“I work with many men as my clients,” says Alison, Executive Coach, who works with CEOs and senior leaders in large organisations helping them elevate to the highest level of growth and performance. “But at the same time I’m really keen to ignite the potential of women leaders, and now I’ve started to help women who run their own business.”
The direction of the business remains towards the executive coaching market, but now 30% is focused on helping women running service-based businesses.
The catalyst for this new market came a few years ago, when Alison was shocked to hear that a colleague of her acquaintance, a woman with high-level expertise and running her own coaching practice, had announced she was taking an employed job again “to pay her mortgage”.
“The fact her coaching practice didn’t give her a decent living and pay her mortgage – despite her wisdom, expertise and list of satisfied clients – made a huge impression on me,” says Alison, “because I know she’s not the only one. There are many women ‘solo-preneurs’, coaches, consultants and healers who do a great job for clients’ but their business isn’t commercially successful. It doesn’t give them enough profit to be sustainable as a business, unless they work long hours.”
“Like any business owner, of course, I’ve been through highs and lows financially too,” Alison continues. “I’m delighted to say it’s behind me now, because I’ve finally got a system which works and which I’m now sharing with other women. But the catalyst was that remark. It made a deep impression because I knew she wasn’t alone.”
Alison was a complete novice in running a business when she started out 23 years ago, despite the fact that she made the jump with a high level of expertise in her specialist field. So, it really was a leap of faith to make the move from a safe career in international academia to working with corporates as her clients and heading up her own consultancy.
“It’s not enough in your own business to be good at what you do. But it’s what I thought – what a lot of us think when we make that transition. ‘I’m good. I’m solid. I’m an expert in my field,’ but that’s just not enough,” she says. “So I was a sitting duck for these programmes telling me how I should market and sell.”
“I attended loads of trainings, online and live, worked with consultants and coaches. None of it appeared to work for me. The activities promoted by sales and marketing gurus felt uncomfortable.”
Looking back, that was the problem. Over the years Alison has realised that as a woman entrepreneur with a service business, she’s not alone in this. Many women don’t feel comfortable following the ‘traditional path’ of building a business, marketing, selling etc.
“It’s not an approach that sits well with us as women,” she says. “We may be successful high-achievers in our area of expertise but these business activities that men have devised felt awkward and even alien to me. We need a different way of doing it, a different approach.”
“I must have been on at least ten programmes about how to build, how to market, how to promote your business. A lot of the advice, as you would expect, is the same and it’s a way of doing things that obviously work for men because they have used it for years. But there was a lot that I was reluctant to follow.”
So, what is Alison’s magical formula?
“First I had to change my thinking. Working on your own, it’s easy on a bad day for self-doubt to eat away at your professional confidence. I’ve learned ways to deal with that. Then, how to make my services attractive and unique so clients want to buy. How to talk to clients in a way which isn’t pushy, how to market without the ‘cold calls’ that I hate to receive myself.
“B4 is great in bringing together people who understand it’s more about building the relationships first and the business will follow.
“But when I first went into business, strange as it seems, I didn’t know how to be friendly and promote my business at the same time! Nobody showed me how and I distinctly remember getting it wrong, being pushy and heavy-handed – just because I needed the business and had no one to help me with a different approach.
“What I needed was someone to support and guide me, someone specifically to say, ‘this is how to build your business as a woman.’
“So I’ve had to create my own way, using my practical experience in the business world and what I’ve learned from courses, into a system that works. It has built my confidence and built my reputation. It helped me to be far more magnetic to clients who want to work with me. It has actually given me back the confidence I had when I was regarded as a leader in my field after years in academia.”
Now other women business owners – from executive coaches and consultants to legal advisors and naturopaths – want to share in this solution, to create the resilience and conviction they need, and the business they want, without heavy marketing activities, endless social media or money anxieties.
Alison is a firm believer that to succeed, women need a different approach. “I don’t think the way men coach women gives them the right kind of support or equips them to change their thinking in a helpful way. I want to show women a pathway that they can follow confidently. One that enables them to be confident not arrogant, and avoid being pushy. That inspires and empowers them to build good relationships and speak convincingly, authentically, from the heart.”
So how can you take advantage of Alison’s experience?
“A few years ago I created a programme for women-owned service businesses. They join me in group coaching for a 6-month programme, where they get 1:1 time with me and regular group sessions with coaching and practical business building input from me. I know what works in today’s business and I’ve collated all the parts that worked for me from what I’ve learnt over those numerous courses in the past. It’s an integrated system that works for women like me.”
Alison has called these programmes, all on Zoom, ‘Charge What You’re Worth and Get It’. And she has had a couple of men in her groups too.
The results are quite remarkable. “I have a couple of clients who came into my group coaching more than a year ago and they’ve seen such a difference in turnover in their businesses that they have stayed with me for additional six-month programmes again and again. They’ve found the regular coaching and input, the support and accountability means they have more than doubled what was already a decent level of turnover.”
“The reason I focus on price initially is because a lot of women undersell their services. I do believe that if they haven’t got the finances right then they’ll never be able to feel financially independent, which is so empowering.”
“I do think women are prone to undercharging for a range of reasons. I know, because I used to do it too,” admits Alison, “but it is a bad move. So I stopped it! It undermines your confidence. It undermines the quality of your product or services and means you have to chase more and more work.”
“We are encouraged from a young age to be kind and nice. Many women feel they can’t charge what they’re worth because they don’t want to feel greedy. That’s why I start with money and what my clients should charge, because it’s a fundamental platform to build success on.”
Given that we’re talking ahead of International Women’s Day, Alison draws inspiration for all women from the global leaders that have emerged over the last few years. There is Sanna Marin (PM of Finland), Ingrida Šimonytė (PM of Lithuania), Magdalen Andersson (PM of Sweden) and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand PM).
“I feel it illustrates the progress made in women’s leadership, confidence and their ability to appeal to people in a different way,” says Alison. “I’m also personally inspired by Anna Richards who leads Maymessy in Oxfordshire, working with women facing huge challenges. I take my hat off to Anna and everything she is doing.”
Here’s what some of Alison’s clients have to say:
“Just half-way through the programme, I can feel the difference. I’m clearer on my goals, what is really important to me, and I’ve changed my mindset so I’m more effective as the CEO of my business in lots of ways. I’ve raised my prices and my game.” Eileen, CEO, Work In English.
“The investment I made in your programme has been repaid 4 or 5 times (and I’m only half-way through) – in the successes I’ve had already as a result of changing my pricing strategy, being able to attain and get new clients, put together new products that I’m now selling into new sectors… It’s been phenomenal. In fact, it’s been the best development I’ve done – second only to my Masters – and I’m only cross I didn’t do it before.”
Grainne, Executive Coach
“Lean in because the return is far-reaching, wide and exciting. I’m braver, much braver. I’m really chuffed at the new work I’ve got. I’ve gained much more than the area I targeted at the start… and my prices are up 30%.”
Lucy, Executive and Teams Coach