I marched out into the metallic heat of the car park, summoned the scattered shreds of my professional detachment and branded a promise into my brain.
Never. Ever. Again.
I should have known it would be a wasted journey. My client comfort zone was male, middle-aged and middle-class. Only the first of these applied to the Chief Executive of Leo Components, major employer in the shrunken Lancashire mill town of Grimshaw: Jack Smith – industrial magnate and, if the local tabloids were to be believed, ‘babe magnet of the North West’ in his spare time.
Oh yes, I’d done my pre-meeting research – and not just in the Financial Times archives. I’d found only limited information on Leo Components, privately owned and rumoured to be heading for a Stock Market flotation. But there’d been plenty about ‘Jack the Lad’ – and I’d only looked at the last few months’ media coverage.
At thirty-six years old he was hardly middle-aged; and Adam Chesterfield, the mutual contact who’d recommended my services, had described him as a self-made man from humble beginnings. I could have predicted, then, that this first meeting would be more challenging than most. I just hadn’t anticipated the scale of the challenge, nor the nature of it.
No, I reflected as I unlocked my car, this … creature was not in the usual mould at all. The managing directors I’d coached so far were father, even grandfather, figures; weathered captains of industry, with an appreciation of how executive coaching would help them succeed in the modern business world. Men I could take out of their little compartments, dust down a bit and put back with the sense of a job well done.
And at least they gave me the right kind of undivided attention, whereas he … But it was all academic; I would not be coaching him. There was more chance of me running naked through the streets of Grimshaw.
Now for the long drive south; at least I would beat the Friday afternoon rush. I wrenched off my jacket, hurled it onto the back seat along with my beautiful new Aspinal laptop bag, and settled myself behind the wheel. Instead of starting the engine, however, I glared across the car park at the drab 1960s-style building I’d just left and, against my better judgement, relived the past hour.
I had to admit, those tabloid photos of Jack Smith hadn’t done him justice. In the flesh, his build was leaner, his face younger, his eyes more … predatory. His handshake was business-like and brief, but the impression of his interested surprise lingered.
He went on, ‘From what Adam said, I thought you’d be a lot older.’ A pause, while his gaze travelled up and down. ‘I might have to ask you to show me your credentials.’ And then I had his smile to contend with, wide and wicked, inviting me to respond in the same suggestive vein.
I gave him a look of stone. ‘If you need proof of my professional qualifications, I’m sure that can be arranged.’ A deliberate glance at my watch. ‘We have a lot to discuss. Let’s get this meeting under way.’
Still grinning, he gestured to a pair of vast black leather armchairs. I swept past him in my navy suit, tailored white shirt and sensible heels. I’d never had to think of them as protective armour – until now.
We sat at opposite sides of a low table whose gleaming glass top was engraved with a rampant lion: the Leo Components logo and a symbol of outdated sexism, very much like its Chief Executive. But I counted to ten, accepted the offer of coffee, took my laptop from my bag and located the file named ‘Jack Smith – On-boarding Meeting’. To avoid any small talk, I busied myself with typing a few extra headings for some much-needed structure. I was aware of him fidgeting with his phone; making arrangements for tonight’s conquest, no doubt.
As soon as his PA – more mature and homely than I’d expected – brought the coffee, I fixed my blandest smile in place and opened the dialogue. ‘I’m here at Adam’s request. What do you think he had in mind when he recommended you for coaching?’
A golden opportunity to introduce one of the ground rules. ‘I’m afraid I don’t disclose personal information about my clients, past or present, least of all to other clients. Or should I say prospective ones.’
My smile faded. He was being just ambiguous enough to discourage accusations of inappropriate behaviour. Why was I wasting my time here? Doing Adam a favour simply wasn’t worth it.
As if reading my mind, he raised his eyes to my face. Not a glimmer of apology, more the defiant bravado of a naughty schoolboy. He said, ‘Look, round here an executive coach is a bus with air-conditioning or a toilet, both if you’re lucky. But Adam thinks I need one, and he reckons you’re one of the best.’
‘Which takes us back to my original question.’ I managed to retrieve my smile. ‘What do you think he had in mind when he suggested you might benefit from coaching?’
He took a gulp of coffee, then ran the back of his hand across his forehead. Long fingers, no wedding ring – naturally. ‘Oh, I suppose the obvious answer is that the company’s just taken over a larger competitor, Sphinx Industries. It’ll be a lot of graft bringing Sphinx into line, but of course I’m up for it.’
‘I see.’ I typed Domineering management style, arrogant belief in own abilities. Normally I kept my notes neutral and observation-based, but Jack Smith deserved the special accolade of an instant diagnosis. ‘What’s the not-so-obvious answer?’
‘Does there have to be one?’
‘Are you certain there’s not?’
He shifted in his seat; restless energy, or a rare moment of self-awareness? ‘I’ve never run a business of that size before. And I can’t afford to make a mistake.’
Ah, now we were getting somewhere. Uses aggression to mask his fear of failure. ‘And how do you feel about being coached?’
‘Don’t know what to expect. All I can say is – I’m not used to being told what to do. Except by my mother, who still treats me like a five-year-old.’
He had the nerve to laugh, a deep-throated chuckle that filled the room. ‘You can call it whatever you want, as long as it helps me work smarter. I couldn’t work much harder.’
Or play any harder, according to the media coverage; but I let that pass. ‘To summarise, then, you could say that the aim of your coaching would be to increase your confidence levels and emotional intelligence in a dynamic corporate environment, in order to work more effectively at integrating your recent acquisition?’
The chuckle expanded into a shout of laughter. ‘I couldn’t say that at all! Looks like we’re going to need a third person at these sessions to bloody well translate – is that why you charge such a high fee? We’d better change to payment by results.’
