Why design businesses should consider an in-house coach

Taxi Studio in-house coach Katie Scotland shares the positive impact that coaching can have on a studio’s culture and argues it’s a good use of time in a busy day.

Coaching has become more mainstream in recent years as businesses recognise it as a valuable way to support their people. In a global study by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) from 2009, three quarters of respondents said coaching boosted their confidence; improved relationships, communication and interpersonal skills; and increased work performance.

I’ve been Taxi Studio’s in-house coach for over three years, a role that in my experience is extraordinary in the design industry – it’s still rare in any industry.

Despite the clear benefits of coaching to employees of all levels, a 2023 ICF study found that 76% of coaching clients are managers, leaders and senior executives – and just 18% of them are under 35. At Taxi Studio we offer coaching to everyone in the business, from brand-new junior recruits to the management team.

Katie Scotland, Taxi Studio’s in-house coach (right)

Provide a valuable outlet for all

We started coaching a day a week in November 2019, off the back of a challenging period for the design sector. After Brexit, many budgets were on hold, everything was financially up and down in the industry and there was a lot of change. I was brought on board at Taxi Studio to give people support as the studio looked to the next chapter.

Little did we know, the next chapter would be the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turned out, coaching was an incredible resource to have put in place already. As the business worked harder just to make things work, coaching gave individuals an outlet to connect with someone, download how they were feeling and get some perspective.

My role is to be objective. I don’t give advice. I listen to an individual and help them work through their situation, so they come out of a session with a plan that works for them. Some people I coach regularly; others come to see me for a challenge that we work on over three or four sessions, and then I don’t work with them for a year. Each person’s experience of coaching will be different depending on what’s going on for them.

Strengthening internal relationships

Coaching is not about hard metrics: you can’t say, definitively, that it makes people more successful, or the business more profitable. The softer stuff can be tricky to measure, but the bottom line is that better-quality interactions make for a better working environment.

One of Taxi Studio’s founding principles is “form real relationships”, and I think coaching can really help strengthen relationships inside a business. People often come to a session to think through a conversation they need to have. They might be finding a situation difficult or feel they aren’t able to have the impact they want. We’ll work through it so we can see what’s going on with more clarity. They can then have that conversation in a direct, honest and open manner, focusing on solutions rather than what’s not working for them. They are able to be more objective without emotions getting in the way.

Coaching can help people articulate themselves more clearly, but it also helps them listen. That’s an essential part of the design process too. When people genuinely work together to problem-solve effectively, they move things forward as a team and both the work and the business benefit.

Foster a healthier culture

Coaching is about helping individuals understand themselves better: they gain clarity on where they’re at and what their blind spots are, and are able to have confidence in themselves and what they bring. When people feel recognised for their strengths and feel their voice is heard, it makes for a calmer, more self-assured place. That’s so easy to say, but so hard to do within a business in a meaningful way.

When you extend coaching to the entire business and really commit to it, over time you start to see positive change. People feel comfortable to raise their hand when something doesn’t feel right or when they need help. At Taxi Studio, coaching has enabled us to establish and implement values and behaviours that the entire organization has committed to, fostering and sustaining a psychologically safe environment.

In a design studio, subjectivity plays a significant role, so it’s crucial to promote an environment that encourages people to express their thoughts. At Taxi Studio we value the idea that great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere. When people feel able to voice their opinions and bring constructive challenges, it creates more open discussions and encourages creativity.

Encourage open career conversations

Designers within a studio can also start to take charge of their own careers. Again, businesses might say that they encourage this, but without the right support, people can feel a bit lost. They need the resources to think things through, and then have a clear conversation with their manager about what they want next in their career and the support they need.

At Taxi Studio, coaching has helped team heads have more meaningful discussions about people’s growth. Individuals come prepared to their quarterly catch-ups, ready to have an open conversation about their future. It leads to a more proactive and entrepreneurial approach to personal development, which has an impact on how the business evolves too.

That combination of having a voice and knowing what you need is very empowering. And because it’s a safe environment, those underlying issues and emotions that are present in every business are out in the open and talked about.

In my 10+ years as a coach, I’ve seen people leave a company because they’re frustrated – without ever having the right conversations. You can talk about anything you want in my sessions, so it’s not unusual to for someone to say: “I’m thinking about leaving,” or: “This isn’t working for me.” It’s never my agenda to keep someone in a business, but I am there to give them the opportunity to think through all the options.

By working through it and finding another way to fix the “thing” that’s causing a problem, people tend to stay more often than they don’t, and it often leads to a really good conversation about their role.

Invest in a long-term vision

My advice to any design business looking to integrate coaching into its culture is to find the model that works for you and commit to it. Consistency and longevity are key to see the benefits: otherwise, it’s a drop in the ocean.

The team at Taxi Studio is currently 45 people: that’s an ideal size for in-house coaching, I think, to manage consistent demand across the team, and we can scale as the studio grows.

If you can’t afford to do it in the same way that we have – with a dedicated in-house professional – other approaches include subscription models and on-demand digital coaching. Larger organisations may call on a roster of external coaches to cater to specific needs, or train up existing employees to coach their teams alongside their main role.

Keep it confidential but make coaching visible

If you’re planning to bring a coach on board to help your business, bear in mind that confidentiality is everything. At no point could I ever pass on anything I’ve heard in a coaching session. Even if I had good intentions – thinking, this person’s having a hard time and they need some help – it would break that trust and it wouldn’t work.

That means you’re investing in a coach without knowing exactly what your team are talking to them about. You need to trust the people that work for you, and the coach, to make this a quality experience. If you try to control it or put restrictions on it, it doesn’t work.

Finally, make the coaching visible. It should be perfectly normal to see people going into a coaching session, whether they’re a new starter or one of the management team. Make it clear that it’s a good use of their time in a busy day, and never challenge that. But remember, people must choose for themselves. You can’t make anyone want to be coached.

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