This woman is a life coach, part of the latest management craze to be imported from across the Atlantic. But can wearing a coloured baseball cap really improve your construction project?
Sandra Henson thrives on other people's conflict, stress and indecision. But then she has to. If nobody had any problems, she would be out of a job. She is a professional life coach – a kind of corporate therapist who looks into people's lives, examining their use of language, physiology, and even their self esteem in a bid to resolve business issues.

"Life coaching is about identifying and then delivering goals that clients wish to address," Henson says. "Goals can vary from personal to business issues, but they need to be specific. I work with the individual to find the best steps towards achieving them." This idea has turned into one of today's hippest management fads since it arrived in the UK two years ago. It was imported from the USA, where over the past 10 years it has been adopted by people like Hillary Clinton and multinationals such as IBM, Kodak and Pfizer. Based on the techniques of 1980s US sports coaches, it draws from self-help and motivational books.

There are now 700 officially trained life coaches in the UK. According to a recent study by the International Personnel Management Association, staff productivity increases by up to 88% when conventional training is coupled with life coaching.

I look for honesty, integrity and commitment from my clients. My motivation is to make a difference to people’s lives

Sandra Henson, life coach

Jonathon Jay, managing director of the UK Life Coaching Academy, which trains life coaches, says: "Life coaching is optimistic. It is about setting targets and goals and not having to admit defeat in a bid to be better than before." Achieving these aims in a hectic corporate climate is not easy. Especially if it means meeting your life coach for an hour a week over a three to six month period. Henson, who has a maximum of 20 clients at any one time, offers the option of 30-minute email and phone interviews, as well as face-to-face sessions. Depending on which is chosen, the cost is between £80 and £180 an hour.

But it doesn't work for everyone. Henson, whose corporate clients include a big recruitment agency, a publishing firm and a law firm, has high expectations of the people she coaches. "I look for integrity and commitment from clients. My motivation is to make a difference to people's lives. If they are not committed and willing to make change happen, I can't work with them.

I definitely did get things out of it that I am putting into focus now. But we should have had longer

Peter Clapp, head of design, Sport England

"Life coaching is popular with people who have the ability to face up to their strengths and weaknesses," she continues. "It is not going to work if they are not prepared to admit to them." Interestingly, three-quarters of Henson's clients are men. Life coaching's approach appeals to men – women, it seems, are more likely to consider counselling as a life-changing tool.

So what would a life coach make of the construction industry? To find out, Building sent Henson to demonstrate her techniques on a real life job: a project to develop a prototype for a new breed of sports hall for client Sport England.

I thought it would be general and instead it got really specific and put me on the spot. This was really good as it is so easy to hide behind generalisations

Andrzej Kuszell, director, Studio E

Meet the team
It's 9am on a Friday morning at the offices of structural engineer Techniker in Clerkenwell, London. The meeting room is crackling with excitement before anyone has even had a chance to speak.

Four members of the project management team are present. The client is represented by Peter Clapp, head of design at Sport England; the mechanical and electrical engineer is Tamsin Tweddell at Max Fordham & Partners; the structural engineer is Matthew Wells from Techniker; the architect is Andrzej Kuszell from Studio E Architects; and James Woodrough is there for project QS Davis Langdon & Everest. They have been working together for 13 months on the design of the scheme, which is expected to be finalised by April, and they are tired and a little fraught. But they are keen to find ways of improving the way they operate.

It was quite contrived and too manipulative. I felt I was being directed to say things down a particular channel that I didn’t want to

Tamsin Tweddell, M&E engineer

The group session
When Henson introduces life coaching to the team, she describes her methods as confidential and practical enabling sessions "designed to help break down barriers and build teams", and says that she will be "asking a lot of questions and probing deeply into how you are motivated". The team look bemused.

Their initial confusion soon turns to enthusiasm when they are asked to brainstorm the ideas that concern them as a team. It's as if an emotional electric charge has been unleashed. Ideas tumble and trip over each other – on timing, partnering, communication, organisation. And then of course there are the gripes about contractors … Henson, serene as Buddha throughout, asks Wells, the structural engineer, to write the four most important issues that have emerged on the board in front of the group. They are: relations within the design team, the divide between contractors and design, motivation and relation to final product, and added value – how to deliver, achieve and measure it. She then asks everyone individually to choose a topic that they will be discussing in their hour-long one-to-one sessions.

There was a tendency for a quick fix. The recommendations were reduced to two positive actions. Why not 20 minor adjustments?

Matthew Wells, structural engineer

The individual sessions
Life coaching is very similar to action-oriented modern therapy. So similar, in fact, that an outsider might think that they had stumbled on a dynamic counselling session and not a business development project.

Each individual session follows the same format, kicking off with the individual's chosen goal and finishing with the specification of two steps towards achieving this goal by the following week, which would normally be the next life coach meeting. The results are all unexpected.

It was very different to how I expected it to be. I tend to be quite cynical, but I got a lot out of thinking in a more creative and lateral way

James Woodrough, quantity surveyor

Many of the team chose the same goals, but all came out with different results. Woodrough, the QS, whose goal was to make clients aware of the added value they receive, was invited to wear brightly coloured baseball caps in a bid to encourage lateral thinking. It was suggested that Clapp, the client whose target it was to build a good design team, should socialise more with the project team as part of the scheme. Tweddell, the electrical and mechanical engineer, was encouraged to be more spontaneous, while Kuszell, the architect, was given the task of setting out clearly how buildings work to clients. Wells, the structural engineer, was invited to "widen his social contacts" in order to adapt his presentation style for different audiences.

