NSAR talks to accredited coaching practitioner Shaun Jones about coaching, how it can support the development of successful senior leaders and what this means for organisations.
Skills shortages caused by retiring workers and big projects mean the rail industry needs more than 100,000 new employees by 2030. Many of these new employees will be required at lower skill levels but the importance of strong leadership to mentor new talent is clear.
It is vital that managers, senior leadership and executive staff strengthen their competency as leaders so they can help new and existing employees build success and steer through the challenges ahead.
Coaching is a proven way to build confident, self-aware and capable leaders who deliver improved performance in an engaging way. NSAR spoke to Shaun Jones, a coach with a background in the rail industry. Shaun started work as an apprentice in manufacturing and, over a career of more than 40 years, progressed into senior leadership roles. He worked in rail for ten years as Managing Director of Thales, with a particular focus on digital rail initiatives. During his executive career, Shaun discovered a passion for developing leaders through coaching. He has been coaching since 2016 in the private and public sectors.
Coaching is a process in which people work with a professional coach to focus on personal growth and development, leading to increased individual and organisational performance. Clear boundaries are set at the beginning of a coaching relationship. Coaching will usually involve exploring and developing career goals and creating strategies for achieving success in senior roles and the wider career field.
“People often confuse coaching and mentoring,” Shaun says. “Mentoring is more directive – sharing knowledge, skills and experiences. Coaching is nondirective and facilitates awareness raising in pursuit of goals set by the coachee. It questions limiting beliefs and thought processes in a safe environment.”
Coaching is a form of vertical, rather than horizontal, development. Horizontal development is increasing technical skill sets and basic leadership competencies. Vertical development is building the capability to apply expertise in a diverse and ever-changing environment. Vertical development is important for leaders because it expands their cognitive, emotional and behavioural capabilities, enabling them to navigate complexity, make better decisions, drive innovation and lead effectively.
For individuals, the main aim of coaching, Shaun explains, is to raise people’s awareness of themselves and others to create different insights.
“When people are transitioning in their career – going into a senior role – if they continue to do what they did previously, they can fall into the trap of not reassessing the challenges of the new role, stakeholder expectations and success factors and building on their strengths and developing strategies to deal with individual growth.
“Coaching holds a mirror up to you and what you are trying to achieve in your role. It’s a reflective exercise that builds a picture of you from a different perspective.”
By investigating different perspectives through peer feedback and strength and values-based assessments, coaching can trigger new insights – helping people get context on business issues and find answers to big questions.
Coaching is useful both for people who have clear career goals in mind and those who know they want to progress as a leader but are unsure of their path.
“Even people with clear goals can change their plans during the coaching process because a different perspective emerges through the dialogue,” Shaun says. “This potential to challenge and change perspectives through coaching makes it especially useful to people who might be having trouble in their current roles – because their roles weren’t what they were expecting or have changed over time. It’s also very effective to support an individual who may have lost confidence for whatever reason.”
For organisations, coaching delivers increased performance (an estimated return of ten times the direct investment) and, if applied proactively to the talent pipeline, it prepares future leaders to succeed and increases retention rates.
“My coaching approach is strengths-based” Shaun explains. “It explores people’s strengths and values and how they can use these to overcome challenges. Drawing on strengths takes away some uncertainties and allows people to explore situations differently from a more confident starting place.”
Confident leaders are better able to make decisions with conviction and clarity, instil a sense of trust in their teams and easily communicate their ideas to get buy-in from stakeholders. They are also better equipped to handle challenges and adversity – self-belief enables leaders to navigate difficult situations and find solutions, fostering resilience within the organisation.
Struggles with confidence are common among senior leaders and the stress this causes can lead to lost productivity, or even sickness and poor health. Research shows that coaching delivers a quantifiable change in employee wellbeing – 54% experienced a reduction in stress and 37% an improvement in emotional management. Investing in current leaders to increase their confidence and wellbeing encourages retention – and is cheaper than hiring new leaders. 
Coaching can be especially beneficial in developing leaders from diverse backgrounds, who may not have seen many people like themselves in senior roles – by giving them a safe space to explore thought processes, draw on strengths and establish confidence. NSAR also spoke to Lorraine Mhonyera, a young, Black woman leading projects in rail, about her coaching journey – read that article here. Enabling everyone to flourish in leadership, whatever their culture or background, is vital to achieving equality, diversity and inclusion across organisations and sectors.
“Coaching is about unlocking potential for the individual, which benefits the wider organisation,” Shaun says. “If we have great leaders creating the right environment for people to prosper and diverse, modern thinking – it draws people into that organisation and into the sector.”
As the rail industry approaches a skills challenge and continues to deliver major, country-wide projects, it will be vital for the industry to build successful, confident leaders that can navigate complexity, make great decisions and coach and mentor a growing workforce. Coaching can deliver the development existing and emerging leaders need to unlock their potential and help their organisations thrive.
 Complete. ‘The measurable impact of coaching: Delivering Quantifiable change.’ https://complete-coherence.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Coaching-Whitepaper-Complete-1.pdf