‘No, but you might need to help me with some of those long words.’
I added Childish sense of humour and said briskly, ‘How will you know you’ve achieved the agreed aim?’
‘Easy – the Board and I have set some ambitious targets. By the end of this financial year, that’s the thirty-first of March, we need to have increased our sales across the two companies by fifteen per cent, same with profit before tax, and trimmed the workforce by ten per cent. Typical stuff to justify the cost of buying a bigger company. But to do all that I’ll need to become more effective from today. Actually, make that yesterday.’
This was more like it. I made a note of the targets, folded my hands in my lap and launched into a well-rehearsed routine. ‘End of March, that’s just under ten months from now. I would normally suggest working with you over a six-month period. More frequent meetings to begin with, then monthly sessions, provided we’re making satisfactory progress. In theory, that fits in with your timescale. But you must understand that, although the start and end points in coaching are predetermined, the middle part, what I call the journey, is intangible, very much an unknown quantity. Not like a journey by plane or by train, where everything is scheduled. And, if my suspicions are correct, your personality type will find this concept rather difficult. You like things to be quantifiable, like your Board targets.’
‘How else do I know I’m on track?’
‘Quite. But there is no track in the coaching journey, you’re forging your own path with an experienced coach as your guide. Of course, you know where you want to be, what your end point looks like—’
‘I should hope so, at my age.’ No sign of that smile, just the taunt still there in his voice.
‘I’ll bet. How would it work, then?’ He leaned back in his chair and stared at me through half-closed eyes, as if … well, as if thinking about something else entirely. Or was that my over-active imagination, provoked by his permanent state of innuendo?
I willed my blushes away and focused on a picture just over his left shoulder, a surprisingly tasteful watercolour of a slate-grey lake surrounded by snow-capped hills. ‘We would start with an intense period of two or three days finding out about you, seeing how you interact at work, attending one of your management meetings, understanding your personality, and so on. Then there are various options. You can go for remote coaching, by Skype or video conference, but you would be less likely to achieve your aim within the required timescale. Or you can come to our offices in Helsingham, just off the M3, for face-to-face meetings. Clients often find they get more out of coaching if they’re removed from everyday distractions. Or our coach can come here, which will enable him to observe—’
I didn’t answer immediately. Although I hadn’t intended to say ‘him’ instead of ‘me’, that simple slip of the tongue presented a relatively painless way out of my dilemma. Times were tough, and we couldn’t afford to lose this business. But if I handed this assignment to one of my male colleagues … Let’s just say that Jack Smith would find his masculine wiles eliminated from the agenda, Coaches for Growth would get its profit – and I could return to my comfort zone.
I leaned forward too, a controlled display of assertiveness. Up close, his blue eyes showed flecks of green. And they were a lot less friendly than before. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to think very carefully about taking you on as a client.’ As I said this, as I finally expressed my reservations to his face, I felt a thrill of relief run through me. I continued, warming to my theme, ‘The relationship between coach and coachee is built on rapport, openness and trust – and for me there’s something not right about the way we’re interacting. Equally, I suggest you give some thought to whether you could work with me.’
He drew away, the frown deepening into a scowl. ‘I didn’t realise this was a bloody dating agency. “Male, six foot two, aged thirty-six, good sense of humour, would like to meet female, aged – well, I’d put you in your late twenties, for executive coaching?” I don’t think so! This is a business transaction, pure and simple. I buy your services, you send me an invoice and I pay it in thirty days, regardless of your terms. End of story.’
‘So’s a dating agency—’
‘I’d rather use the analogy of a doctor,’ I said, in desperation; not an ideal metaphor, perhaps, but too late now. ‘Do you prefer a male doctor, or a female one, or doesn’t it matter? Do you want someone who’s directive, or consultative? Do you like a lot of bedside manner, or as little superfluous interaction as possible?’ As soon as I said that last sentence, I regretted it. I added coolly, ‘There are so many factors to consider at this level of coaching.’
‘My ideal doctor’s female and consultative, with a great bedside manner and warm hands. When it comes to coaching, though, does it matter whether I’m a man and you’re a woman?’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘But isn’t coaching the subject here? What else would you like to talk about?’
‘But I want you.’
That was when it hit me. Maybe everything in this ill-judged meeting had been building up to this moment, like the script for a nightmare. This man, with his invading eyes and soft-spoken intent, had pushed my life into rewind. Back three years to a Californian summer, when another man had said the words, ‘But I want you.’ So many times, in so many ways. ‘But I want you, Aleesha.’ ‘I want you.’ And the worst insult of all, ‘I love you, Aleesha. I always will.’
Back then, I had been totally unprepared. But not this time. This time I was ready, and I would deal with it. Fight it. Finish it before it could even begin.
Try to breathe … swallow … move on. The words almost stuck in my throat. ‘We can’t always have what we want.’
‘You sound like my bloody mother. Except she says “I want never gets”. Up north we have no sense of grammar.’
Take control … take control. ‘Of course, cultural differences can be a fascinating source of study in their own right, but they will also materially inform the dynamics of the coach-coachee relationship.’
That did it. I remembered to save the file, then slammed the laptop into my bag, careless of its pristine sky-blue lining. ‘I’ll email you on Monday with our decision.’ Grim-faced, I stood up and jabbed out my hand; a business reflex, nothing more.
He swung easily to his feet and trapped my hand in his, eyes exploring mine. I wanted to snatch my hand and my gaze away, but I couldn’t. It was three years since I’d felt like this – a butterfly on the point of a pin. Beneath its protective armour, my heart thumped and reeled.
He said, ‘Let’s hope it’s the right decision. For both of us.’ And something in his look … as if somehow he knew.