Does Business Coaching Actually Work and Is it Right for Me?

As a business owner it’s important to make good decisions and invest your hard-earned profits and revenues wisely; so you need to take the time to research your options before committing to a programme of business coaching or any other means of improving your personal and business performance.

So what options do you have as a business owner when you want to improve the performance, profitability and productivity of your business and your team and do they actually work?

Here’s a run down of some of the options that we think are worthy of your consideration.

Business Books

It’s almost true to say that you can learn pretty much anything you’ve ever wanted to from a book.  Some things require skill of hand and feel to master – but a lot of business knowledge can be acquired through reading.  Indeed we encourage our clients to read quite a lot of carefully selected books at different stages of their journey.  Out BookCLUB is a great example but you don’t need to be part of a group to learn – although it does help to motivate you and encourages you to keep reading when you might otherwise find excuses to watch TV or go to the pub instead.

So what are the pros and cons of reading business books instead of coaching?

The pros are: Books are cheap compared to an hour of time with a certified business growth specialist.  You can also decide what, where and when to read and for some subjects (like negotiation and sales) you can listen to the style, tone and inflection of the speaker and copy that to accelerate the development of your skills.  You can keep the book and refer to it whenever you want.  You can share the book with as many people as you like – and you can pass it down through your family.  You can even build a business book library for your business and provide a reading list for new members of your team to help them get up to speed on particular topics and skills.  You can highlight and dog-ear the bits that you find most useful and take advantage of illustrations and photographs to help you understand things better.

The cons are: First of all – you need to be able to read, and at the level of the book that you are wishing to understand.  Some technical books are quite hard to stick with and subjects that you find boring (often finance for most business owners) can be hard to understand and take in.  Reading a whole book to get a few snippets of great information or a couple of golden ideas can be time consuming – but you can get abridged versions and “cliff note” types of summaries (although you are relying on the author wishing to highlight the bits that you wanted to glean from the book). You have to have somewhere to store your books – and no matter how well we look after then, they do tend to age and become less attractive to read over time as the pages turn orange.  All of us tend to let our attention wander as we read – especially if we read a lot at one sitting – and so we can miss important bits or have to keep re-reading to find our place when we notice we’ve not really been paying attention.  So that can add more time to the task.  Finally, it can be hard to recall and apply the learning unless we take good notes, keep them safe and commit to taking action.  Again, BookCLUB is helpful in this regard as the peer pressure of meeting with others and having to offer your thoughts can encourage you to do this.

Business Videos and Podcasts

If you spend some time looking for them, you’re bound to find a few “business gurus” of various shapes and sizes with different abilities and levels of experience.  Some of them are good in a niche – like digital marketing – and others have greater breadth.  Some might be independents with a solid career or high-profile job behind them.  Others might be from an academic setting or magazine like Forbes.  So what are the pros and cons of this kind of learning?

The pros are: If the material is well published with the right keywords, and you know what keywords to search for, the chances are that you’ll find a tonne of useful content online.  YouTube and Vimeo are great sources of video content and similar sites will yield an abundance of podcasts and even Slideshare content on various topics of interest.  Many of the sources will be established authors and the quality of production can be very high.  Often a lot of this information can be accessed for free or for a fee behind a subscription firewall or via a mini-course (often as a lead magnet or taster before a one-to-one coaching offer).  Video can cram a  lot of content in and make it easy to understand more complicated topics.  Animated “explainer videos” and Doodly cartoons are great examples of this – and they can be “bite-sized” to fit in with your morning coffee or lunchbreak – or even on your commute whilst waiting for a bus or train now that we all have smart phones and a decent mobile signal on the move.  If you BUY a video course you can watch it anytime and share the content (in accordance with the licensing) with others in your team.

