspicious of ‘management speak’ and my research showed me that many of them put the word ‘coaching’ in that category. No problem. I’m not a huge fan of the word myself. I’m more interested in what people do than in what label we use for it.

And what I’ve noticed are lots of managers, creative directors and other leaders of creative teams using skills that are very similar to classic coaching behaviours – i.e. lots of listening, asking questions, observational feedback, defining the goal/brief and then stepping back and allowing people to find their own way of achieving it. It’s as if these managers, many of whom have never read a book on coaching, using a coaching-style approach intuitively, because they find it the most effective way to get the best out of creative people.

So why are these coaching behaviours effective at facilitating high-level creative work?


We have already seen, in Key Coaching Skills, that questions are one of the hallmarks of the coaching style of management. They are also key drivers of creative endeavour. Many great discoveries and inventions have begun with questions – What if we did things differently? What if we could travel to the moon? What happens if we start connecting up all these computers?

Looking and listening

In his creativity classic A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech quoted Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who said: ‘Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different’. We all spend a lot of time looking at each other – yet it is surprising how little we often see. Much of the time we are too preoccupied with our own ideas and needs to really focus on the other person.

Coaches spend a lot of time looking at people and listening to them carefully – and noticing little clues in the way they speak or act. These clues can be the difference between success and failure in a working relationship – particularly when dealing with notoriously complex and sensitive artistic types.

Different perspectives

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’. Combining multiple perspectives is central to creativity – and to coaching. Good coaches are able to empathise with coachees and see the world from their point of view – even if they don’t necessarily agree with their opinions.

Many classic coaching questions prompt people to examine a situation from new perspectives, e.g. ‘What would person X say about this problem?’, ‘What’s good about being stuck?’, or ‘What’s the view from Mars?’.

Exchanging information and ideas

Related to different perspectives is the importance of exchanging information and ideas for creativity to happen. The most obvious recent example is the massive surge of creativity and innovation facilitated by the growth of the internet, perhaps the ultimate information exchange. This kind of exchange is integral to coaching, a conversational medium that facilitates better communication and the sharing of ideas.

Intrinsic motivation

One of the key findings of the research on creativity is that it is strongly linked to intrinsic motivation – i.e. when we are working for the joy of the task itself, we are likely to be more creative than if we are working in order to achieve something else (extrinsic motivation). For example, the poet Anne Sexton told her agent that although she would love to make a lot of money by writing poems, she had to ‘forget all about that’ in order to actually write them.

Coaching facilitates intrinsic motivation by asking questions and delivering observational feedback in a way that helps coachees focus on the task in hand. In The Inner Game of Tennis, coach Timothy Gallwey says he noticed that it didn’t seem to matter whether he praised or critiqued tennis players, as both had a negative effect on their performance. Even his well-intentioned praise had the effect of making them take their eye off the ball, since they started judging themselves and hoping their next shot would be as good as the last one.

So he stopped praising them and instead asked them to notice whether the ball was spinning clockwise or anticlockwise as it flew towards them – in order to answer this, they had to focus on the ball itself, and they were much more likely to return a good shot.

Creative flow

At its most intense, intrinsic motivation and absorption in work can lead to creative flow, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as ‘An almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness’. Flow is the state of mind in which peak performance is achieved – see How Coaching Creates Creative Flow.


Creatives are famously idiosyncratic, and there is no ‘right way’ or ‘best practice’ in imaginative work. Coaching typically takes place in one-to-one discussion, and demands that the coach adapts her approach to the coachee’s personality, learning style and situation – so it is ideally suited to working with all the kinks and nuances of an individual talent.

Learning on the job

Coaching deals with live work issues, not abstract or hypothetical situations. It focuses on the realities of the current situation and develops options that are then tried and tested. This is a good fit with the culture of many creative industries, where off-site training may be rare but there is a long tradition of learning on the job through a process of osmosis, support and challenge from peers and managers.

Influence rather than authority

Creatives are typically not impressed by fancy titles and formal authority, only by talent and results. If you want to get the best out of them, you will need to exert influence rather than rely on authority and giving orders. Coaching offers a practical approach to exerting influence and stimulating people to find original solutions to challenges. Crucially, it it a facilitative approach, enabling you to create a space for others’ creativity – thus minimising the risk of ruffling creatives’ feathers by intruding into their territory!

Creative capital

We saw in The Business Impact of Coaching how coaching helps learning organisations increase their intellectual capital. In his book The Creative Economy, John Howkins extends this into the concept of creative capital:

It seems reasonable to treat creativity as a capital asset. It has the essential qualities. It results from investment, which the owner may increase or vary; and it is a significant input to creative products. It is a substantial component of human capital. According to George Bernard Shaw, the only sensible definition of capital was Stanley Jevon’s casual remark that it was ‘spare money’. We could call intellectual capital ‘spare ideas’, and creative capital ‘spare creativity’. Creative capital … may have been included in some varieties of intellectual capital, but only on the edge. It needs to be fully recognized.

