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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.

[Read more…]

The Business Impact of Coaching

Table, chairs, blue sky

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

Having spent most of this series outlining the What and How of business coaching, it’s time to consider the Why – the key benefits to a business where coaching is an integral part of managing performance and developing people’s talents.

I’ve left this till late in this guide because until we’re clear about what business coaching is and how it works, it’s hard to consider its impact on an organisation.

With all complex ‘people skills’, it is hard to draw a straight line between particular skills and practices and business results. This is particularly true of coaching, as it is essentially a facilitative approach. Whether managers or consultants, coaches act as catalysts for various processes within an organisation, so it’s often hard to separate the different elements that contribute to success.

However we can identify factors that business coaching seeks to influence, and consider how it does this. In each case, note how the personal benefits (to both coaches and coachees) are intimately linked to the business benefits. Ideally a company should be looking for a dynamic balance between the two, especially in the context of a creative business.


It’s impossible to create commitment – but you can encourage it by giving people an opportunity to (a) work towards goals they find personally meaningful as well as delivering business results, and (b) use their creativity and initiative to do the job in their own way.

Business coaching offers a wealth of options for doing both of these. In fact, the coaching approach is founded on the assumption that the business coach’s role is to act as a facilitator, while the coachee has the biggest emotional investment in the goal and the responsibility for committing to action.


Following on from Commitment, because the coach is a facilitator, asking questions, listening and giving feedback in order to stimulate the coachee’s thinking, it is a highly creative process. Not in an abstract, fuzzy way, but in challenging people to come up with ideas that are new, useful and practical – and then to put them into action and see them through.

For more on business coaching and creativity see How coaching creates creative flow and the next article in this series, on Why business coaching is vital to creative companies.

[Read more…]

Formal and Informal Coaching

Table, chairs, blue sky

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

The term ‘business coaching’ conjures up an image of a one-to-one session scheduled in the diary, focusing exclusively on the coachee’s goals and how s/he can work towards them. And a lot of coaching does take place in this format, particularly when delivered by an external business coach.

For a manager-coach however, the picture is not quite so clear. Formal business coaching sessions should never be undervalued – yet she can also coach people informally, in her everyday conversations with her team, so that it becomes part of her basic approach to management. In their book Solution-focused Coaching, Jane Green and Anthony Grant talk of a formal-informal continuum:

In-house workplace coaching lies on a continuum from the formal structured workplace coaching at one end to the informal, on-the-run workplace coaching at the other – what you might call corridor coaching: the few minutes snatched in the corridor in the midst of a busy project.

The two types of business coaching are not mutually exclusive – many managers use both styles in complementary ways.

Formal coaching Informal coaching
Used explicitly Used explicitly or implicitly
Scheduled appointments Everyday workplace conversations
Programme with beginning and end Ongoing process, a style of management
Most of the conversation in 'coaching mode' Manager can switch from coaching mode to other management styles

Formal coaching

The most obvious characteristic of formal business coaching is that it is being used explicitly – during the session both parties are clear that they are engaged in ‘coaching’ and are committed to this process as well as the outcome.

[Read more…]

What’s Coming Next on Wishful Thinking

Inspiration comes of working

Having taken a few steps into the New Year and received some great suggestions about what you’d like me to write about in 2008, I’ll pause for a moment to give you an update on some old projects and what to expect over the next few weeks.

New tagline: ‘inspiring creative professionals’

If you look at the header at the top of the page, you’ll see I’ve changed the tagline from ‘coaching creative professionals’ to ‘inspiring creative professionals’. This was partly (ahem) inspired by the beautiful folders in the photo above, which were a present from a friend in Japan. Apart from the fact that my research project revealed that some people in the creative industries are virtually allergic to the word ‘coaching’, these days coaching is only part of what I do – albeit a very important part. As well as coaching, my work now involves blogging, training, presenting and writing e-books – all of which are designed to inspire creative professionals.

And as a poet, I couldn’t resist the double-entendre of ‘inspiring creative professionals’ as ‘creative professionals who are inspiring’. That would be you, by the way.

So I’ve decided ‘inspiring creative professionals’ is much more it.

[Read more…]

6 Tips for Keeping Your New Year’s Resolution


Photo by Solange Gaymard

My last post looked at 3 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail. Now I’ll look at how you can keep yours. I’ll start by reviewing my progress on the three New Year’s Resolutions I posted on this blog last year.

1. Make my blogging more like my coaching

I had noticed that my blog was proving increasingly useful as a coaching tool, and wanted to develop my blogging style so that it was closer to my style of coaching. Part of this involved blogging more of the stories, ideas and examples I share with clients in sessions, and part of it involved developing the conversational aspect of the blog and making more use of questions.

I definitely think I’ve succeeded in the first respect, in posts such as 7 Ways to Stop Worrying When You’re Under Pressure, What Amadeus Shows Us About Creativity, my mini-series on Giving Feedback on Creative Work, and especially in my e-book about Time Management for Creative People. The fact that the e-book has been downloaded 25,000 times in a month tells me that I’m providing something valuable for my audience.