The cons are:  Unless you search for and find a structured course and syllabus, there’s a risk that you’ll get a scattergun of disconnected information that you’ll find it difficult to apply in any meaningful and consistent way.  Podcasts and videos take time to listen to and there’s often a bunch of (for me at least) irritating pre-amble and “don’t forget to click and subscribe” kinda nonsense going on that’s a bit sucky.  There’s a chance that you’ll get opinion as well as (or instead of) facts in some instances – or bias – and that might restrict your fair view of the market when (say) choosing the right Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or accounting software.  And as for the adverts(!) if you haven’t paid extra to the Spymasters at YouTube then you’ll get bombarded with ads before, during and after – and that can be REALLY galling when they drop one in the middle of a key point of explanation – or add extra time to your “quick look”.  It can be a bit more difficult to take notes from a podcast or video – and harder to go back to the “bookmarks” that you want to revisit.  And finally, for some podcasts there’s a subscription – but it’s likely to be cheaper than a coaching programme.

Business Mentors

There are various definitions of what a “Mentor”.  The Cambridge dictionary offers this: “a person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school“.  The Oxford dictionary offers:  “An experienced and trusted advisor”.  Further details include:  A mentor may share with a mentee (or protege) information about his or her own career path, as well as provide guidance, motivation, emotional support, and role modeling.

That all seems pretty reasonable and accurate to me.  So, in essence, a Mentor is (ideally) a (suitably) experienced, trusted advisor that can usefully share that experience to the benefit of the mentee.  Now let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Mentoring in the context of business ownership and development.

The pros:  If you can find an honest, trustworthy, local and suitably experienced mentor with a gift for communication and teaching who has built, grown and sold a business just like yours (or several) then you are likely to be in good shape.  If that mentor has a good reputation and network it can add more value to the relationship.  The mentor might have a particular passion for the subject matter and a high level of knowledge and even skill – for example my good friend Rob Ickes who’s won around 17 Grammy’s and recorded with a multitude of great artists is able to mentor younger musicians across the gamut of being a professional musician.  He also has plenty of experience in working with promoters, venues, record labels and managers – and he’s very well connected and thought-of in Nashville.  So if you want to be a world-class dobro player in the same musical genre, he’d be a great pick if you could convince him to give his time for free or for a fee.

The cons: There’s a lot to learn in business and few business owners master all aspects of business ownership.  Some might have been in the right place at the right time and “caught a wave” that’s never coming back (like Sir Alan Sugar and his Sky TV set-top box contract).  Their management style and approach might be from a different time and place – and not readily transferrable to your situation, team or sector.  There could be some ego involved )and a bit of showboating).  If someone has been successful and is missing the power and position of their former life they might use you and your business as a means of replacing what they’ve lost – and even take over or steal your idea and business.  Their experience could be narrow or out of date or biased by personal events and experiences without the benefits of broader study or (in many cases) academic rigour.  They might have signifiant blind spots in their knowledge and experience that could damage or end your business: for example, a brilliant marketer or salesman might encourage you to shift a lot of product assuing that you’re making the profit that you think you are (especially if they use “mark-up” and don’t understand margin or other financial matters like tax) when in reality you’re growing broke faster or running out of working capital and causing the bank to call in your overdraft or loans.

Universities and Colleges

Universities and colleges will typically offer various business courses, ranging from niche topics like social media marketing through to full blown Masters of Business Administration.  So are they a good choice for entrepreneurs and small business owners who want to learn the practical steps, skills and strategies they need to succeed in business?  Let’s take a look:

The pros:  University and other courses tend to have a logical structure and include a level of detail and breadth necessary to demonstrate the academic rigour of the study itself.  The course will typically include a variety of up to date and established reading and other materials and can include visiting lecturers, work-placements and visits to top practitioners in certain fields.  MBA students will be required to cover a breadth of administrative and presentational skills to calculate financial ratios, assess the likely success of plans and convince others to take action – so a real smorgasbord of skills and experience can be had – especially at one of the top Universities.  You can also benefit from a strong alumni network that can add depth and breadth as well as practical support.  You might even team up with fellow students to start another business.