But reaching these goals was no easy task.

It required a lot of talking and a lot of questioning. Henson asked them all what had and hadn't worked before in various work scenarios. She literally got them to visualise their future and to discuss how they felt. If they didn't respond or moved off the point, she asked the same question in different ways until she was given a specific answer. And the more specific and goal-orientated the answers, the better.

What happens next?
Normally Henson would see the team the next week, to see how they had followed up her suggestions and what other issues needed to be addressed. If they hadn't even played with the ideas, she would ask them why. She would want to know if they had found the experience both practical and enjoyable. They would then jointly outline a flexible framework within a set time period of up to six months.

Henson was really impressed with the group's openness and willingness to participate in the life coaching session, as they had had little preparation time and a limited understanding of the objectives. Although it was an exhausting day, she left feeling that it had been fruitful and enjoyable.

The client: Hang out with the team

Peter Clapp, head of design at Sport England, was concerned that he wasn’t being listened to properly and that there wasn’t enough socialising within any given project team. Henson highlighted this concern and said that since a team could work together for up to four years, it was essential to have some time scheduled into the brief for getting to know each other and celebrating achievements. Clapp agreed that people needed more space at the beginning of a project so that they could get to know each other better. However, his reaction to life coaching was mixed: “I definitely did get things out of it that I am putting into focus now. But we should have had longer. It was too rushed and we didn’t really give it the time it deserved. Also, it would have been better if I had known what I was in for. I didn’t know what to expect.”

The architect: Talk to the client

Henson identified two areas in which Andrzej Kuszell, a 51-year-old architect and director of Studio E, could improve – office IT and client communication. Both agreed that his clients needed to be aware from the very start of what exactly is involved in the design and construction of a building. This was considered especially important when it came to taking design risks that increased costs. Henson suggested that Kuszell should produce a set of clear guidelines with inbuilt feedback procedures to present to each client at the beginning of a briefing. Kuszell was so inspired, he started to write notes that weekend. “It got me to pick up on things I normally take for granted, especially if I think I am doing them well. It took my breath away. I thought it would be general and instead it got really specific and put me on the spot. This was really good as it is so easy to hide behind generalisations.” His reservations were the lack of time and the one-to-one sessions. “It was frustrating to have so small a taster. I feel that unless you embark on the whole thing, you don’t get the full benefit. Also I wasn’t sure that breaking up into individual sessions was a good idea.”

The M&E engineer: Say more in meetings

Tamsin Tweddell, 27, M&E engineer at Max Fordham & Partners, proved to be a very different case study. Henson identified a number of personal and emotional issues linked to being the only woman on the team and working in a male-dominated industry. Henson felt that Tweddell sometimes lacked the confidence to respond quickly in business meetings when she didn’t have all the facts at her disposal and tended to remain silent. Henson recommended that Tweddell build up her confidence in making intelligent guesses, using “off the top of my head” as an introductory phrase. Other suggestions included buying time by bouncing the question back, and joining a speaking group, such as Toastmasters, to encourage thinking on your feet. Tweddell, who midway through the session became visibly upset, viewed the episode negatively. “It was quite contrived and too manipulative. I felt I was being directed to say things down a particular channel that I didn’t want to. The things I wanted to discuss didn’t fit her format. “The individual session didn’t tell me anything I wasn’t already aware of. I was disappointed in it. It felt too hypothetical and too unreal.”

The engineer: Learn to add up

Henson pinpointed that Matthew Wells, 45, a structural engineer and partner at Techniker, had a tendency to overlook the needs of clients and the importance of getting the right staff on board in his overriding passion for ideas and his work. He admitted to having lost a potential job by failing to work out the exact price of a project and present it in clear financial terms to a team that included accountants. Henson recommended that he adapt his language and presentation style to suit clients and their needs. This, she said, could be achieved through a BBC training course and getting to know different kinds of people, such as other parents at his children’s school. She also advised that he concentrate on looking for like-minded people when recruiting new employees. Wells enthused: “This is an intriguing process … I definitely see the need to work on my financial language. I’m convinced that I’m going to take away some benefit from this. At one level, it might reduce the number of architects who are frustrated by QSs and curb some of the confrontations that take place on the way to achieving a good building. But to avoid superficiality, I think it needs a large investment of time and money.” He only had one reservation: “There was a tendency for a quick fix. The recommendations were reduced to two positive actions. Why not 20 minor adjustments?”

The QS: Try wearing hats

Henson identified that Woodrough, 29, a QS working for Davis Langdon & Everest, needed to put across his passion for value-added management in a more imaginative, humorous and creative way. She noticed that his main worry was maintaining people’s interest in VAM beyond a couple of hours, when what was ideally required was a two-day workshop. She suggested role-playing based on Edward de Bono’s thinking hat idea. This entails wearing different coloured baseball hats whilst juggling with ideas – blue represents strategy, white facts, red intuition, black criticism, green creativity and yellow optimism. “What would make people laugh? If you go to something and enjoy it, do you remember it more?” she asked him. She also encouraged him to go on “challenge days” – outdoor corporate activities such as paintballing, designed to build confidence and self-awareness. Although James expressed reservations about donning funny hats, he was positive about the session. “It was very different to how I expected it to be. I tend to be quite cynical, but I got a lot out of thinking in a more creative and lateral way. It made me think about exploring further thoughts instead of acting on my immediate reactions.”