Interview with Max Graesser, Chair of ITV Pension Scheme

Q. What was your involvement in pensions when you first embarked on coaching?

Max: I had been Chair of the ITV Pension Scheme for a year, and a trustee of the Scheme for about four years before that, which included participation in two committees.

Q. What led you to consider coaching at that point?

Max: The interactions and group dynamics in and around the trustee board are, to be honest, unlike anything I’ve dealt with before in corporate life. The role and responsibilities and obligations of the chairman are different. Who does he or she serve? Who does he or she report to?

Similarly the trustees are potentially a fairly disparate group of individuals, brought together for a common purpose but who would otherwise be pretty unlikely to work together in a normal working environment, and I think this creates a completely unique dynamic and some pretty unique challenges.

So 12 months into the role I felt that I could benefit from some objective and knowledgeable input on how I could enhance my interactions with both the Board and its key stakeholders.

Q. It’s interesting that you went down the coaching route. What experience of coaching had you had before?

Max: On and off over 30 years at ITV I had had different forms of coaching experience. At a number of points I had found it really helpful in getting me to focus on what mattered in the job and how to go about doing things most effectively.

Q. How did this coaching, with Amanda, differ from the experiences with the other coaches you had worked with?

Max: The coaching with Amanda is addressing issues that are very specific to the pensions world, and I think it would be really hard for an outsider to understand the nuances and subtleties of the various interactions. So for me the combination of her coaching skills and many years of professional engagement with pensions at a senior level is a pretty unique combination, and I certainly feel that having set out to get that kind of support it very definitely works for me.

Q. What are the most important benefits you’ve gained from the coaching sessions with Amanda?

Max: For me coaching is really at its most effective when you sense there’s an issue but you can’t quite articulate what it is.

So first of all then, it was important to have help to define the questions I was trying to answer, in order to agree the objectives for the coaching. But then having done that, as we travelled together on the journey different things started happening.

The coaching has helped shape and develop significant thoughts as they bubbled up in the discussion, but also it has provided objective challenge – I don’t think Amanda has ever told me I’m “wrong”, but she has from time to time suggested that there might be an alternative way of thinking about things!

Incidentally, the tone of coaching very much depends on how the person being coached wants to be treated. Some people like very direct challenge, which includes “I think that’s wrong”. Other people prefer perhaps a more gentle tone in terms of challenge and suggestion. That’s a conversation Amanda initiated right at the beginning: tonally, what feels right for this particular relationship?

Q. Is there anything that has surprised you about your coaching experience?

Max: At one level, no. But in terms of the objectives we set out at to explore at the beginning, I’m pleasantly surprised how quickly I think I have reached some of those objectives!

Q. What are you doing differently now as a consequence of the coaching?

Max: I’d like to think that I recognise and focus on what I bring in terms of strengths as a Chair, but also that I acknowledge things I’m less good at and am prepared to work around them.

The proof of this is in the doing, so you’d have to ask my fellow trustees, but I would hope that you’d get a quietly positive response to questions such as: Are the board dynamics now more effective than they were? Is the decision-making that we arrive at as a group done in a fully rounded and therefore effective way? I would hope that there would be a small but positive increase in their recognition of that kind of decision-making.

Q. What would you say to someone else considering coaching for his or her Pension Chair role?

Max: I think we can all do what we do better, no matter how senior or experienced we may be. The right kind of coaching can significantly enhance what you bring to the role and in the process make it more enjoyable.

Since starting coaching with Amanda Cullen, Max has been appointed to two further Chairing roles.