The cons: Whilst courses can be attended on a full or part time basis, there is still a pretty hefty fee to pay PLUS the opportunity cost of not earning or being at work whilst you’re sat in the classroom or doing (lots of) homework to satisfy the academic requirements of the course.  The University or school might not be close to where you live or work and you may need to travel and stay out of area and away from your business for extensive periods of time – with additional cost and disruption to family life and relationships.  From my own experience across almost two decades of study, I would offer that 80% of everything you have to learn will be of no use whatsoever.  Of the remaining 20% much is unlikely to fit your small business situation – as most case studies will pertain to exemplars like GE or RollsRoyce or Google when “best in class” examples are trotted out for study and adoption.  As with many government sponsored schemes, University and College courses tend to be more theoretical than practical and are especially geared up to imparting knowledge that the government wishes you to have and abide by – around things like tax, discrimination, corporate social responsibility and so forth.

Business Coaches

Of course there are business coaches and business coaches.  Some are very highly-qualified and experienced; others are completely the opposite.  So when choosing a business coach you should have a list of good questions to ask to satisfy yourself about their credentials and any guarantees they offer – and you should compare the market to see what prices command what levels of capability before you make a choice.  Also take a look at any contracts to be sure you know what you are getting yourself into.  Wherever possible ask for case studies and references to bolster the information you have and upon which you can make an informed decision.

The pros:  A certified business coach will have been taught and will have demonstrated competence across a range of relevant disciplines.  Some will be excellent coaches with little or no business experience.  Others may be the opposite.  If they are part of a larger organization they will be able to draw on the experience of other coaches that have greater depth and breadth of experience collectively than any individual or mentor.  If they are part of a larger organization you will be able to rely upon another suitably qualified and experienced coach stepping in to continue the engagement if anything happens to your coach.  Your coach might also have a very high degree of knowledge, skill and academic qualifications that are unusual for someone in the position of coach.  If your business coach is also a small business owner (rather than an employee) they will have a far better understanding of the mindset that you have – in particular when it comes to investing your hard-earned cash in marketing or other things; whereas an employee coach may never have had to take that risk.  Your coach should cut through the chaff and show you the wheat right away.  Whether that’s the right book/video/TED talk or similar at the right time – or a single quote or calculation that saves you years of learning, trial and error.  Your coaching should be bespoke to your situation and style – and it should push you to become a better version of yourself – not pander or collude and let you off the hook when you let yourself down.

The cons:   As with University and other investments – buyer beware.  It’s pretty easy for someone to “stick up a shingle” and become a business coach overnight.  Your business coach might give you terrible advice based on an online-course qualification that’s a single-track route to “success” which is completely inappropriate for your style, your business situation and your location or sector.  One size doesn’t fit all.  Your advice will need to be bespoke or at least tailored to fit.  To get the most from your business coach you’re going to need to do some work outside your coaching sessions – learning and doing and reflecting – then arrive prepared for your next session with questions, challenges and data to maintain momentum.  You’re also going to need to take quick decisions.  No sense spending 3 months faffing about wondering whether you should change your (useless) accountant or not and spending £3,000 plus VAT going around in a circle like a one-legged-duck.  You’re going to need to be open, vulnerable and action-oriented; and you’re business needs to be able to cashflow the investment for 3 – 12 months before you see a significant return on your investment.  Personal change takes time – and the biggest benefit of good business coaching is the personal change that it brings about; that makes you unstoppable, confident and successful in whatever you choose to do.  Your brother-in-law and your accountant will tell you that you’re making a mistake.  Your team might also try to sabotage the effort in order to keep things the same.  Some of your customers might even decide to leave you when you put your prices up.  And you might need to find some new hobbies when your business starts to work without your constant input and attention.

So there you have it.  A starter for ten when considering whether business coaching is right for you and if it works at all.  Whicever path you choose the old adage rings true: you get out of it what you put into it.  So the choices are really around your learning style, your budget and needs and how quickly you want to arrive at your (hopefully bigger and better) destination.

To Your success!