I also think I’ve made progress in developing the blog as a conversation and using questions to stimulate readers’ creativity – although I think I can do a lot more in this respect. I’ve certainly had some great conversations on this blog and elsewhere, and I’ve started to make more use of questions in posts such as What’s the Difference Between Incubation and Procrastination? and Should Artists Give the Audience What They Want?. So I’ve made a good start but think I can take this further – look out for more question-based posts this year! [Read more…]

3 Reasons Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

The Temptation of St Anthony

Photo: The Temptation of St Anthony by RyanDianna

This time last year I posted my new year’s resolutions on this blog. I also promised to write about ‘Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail’. I’m pleased to say I kept all my resolutions – my next post will tell you how I did it, and how you can keep yours. I’m afraid I didn’t get round to the post about why resolutions fail – so here it is.

The following three pitfalls have been highlighted for me over and over again while coaching clients to keep their resolutions – and I can assure you I’ve made the same mistakes myself many times.

1. You focus on what you ‘should’ do, not on what you want

This is an easy trap to fall into. After all, there are plenty of things we probably ‘should’ do that don’t seem a lot of fun, especially at this time of year. For example:

‘I should really lose some weight’
‘I need to get fit this year’
‘I ought to give up smoking’
‘I have to do my tax return’

Have a read of that list again – how does it make you feel? Personally it gives me a feeling of mild disgust and aversion. The words ‘losing’, ‘giving up’, ‘weight’, ‘bad habits’, and ‘tax returns’ conjure up a succession of mental images that make me feel slightly depressed if I focus on them.

This is the problem with the ‘should’ mindset. Logically, those are all sensible things to do – but instead of motivating you to get going, they have the opposite effect. This is partly because they are all ‘problem focused’ statements. It’s a classic case of ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ – your brain can’t process these statements without making you think about what you don’t want. And nobody likes thinking about what they don’t want – our natural tendency is to put it to the back of our mind and forget all about it.

Another problem with these statements is the use of the words ‘should’, ‘need’, ‘ought’, and ‘have to’. This kind of language dissociates you from your real reasons for wanting to do these things. It’s as if there were some kind of objective standard that you really ‘should’ measure up to, or – even worse – as if someone else were telling you what to do. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand being told what to do – if someone offers me well-meaning advice my knee-jerk reaction is to want to do the opposite. [Read more…]

Best of Wishful Thinking 2007

Old Royal Naval Colleage, Greenwich

Photo by judepics: Planet Greenwich (home of Wishful Thinking)

Thank you for reading Wishful Thinking in 2007. It’s been great fun writing it and connecting with so many interesting and creative people – online and in person.

Here’s my personal selection of the best of Wishful Thinking in 2007, based partly on my own judgment, partly on the amount of visitors, comments and links they attracted.

I hope you (re)discover something to inspire you. Have a great New Year, see you on the other side…


How to Maintain Your Enthusiasm When Things Get Tough

7 Ways to Stop Worrying When You’re Under Pressure


7 Ways to Tap into Enthusiasm

Interview with David Amor, Creative Director, Relentless Software


David Armano on Management

Business Coaching: an Introduction


Chris Ritke Interviews Me at 49Sparks.com

The Manager as Coach


A Blog Is for Life, Not Just for Christmas – British Library Talk

Getting in Touch with Creativity – Roger von Oech’s Ball of Whacks

Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings [Read more…]

Inspiring Boundless Creativity – an Interview with Tina Brazil, People Director, Profero

I’m very pleased to share with you this interview I recorded with Tina Brazil, People Director of the digital marketing agency Profero.

Boundless Creativity

In 2006 Profero won a Special Award for Most Innovative Initiative at the Excellence in CPD Awards of the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising. (CPD = Continuous Professional Development.) If you remember my interview with Jill Fear, CPD Manager for the IPA you’ll know that Jill and her colleagues have high standards when it comes to professional development – so Profero have obviously been doing something special to win the award.

When I spoke to Tina, Profero had also just won a coveted Gold Cyber Lions Award at Cannes, for its Mini – Follow the White Rabbit campaign – the only UK agency to win Gold at Cannes this year.

In the interview, Tina spoke about why people development is so important to Profero and how they inspire ‘boundless creativity’ in everyone at the agency – not just the creative department.

Profero’s award-winning CPD initiative included the following elements:

  • An ‘inspirational speaker’ series including Lord Puttnam, Greg Dyke, Neil Christie of wieden + kennedy
  • A ‘lunchtime speakers’ series on practical industry topics
  • Boundless creativity projects set for cross-disciplinary teams
  • People skills training from Dawn Sillett
  • A training intranet to act as an agency blog and raise awareness of available training options

For more details of the programme, you can download the Profero case study from the IPA website.


Profero is Europe and Asia’s leading independent full service digital marketing agency. Since it was founded in 1998 it has delivered over 5,000 effective and innovative campaigns for clients, more than any other agency of its kind. Profero specialises in advertising, web development, media buying and relationship marketing solutions. Its client base includes Mini, Astrazeneca, Western Union, Johnson and Johnson, Central Office of Information, Channel 4, Expedia.Over 200 imaginative people work as one team out of London, Hong Kong, Paris, Munich, Milan, Madrid, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney engaging clients with the world of digital communications by demonstrating its creative, connective and brand building capabilities.

