An Interview with John Ainley

Ian Florance & John Ainley
30th September 2019

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An Interview with John Ainley

We interviewed John Ainley, CEO of The Alexander Partnership about the upcoming Meyler Campbell Anniversary Lecture, as well as his and Alexander Partnership’s approach to coaching.

‘Anne is always fascinating to learn from  and the subject of this year’s lecture couldn’t be more relevant’ says John Ainley, CEO and Partner at The Alexander Partnership. The company is sponsoring Meyler Campbell’s 20th Birthday Annual Lecture which Anne Scoular delivers  this year.

We interviewed John about the lecture as well as his and Alexander Partnership’s approach to coaching.

When you moved into coaching you trained at Meyler Campbell. What was that like?

‘I’d worked in corporate life for 30 years; I knew that I was done with that phase of my life and then took time to reflect on my next move. I considered many different routes and sought insight from my network about what I should do next. The message was fairly consistent. My strengths were – apart from specific areas of knowledge – in coaching, guiding, facilitating and advising. Jon Stokes, one of Meyler Campbell’s faculty, had been coach of the Chairman of my employer at the time, Aviva plc. I admired John, and still do! He suggested I meet Anne.  The next thing I knew, I found myself in a syndicate of six being tutored by Anne and Eyal Pavel on the Meyler Campbell programme. I don’t quite know how that happened….!

It was so refreshing to be learning again. I knew some of the material but the sessions  really added to my psychological knowledge, for instance. And the quality of the people who’ve gone through the programme is fascinating. They have such a wide range of experience and are genuinely thoughtful about themselves and what they do.’

After that how did you apply what you’d learnt?

‘At first I set up as an executive coach on my own. I was very conscious that, like a lot of people in my situation, I’d never had to sell myself for monetary reward! I didn’t want to join an existing group and perhaps not pull my weight. After a while I realised that, just as coaching is about relationships, so is marketing your coaching activities. To quote: “Buying coaching is buying an extension of yourself, you have to build deep trust with potential clients.” I had a great network. The business went well but I soon got lonely on my own,  since I’d always enjoyed working in teams.

I’d known the Alexander Partnership since my time at W H Smith. I was asked to join the firm by Graham Alexander and the team. I found the company was not in a good place. It was re-building itself as an independent after being acquired by a US consultancy. I became frustrated by some aspects of the firm and my natural bossiness took over! Graham asked me to lead the business which really meant re-energising and organising it as well as bringing in new talent.’

Tell me about the Alexander Partnership

‘We were founded 35 years ago by Graham Alexander. He was smart enough to introduce Timothy Gallwey’s Inner World of Tennis into business coaching and also co-invented GROW, with Max Landsberg. We’re proud of that heritage and protect it. So, we offer only four focused services: one-to-one coaching and executive team development; Acceleration, which is helping high potential people achieve their potential early; and culture change where we are supporting leadership teams to make a change in culture. We are very specific about what our partners bring to the company – a combination of deep life experience; great coaching skills and our knowledge of life at the very top of corporates.  We have seven partners and are not planning to grow too much: we’re aiming at twelve partners,  continuing to build on our diversity. Another key issue for us is work-life balance; If you want to attract the best coaches you have to offer them flexibility, great work and time for reflection and learning. I see us as a learning organisation: every month we hold an “Advance” in which we try to learn from each other & where our supervisor,  Carol Kauffman has been very helpful.

We stay focused on quality: that’s coaching’s brand of the future. When I started buying  coaches, many years ago, there were only two  companies you could go to for coaching: The Change Partnership and Alexander. Now many search and consulting firms offer it, quite apart from the huge numbers of individual freelancers.’

How did your earlier career lead into coaching?

‘I left school at 15 but ended up studying law at the University of Leeds. I thought I was good at law but increasingly I found myself a fish out of water. The other people seemed to be from a different social background and I became fascinated by the link between law and business. After finishing my degree I looked at jobs in marketing and HR and ended up as a General HR trainee at GEC:  I did a variety of HR roles from recruitment to people development.’

The jump from law to HR then coaching is quite a big one.

‘Yes: a move from work with a high cognitive load to work centred on relationships. Even now, when I do team coaching, I concentrate on the individuals involved & their relationships. I think quite a few of the Meyler Campbell alumni and students have moved from knowledge-based roles to explore their  genuine interest in people.

After GEC I worked at W H Smith which was transforming from a family-run business. It  owned a large number of companies and needed a new generation of leaders. I was there for ten years as Group HR Director. Feedback was that I was an “unusually commercial HR director”: but I’ve always thought that the key organisational leaders are the CEO, the CFO and the HR Director. After Smiths I worked at Norwich Union and then at Aviva after the company merger, as Group HR and Corporate Responsibility Director and a member of the Executive Committee. It was after that that I moved into coaching.’

Your company’s relationship with Meyler Campbell seems important

‘Five of our seven partners are Meyler Campbell trained and Anne has been very helpful in introducing us to great people. A number of us try to attend Meyler Campbell events. Mary Watts, Meyler Campbell’s Programme Director is one of my supervisors.

We’re supporting the lecture partly because we owe such a lot to Meyler Campbell, partly because we want it to succeed, partly because we want to be visible in the coaching community. But, as I said, it’s also about a central, contemporary topic. It might seem odd to say that since the subject is Queen Victoria but, as the title highlights, she was the first global female leader. There’s lots of interest in her at the moment because female leadership is such an important topic now. Anne will have new, stimulating, insightful and no doubt entertaining things to say about her. I’m looking forward to it.’

Thank you, John.


For more information on the upcoming Anniversary Lecture and The Alexander Partnership, click here

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