alchemy alliance: press room: the times march 2005


Business coaches talk a good game

The Times, March 13th, 2005

David Pester’s law firm has benefited since he met Charles Harvey, an academic with a nose for good ideas, reports Roger Eglin

When David Pester, managing partner of one of the largest law firms in Bristol, met Professor Charles Harvey, dean of Bristol Business School, at a dinner hosted by the University of the West of England, they fell deep into conversation.

At the time, Pester’s law firm, TLT, was emerging from a period of transition. This followed the merger of two well-established Bristol law firms in 2002. Once the businesses had been fully integrated the pressure was on to start producing financial returns for the shareholders.

To help achieve this, Pester, as the newly appointed managing partner, wanted to bring in some new people while ensuring that good relations were maintained with existing staff.

Pester was a well-regarded lawyer. However, although he had long experience as head of TLT’s widely respected corporate-finance team, he had no formal management training when he took on the top job. Like many new chief executives, he was discovering that life at the top could be isolating.

His dinner conversation with Harvey prompted him to take the discussion they had further. “I thought that someone outside the business would be good to talk to,” said Pester. “There were benefits from having an objective view.”

Pester realised that if he was going to appoint someone to be his business coach, it would be hard to find anyone more suitable than the head of a business school, so the two men decided to get together.

“It was important to David that I was experienced in practice as well as theory,” said Harvey whose credentials were outstanding. Pester had found himself a practical teacher.

Harvey’s interest in business history has made him a keen student of company organisation. This is reflected in the school’s close teaching links with leading enterprises. Harvey is chairman of Sinfonia Management Systems, a director of the UK Academy of Enterprise, and for five years was chairman of Central Middlesex NHS Trust. “I can draw on my own management experiences to illustrate my analysis,” he said.

The two men discussed a range of topics. Pester said: “One was how we could improve the financial efficiency of the business and what you would need to do to achieve this. Or we took a wider view about what was going to happen in the legal marketplace in the next few years.”

Other topics included strategy, growth and pricing. The meetings usually took place on Monday mornings. Pester would talk for half an hour about the challenges he faced. Harvey would provide analysis and suggest management tools to help decision-making.

These were relevant to what Pester was trying to achieve, particularly the Breakout Strategy for fast-growing firms, which Harvey developed with Thomas Lawton of Imperial College’s Tanaka Business School.

“In many ways it is probably like being in a psychiatrist’s chair,” said Pester. “Charles is a good listener but, just as important, he challenges me without saying, ‘Do it my way’.”

The relationship between the two men is quite personal. Both of them agree the time is appropriate for their particular approach to coaching. Pester is looking to develop his leadership of the firm. Leadership strategy is an area that Harvey likes to study.

Pester wants to get the most out of the merger while Harvey wants to understand the nature of organisations and how to make them work. Although Pester has likened the coaching to a spell in the psychiatrist’s chair, Harvey prefers to adopt a more pragmatic approach, drawing on his considerable knowledge.

Harvey said he would have been drawing on his own experience when he was coached. In the 1990s he founded and led a new institution, Royal Holloway School of Management. This was a substantial undertaking and in the early period of developing it, Harvey said the coaching he received was valuable.

This came from two powerful figures: Sir Alec Reed, founder of the employment group and probably one of the few people to be a management professor and chairman of a plc; and George Cox, who as head of PE Management Consultants and chief executive of Unisys was a leading business figure. Meeting these two men was for Harvey “a fantastic experience”. Reed had a strong entrepreneurial streak and was preoccupied with boosting growth.

Harvey is now bringing this background to his coaching link with Pester. “I have added my own particular slant. It’s an immensely personal business. If it’s working well, it will touch your life like no other thing.”

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