Tina Brazil – People Director

Tina Brazil is responsible for ensuring Profero’s award winning people practices retain its talented team and attract untapped talent to the agency. This forms many guises from training and development, benefits, and maintaining Profero’s all-important culture by making sure people have fun along the way.

Tina started her career as a PA in Publishing before realising that she’d like to do her job in a more creative environment. After joining Redcell as a PA Tina moved to Profero as an Office Manager where evidence of the development culture can be seen with her appointment to the operational board as People Director.

Tina’s moto is: ‘It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it!’

Click the icon below to listen to the interview.

Win Coaching with Me – Just One of the Many Prizes in David Airey’s $4,000 Blog Giveaway

Over the past year it’s been a pleasure to follow the rise to fame of David Airey’s graphic design blog. David is someone who really gets what blogging is all about – his posts are thought-provoking and full of useful information. He’s also a real gent – commenters are made very welcome and are guaranteed a thoughtful response. So when David invited people to donate prizes for a competition to mark his one-year blog anniversary, I was happy to offer some free coaching sessions.

EDIT: the competition has now closed. Congratulations to all the winners.

My prize – free coaching sessions

  • 2 x 45-minute coaching sessions via telephone or webcam.
  • You can use the sessions to work on any aspect of your professional development. Most of my clients are creative professionals, but I’ve worked with people from all walks of life over the past 11 years, so whatever your background, I hope to help you find some new options for reaching your goals.
  • My specialisms are creativity, communication, collaboration and management – so you may find the sessions particularly helpful if you are facing current challenges in any of these areas.
  • The first session will help you clarify your goal and make an action plan; the second will review your progress and help you overcome any obstacles encountered.
  • As a coach, my role is not to give advice (sadly, I’m not the fount of all wisdom!) but to listen carefully and to ask questions that will stimulate your thinking and help you clarify your goals and options for achieving them.
  • The sessions will be strictly confidential.

The other prizes

I’m taking part in the competition via my prize so won’t be in the draw, but frankly there are a lot of prizes I’d be very happy to win. Have a look through them and visit their sites. Good luck! N.B. the following list was written by David Airey… [Read more…]

The GROW Coaching Model

Table, chairs, blue sky

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

Following on from Key Coaching Skills in the Introduction to Business Coaching series is the GROW model. Devised by Sir John Whitmore and described in his book Coaching For Performance, it is probably the most common coaching model used in business, at least in the UK. It offers a way of structuring coaching sessions to facilitate a balanced discussion:

  • GOAL – defining what you want to achieve
  • REALITY – exploring the current situation, relevant history and future trends
  • OPTIONS – coming up with new ideas for reaching the goal
  • WHAT/WHO/WHEN – deciding on a concrete plan of action

In practice, since most coaching is driven by questions, this means that different types of question are used at each stage:

  • GOAL – questions to define the goal as clearly as possible and also to evoke an emotional response
    [What do you want to achieve? What will be different when you achieve it? What’s important about this for you?]
  • REALITY – questions to elicit specific details of the situation and context
    [What is happening now? Who is involved? What is their outcome? What is likely to happen in future?]
  • OPTIONS – open-ended questions to facilitate creative thinking
    [What could you do? What ideas can you bring in from past successes? What haven’t you tried yet?]
  • WHAT – focused questions to get an agreement to specific actions and criteria for success
    [What will you do? When will you do it? Who do you need to involve? When should you see results?]

Used judiciously, the GROW model offers an excellent framework for structuring a coaching session. It is particularly useful for beginners, helping them to see the wood for the trees and keep the session on track. However, Whitmore is at pains to emphasise that models and structures are not the heart of coaching:

GROW, without the context of AWARENESS and RESPONSIBILITY, and the skill of questioning to generate them, has little value.

I prefer to think of the GROW model as a compass for orientation rather than a rigid sequence of steps to be followed. I don’t think I’ve ever taken part in a coaching session that began with Goals, then progressed smoothly through an analysis of Reality, then brainstormed Options before settling on the What?/When?/Who? and How? of an action plan.

Coaching can begin at any of the four stages of the GROW model. A coachee might begin by telling you about something she wants to achieve (Goal), a current problem (Reality), a new idea for improving things (Options) or by outlining an action plan (What). As a coach, it’s usually a good idea to follow the coachee’s lead initially by asking a few questions to elicit more detail, then move onto the other steps.

Personally, I always start a coaching conversation by asking a goal-focused question (e.g. “So what do you want to achieve?”) as a way of setting the tone for the discussion. Sometimes the coachee replies with a description of a problem (Reality) which is fine – I’ll listen, probe for a few details then as soon as possible return to Goals, to keep the conversation focused.

On the other hand, if someone comes to me full of ideas and enthusiasm (Goals, Options), I’ll do my best to help them maintain this while taking account of hard facts (Reality) and getting a commitment to specific action (What). As so often with coaching, the important principle is balance.

Next in this series – Formal and Informal Coaching.