Miércoles 5 de Diciembre de 2007, Ip nº 219

Life, sorted
Por Catherine O'brien

In the high-powered, frenetic worlds of politics and the media, Julia Hobsbawm is a well-known and redoubtable figure. For the best part of a decade she ran a successful PR company with Sarah Macaulay (now Mrs Gordon Brown). Two years ago, having parted company with Sarah, Julia, 43, found herself giving birth to two babies – her third child, Wolfie, and her new media analysis and networking business Editorial Intelligence. To those who saw her working a room – she shines at any influential gathering – she truly appeared to have it all. Inwardly, however, she admits now: “I was buckling under the pressure and the guilt.” When she found herself subconsciously hanging back at the office after a 12-hour day rather than face bath and bedtime – “I was too stressed, too preoccupied and too hyped up to cope with the demands of small children” – she realised that something had to give.

Today, Julia says: “I have 25 per cent less guilt and 25 per cent more productivity. In the office I am making strategic decisions that are bolder, and making them quicker. And when I walk through the door at the end of the day, I know how to put work to one side. I don’t want to make out that I have completely cracked it, but I no longer feel that my life is out of control.”

How did Julia find the elusive route to sanity? She did what everyone from Cabinet ministers to FTSE 100 CEOs now does – she consulted a coach. As a woman with one of the most comprehensive contacts books in London, Julia didn’t struggle long to find what she needed. A friend recommended Ginger Cockerham, vice-president of the International Coaching Federation and one of America’s top practitioners. They clicked instantly. “Ginger has that American can-do attitude,” Julia enthuses. “Talking to her is like attending a mind-gym for working parents.”

The coaching industry in America is growing by 18 per cent a year, and it is gradually permeating our financial and political institutions, too. A survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 63 per cent of its members have a coach. Last year it emerged that government departments, including No 10, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, regularly employ life coaches at the taxpayer’s expense.

Ginger, who is based in Dallas but is also a visiting lecturer at Columbia University, New York, has no doubt why. “The world I grew up in, the one with traditional family units and communities, where people nurtured each other’s potential – that’s gone. Coaching is filling the vacuum because we need someone who cares enough to champion us. We also need time to reflect on what we want, rather than striving constantly to keep pace.”

Ginger’s clients work in financial services, manufacturing, media, fashion, IT and recruitment. Some run their own companies, others are part of international conglomerates. She coaches up to 30 individuals at any one time – and as those clients are scattered across the globe, in many cases she acts as a “phone coach” rather than meeting them. This suits Ginger. “In person you can get distracted by looks, what someone is wearing, whether they make eye contact. On that phone, people really open up.” For our interview, though, she is happy to meet me at the hotel that she uses when teaching in New York.

I had expected Ginger to be at least daunting, at worst positively scary. Her website portrait depicts an immaculately groomed woman to whom you would certainly not want to expose a snag in your tights. In her biography she describes herself as “challenging” and “strategic” and I’m sure she is both those things, but face to face her smartness is comfortingly understated and she also has an unexpected warmth. I can see why she would appeal to high achievers whose unspoken, often unacknowledged fear is that life is running away with them.

Now 65, Ginger was once a farmer’s wife in Arkansas. When farming went into recession she worked first as an English teacher and later, with her husband Steve, ran a property tax consultancy. She also raised four children. In the early 1990s, inspired by a business seminar that she attended, she enrolled on a coaching course and became an early protégée of Thomas Leonard, the man credited with founding the coaching phenomenon in the States. Her CV is steeped in professional accreditations, but I suspect that it is her resilience and optimism that make her so sought after. Coaching, she says, is about listening to someone “not just for what they say, but for what they don’t say”. It’s not telling someone how to run their business or do their job, but giving them clarity so that they can find their own way forward. Her ideal clients are, like her, decision-makers. “When I walk into a room to give a presentation, I can recognise them instantly,” she says. “They are the ones saying, ‘OK, what can I do, what is my next step?’ ”

They usually engage her because they want to maximise their success. “They’ll say, ‘I’m doing well but I know I can be more successful and I want you to help me get there’.” Few, though, identify what is often the root of their problem. “No one has ever hired me saying ‘I want you to help me with my work/ life balance,” she says. “Yet without a good work/life balance they’ll never get to where they want to be.”

This brings us to Ginger’s introductory “tool”. Not always, but often, she will begin by taking a new client through what she calls her “clean sweep”. This may seem like a simple tick-box questionnaire but in fact it probes deeply and raises many questions.

It is divided into five sections: wellbeing, money, spirituality, relationships and physical environment. Do I floss my teeth daily? No, but I know that I should. Do I save at least 10 per cent of my income? I’m ashamed to say that the thought has never occurred to me. Do I send at least five handwritten notes or personal e-mails to people each week? No, but I’d like to think that I did.

