A work-out for the mind.

Being an inveterate networker, several months ago I went along to one of Digitalpeople's regular events for high-tech entrepreneurs and their advisers, tempted by the discussion theme about people management.

Steve Berry at iDesk reeled off ten great hints and tips for leaders (only hire managers aged more than 42; it's lonely; celebrate success). Once the audience was suitably warmed up, an all-in-black Norwegian took the floor and announced that one of his central beliefs (or "stake in the ground", as he calls it) is that "everyone is creative, resourceful and whole." He concluded with a barnstorming question we should all ask ourselves: "If I asked your colleagues, what would you say was the way they misunderstood you?" Great question! My interest was well and truly piqued about the man in black and his profession: coaching.

Visions of personal trainers, Silicon Valley management mumbo-jumbo, prodigious fee rates and bald-pated Stephen Covey flooded into my head. I collared the Norwegian: he is called Cato (perhaps after the Roman statesman named for his intellect or maybe even the Clouseau housekeeper). Cato informed me that he "calls forth leaders to have huge impact expressing their essence, passion and power." Sceptical? Me too. He went on to tell me that he personally works with 12 or so CEOs as a coach - and there are others like him. A secret network springs to mind. A close friend mentions that coaches are superlative: several of our joint friends use coaches, it appears. Suddenly, it's rife: everyone's doing it and keeping mum about it. Not quite true - they love to talk about it, but only when you're on board with the notion (not dissimilar to personal trainers and relationship counsellors).

Cato Johansen.

So, I signed up. The first one was a free trial - to see if we worked well together. Coaches are, I suspect, selective about whom they work with. We spent 45 minutes on the phone mulling over a single issue that was hot on my agenda, to get a glimpse of me, my company and our issues. What I found particularly valuable was that he challenged me to review the matter from many different perspectives (positive places and horrible ones) - rather than the miserable rut in which I was stuck. Then he posed the killer question: where do you want to be when you deal with this issue? Writing this, it now seems somewhat trivial, even obvious, but when you're in that hole, digging deeper, finding a different spade can be tough.

So the programme began. Amazingly, it's phone-based (although I did buy my coach breakfast at Simpsons on one occasion). Cato and I are creating an alliance to generate great results. We are designing my future. Leaders are powerful people and their impact, by definition, is deep on other people. But first, we must get to the bottom of my values. "What are your values?" asks Cato (personal, not business - who I am, not whether I believe in the ten commandments). I stutter and eventually go blank. "Think of peak moments in your life," he says (I think of cross-court passes, doing business with Bill Gates, climbing Scafell Pike, writing last year's strategy document and, of course, Real Business articles). What "value" do they honour? Eventually, and with much debate and agonising, I get to ten value statements, "sort of" prioritised. I found this particularly challenging as values are about creative self-expression and finding the right words troubled me.

Honour your values.

Armed with this, I now have a personal framework for making decisions. I can quickly evaluate where I need to be on a particular issue - I either honour my values or trample all over them. The theory goes that the more I express my values, the more I am alive and the better I perform; all of us create our own lives and we're happiest creating them. As an active type, often one imagines "doing" things: it's just as important simply to "be" things (ie, your values). I have also observed that when I'm down or off-colour, it's because I've been riding roughshod over one or more of my values.

In other dialogues, Cato and I have reviewed the notion of "outcomes", where I evaluate the quality of result by soft, value-based criteria (how you want to be on the issue as opposed to simplistic objectives). What "stand" do I take on issues? What is my "intent" on an issue (being the sum of my stand and the outcome)? You start learning that if you are clear about what you want, you'll start creating it. We've explored specific and general business issues, we've covered techniques (such as listening) and we've even touched upon personal matters (given that humans, per Cato, are whole, and leaders' business performance is not compartmentalised from their private stuff).

Again, this doesn't feel like rocket-science but, trust me, articulating this kind of stuff into a structured, conscious framework was - for me, at any rate - hard work. I think what I've learned from all this is that when you're out there in the trenches, battling away for inches, solving day-to-day problems, it's easy to forget who are you are, what you want and how you want to be. My coach helps me put the rest of the universe into my context and clarify the results that I want to get.