Describing the conditions for developing this capital, he says “Creative capital gains most when it is managed and made purposive … The creative manager uncovers the intellectual assets that lie hidden in companies and, ultimately, in our minds”. As the above examples show, coaching is one of the most effective means of uncovering these ‘hidden assets’ in the minds of creative workers – and therefore a vital way of increasing the value of any creative business.

Next in the series: Recommended Business Coaching Books


  1. Great article Mark – we are in the Idea & Innovation space – we implement Innovation processes and technology for mostly Global 1000 companies. In every instance where a Coach profile is used as facilitator, the incidents of idea approval outpace those of ideas without a Coach by a margin of 2-1 and the dollar values implemented by a whopping by 46%. Yet getting the client to beleive in the value that a Coach brings to the process is always a hard sell – and we don’t even generate revenue from the recommendation – we just recommed the approach knowing that it’ll make the client’s process that much more successful.

  2. Thanks Andre, and a very interesting point about the added value created by a coach. As I’m a coach, people expect me to say that kind of thing, so it’s good to hear an independent voice speaking up for us!

    Could you say a little more about how you structure sessions with and without a coach?

  3. I think this is a spot on article. However, I would be wary of using the word ‘coaching’ perhaps with creative people in advertising and media. You can coach business managers in large corporations such as IBM or HP but I am not sure you can ‘coach’ advertising account planners or advertising copywriters and so on in agencies such as Saatchi and Saatchi or TWBA or ‘coach’ TV producers / writers / directors in companies such as Channel 4 / Talk Back and so on.

    Eamon’s last blog post..Recession and Job Prospects for Graduates

  4. PS I am not saying you can’t offer services to the sort of organizations I have mentioned (I certainly think you can) but I just think you have to slightly change the language / style in approaching them (compared to the IBMs / HPs etc ..). I think (might well be wrong ..).

  5. Hi Eamon, thanks for your comments. My experience certainly fits your statement that we need to be wary of using the word ‘coaching’ with creative people. They often view it with suspicion as they associate it with corporate management-speak.

    On the one hand, I could respond that I have coached people at Channel 4 and creative agencies – but on the other, I know exactly what you mean by having to change the language/style in approaching them. This blog is part of my attempt to present the ideas and techniques of coaching to a creative industries audience in an appropriate (i.e. non-corporate) style. I’ve toyed with the idea of using another word to describe it but haven’t so far come up with an alternative that doesn’t have some kind of baggage.

    I go into these issues in more detail in my forthcoming research paper about coaching in the creative industries – I’ll let you know when I publish it on this blog.

  6. Hi Mark. How about a job title such as ‘Creative Untapper’, or no job title, or a quirky title, or a title that gets them to thinking creatively before you introduce yourself, that sort of thing. Of course, ‘coach’ works perfectly, as i said before, for the IBMs of this world (especially for people in marketing and business management). And, it might be fine for a lot of creative organizations, too, but not, i think, for some, such as the Saatchi and Saatchis and so on.

  7. Hi Mark. Great article on coaching. With respect to your citing Howkins concept of “Creative Capital”, therein lies the difficulty of properly valuating it. As an accounting student, the concept of properly valuating human resources (or creative capital) has been rammed down our throats since day one.

    It’s one of the issues that has been widely debated amongst the Accounting Professionals’ community. How you can accurately valuate what’s “inside the minds” of your creative workforce is a conundrum in itself.

    Will’s last blog post..Fitness Update #2 – Don’t wish me to “break a leg”

  8. Hi Will, thanks for stopping by and sharing your informed perspective. You’re absolutely right of course – it’s virtually impossible to put an objective value on a concept like creative capital.

    I do think Howkins has a point, in that there’s definitely ‘something’ of value in the collective imagination of a company, but it’s the same problem as valuating any complex intangible quality – such as brand, intellectual property, reputation, tacit knowledge – the value is too context-dependent and volatile to fit easily on a balance sheet.

    One of my current projects addresses this issue in relation to a different kind of complex intervention – I’ll be blogging about it here (and elsewhere) before long…

  9. Eamon – my experience is that it really depends on the individual creative company. Some places are quite happy to use the ‘coaching’ word, others get quite uncomfortable with it so I sweep it under the carpet 🙂

    I can see quirky job titles working for some people but I’ve not thought of anything that works for me. Actually, ‘poet’ is quirky enough for some people. Sometimes it feels like introducing yourself as a Stegosaurus.

    By the time I’m talking to people about working together, we don’t really bother about the labels, it’s much more interesting to talk about ideas and actions.


  1. […] Mark McGuiness begins his free e-book, Time Management for Creative People with a stereotypical "day-in-the-life" depiction of a designer trying to work on a creative project but facing disorganization in all of its facets: distracting emails, interrupting phone calls and important files lost on a messy desk. One might argue that this is a stereotype — that most creatives can handle a bit of basic organization, but there is a grain of truth in there somewhere. There are plenty of creative professionals who could do with some organization. […]