You could argue that these are trivial questions. Ginger’s response is that it is on such minutiae that our happy equilibrium depends. “It’s about being intentional,” she says. “You want to have great teeth, so of course you should set aside five minutes a day to floss them. You want to have savings, because having financial reserves enables us to be bolder and more creative. And now that you have thought about those things, you have something to aim towards.”

As with any test, the ideal score is 100 per cent. But unlike other questionnaires, you can ditch whatever is irrelevant to you. “I had a woman client recently who said: ‘I know I should be interested in recycling but I’m not’. So I told her to skip that one,” Ginger says. Coaching is about choosing the goals that inspire you. When, in conversation with Ginger, you find yourself saying “I should . . .” or “I need to . . .” she rephrases your remarks as “I want to . . .” If you don’t want to do something, you don’t do it.

Most people taking the “clean sweep” for the first time score between 50 and 60 per cent. Ginger recalls that when she first took it, she fell down on the “physical environment” section. “I’m creative and not naturally tidy,” she confesses. “I realised that I was muddling through every day because I never put things away properly. So I called in a professional organiser who went through my files. I have a rule now that I must be able to find anything in 30 seconds. I don’t always do it, but I come close. And that gives me a feeling of control.”

When it comes to relationships, she is in less assured territory. Coaches draw a line between themselves and therapists: they don’t do marriage counselling or analysis. “We don’t ask the ‘why’ question,” says Ginger. “It slips you back, and coaching is about moving forward. So if it comes up, we are trained to refer.”

Of course, not everyone has problems. Often they are simply not making the most of the relationships they have. Women are more likely to be juggling professional and domestic demands – briefing the childminder from the office, imploring a secretary to book the children’s dental appointments – and although they might often feel that they are compromising relationships, at least they are engaged in them.

“When you work with men, you realise that many are craving permission for family time,” says Ginger. “They get into that tunnel thing, particularly those who are very driven – they find it harder to step outside their working selves.” One of her key coaching questions is: “What do you do that you enjoy so immensely, you lose all track of time?” “There are men I coach who can’t remember when that last happened,” she says. “We talk about how they can make it happen, maybe by playing golf or swimming with the kids.”

As for money, Ginger’s philosophy is that achieving a work/life balance is much easier if you live “in abundance”. Rather than amassing great riches, this means being realistic about financial planning. Her questionnaire is designed to make us more objective and less emotional about our wealth. Interestingly, it is often men who have more emotional hurdles to overcome in this regard. “Women fear not having enough money, but they don’t necessarily see their financial status as a personal reflection of themselves,” says Ginger. “Men more often relate money to self-esteem. They worry that if they don’t have enough money, they will be judged as inadequate. The most balanced men and women are those who see money as a tool for creating freedom rather than happiness.”

If you find, when you do the clean sweep, that you score lowest for “wellbeing”, you are not alone. “When we are pushed, the first thing we compromise is ourselves,” says Ginger. “A lot of my coaching work is about giving people permission to put themselves first – to have that pedicure, to take that Friday afternoon off. Taking time out for yourself is not being indulgent, it is essential if you are going to stay fresh and passionate about what you do.”

Ginger pays her massage therapist a year in advance for a fortnightly treatment. “I pay upfront because I don’t want to miss a single one,” she says. “I’ve been going to her for ten years and she’s a key element in the balance of my life.” For her, other essentials are a daily walk and a crossword. Every January she enters holiday dates in her diary before any work commitments, and she advises all her clients to do the same.

Working from home, as she does, means being particularly firm about her work/life balance. “I love my office. I have a stained-glass window which pleases me, and I keep fresh flowers on my desk,” she says. “But nothing personal enters my workspace. I don’t talk to family or friends in there, and I keep household papers in another room.”

This year Ginger published a book profiling 14 high-performing businesswomen whom she has coached. One thing that it makes clear is that no two people’s work/life balance is the same. Some find it essential to compartmentalise work and family time, others draw no boundaries.

Ginger recalls being told by one coach, years ago, to limit her work to no more than three projects at a time. “I fired her at once. I’m a born multi-tasker,” she says. “It’s impossible to be that prescriptive.”

So does she have the perfect work/ life balance now? She tells me that, before our interview, she put herself through a rerun of the clean sweep. Her addiction to tea – three cups a day – prevented her from ticking the “I rarely use caffeine” statement, and her tendency to sidle into her office to work on Sunday afternoons is an infringement of supposed time off.

She will carry on drinking the tea, she says, but plans to address the weekend working issue. “It’s not about being perfect. It is about looking after yourself.”

  13/11/2007. Times Online.