“I am that 1%”
Humbly admitting that he sees himself very much the same as everybody else but the truth is, maybe he is a bit different. Coombes on some level is like the rest of us, building a career in constant struggle between circumstantial limitations and personal ambitions, insecurities and external confidence, balancing professional and personal life as a driven and yet emotional creature. Few dare to claim titles such as Head of Talent, Graduate Programme & Management Development at Barclays Commercial Bank, HR director at Leo Burnett EMEA, Lecturer and Tutor at University of South Australia (at age 19) and most importantly, Executive Coach whose clients include Bloomberg and Procter & Gamble, as well as Lenstore – one of the Times Top 10 fast growing private companies 2013, under his own company Coombes Business Coaching. Speaking to me in landmark location of Shoreditch, The Book Club, Coombes reveals the force that has asserted a modest Australian boy into the world of finance and Britain’s elite class. Nate reports.
Having arrived half an hour late for the interview I had scheduled for Mr Coombes, I was thousands of times more gratified that he had stayed to be interviewed than when he agreed to it, in exchange for my help in lifting some boxes at one of his cooking classes. Wait, cooking?
(what’s going on here? Coombes had put 10 members of The Supper Club, UK’s premier network for entrepreneurs in a boot camp of high pressured cooking task, in order to observe their organizational behaviour under his microscope. Jan 30th, 2014 photo by Nate.)
“For the first time, we could see how a pressured cooking environment creates high quality in a limited time. Then you can talk about leadership development and management behaviour. In that situation, entrepreneurs who are used to working separately and individually are with people they don’t know. Some of them begin to coordinate and work together but some would surge out of the group, not only being able to get the assigned task done but also seek to learn everything else within that space. What we’d be looking for is that I work more with them to identify in their business where they need to work as a team.”
I should mention that one of my highlights in life so far had been the time I had the privilege to taste Coombes caviar in the 3-story townhouse that he owns on a summer day in Hackney, East London, over looking the stand-alone fish-tank-like studio which he calls “office” across the garden. The fact that both of us were in flip-flops gave me enough excuse to indulge in his treat without feeling undeserving or too self conscious of my own status or cooking skills. How good was the caviar? … Sorry, did I mention it was caviar?
“I am interested in food and cooking schools, I have been to about 30 cooking schools across the world. I believe that it differentiates me as a coach because it’s a different way of beginning a conversation about high performance, communication and teamwork. “
(Entrepreneurs associated with The Supper Club are carefully vetted to ensure that the Club maintains the highest quality of entrepreneurs across all sectors. Here they are cooking up a feast, but not without some serious tough love from Coombes, which he describes as the “In your face” style. Jan 30th, 2014. Photos by Nate)
“It’s performance coaching, focusing on individual development and career development. I work with senior management, they have business objectives, department objectives and individual objectives, things that they need to deliver to their bosses in order to get their pay rise or promotions. One of my particular target markets is one that’s fast growing, small entrepreneurial companies.”
As Coombes alternating between coaching corporations such as Bloomberg, Procter & Gamble and individual clients that his current work entails,he is now reflecting on the past times when he had been HR director in Barclays. This is what he had to say,
“They were no more professional, in fact, they had even bigger challenges. There was a certain degree of dysfunction in the way that the business operates. There was a great need for intelligent HR, tactics and strategy, but there wasn’t much of it employed. There were so much of a need but so little commitment.”
“Being an HR director in a corporate space means 300-400 emails a day, working on 15 projects simultaneously at any given time. It means 80 percent of your time is spent on internal stake holder management, otherwise known as Politics.”
Coombes now would spend 40% of his time on client relationship development, marketing and networking and the rest doing valuable work with smart people who he likes working with, certainly a lifestyle that inspires envy and admiration, as if he weren’t as much of being his own boss previously. With a personality and qualities that easily cast command, Coombes is rigorously focused and uncompromising.
“I like my lifestyle, that also means I’m spending more of my time thinking and communication about value and less of greasing the wheels of politics. I respect it [corporate politics], I understand it needs to happen, I can go into that space and operate, but also come back out healthy.”
Ostensibly, Coombes had embarked on a journey to success which most of our society would recognize or assume as a road taken by the talented and ambitious and most important of all, lucky. I for one had quit school 4 times due to visa or financial issues or because I had to waste years not knowing what I want from life. Coombes’ life could seem a bit too linear. As I whinged over my shortcomings, Coombes stopped me right there and with such conviction, put me in my place. “You always have options.”
So, what choices did Coombes have to make?
Coombes in 1995. Photo by Coombes
“From the point I was 15, everything I did, I did it to escape from Australia (if you had been to Australia you’d know why) and become successful and financially independent from my parents. Because of my sexuality, I feared that they and the society they came from would reject me and I would be lost. So I had to become very good at something very quickly. That fear had been a source of a certain degree of insecurity, combined with real ambition to succeed in the world, as well as my understanding and talent in organizations and organizational theory led me to become a person you’d call “loud” and “in your face”, which led to one of my lectures saying ‘you could be a good tutor’. He then let me do that before I was really ready to do it but I learned a lot.”
Within 2 year of Coombes ending his job as a tutor (since age 19) in Organisational theory having finished a degree in Business, Marketing, Human Resources, Australia experienced its economic recession. The consequence of which saw his coming out of Australia to the UK at age 26.
“There weren’t jobs in big companies, I didn’t have connections through family, so it was either to be entrepreneurial or unemployed. And that is not my thing.”
(Coombes vacationing in Tromsø, Norway, waiting for Aurora Borealis to appear while keeping himself warm and clean in the hot tub that’s installed on private boat Feb 1st, 2014. Photo by Coombes)
N: what’s your identity now?
C: Part of my identity is linked to my work, the sophistication and the challenge of it, my intellect, my professionalism, and part of my identity is related to my relationship with my partner, and me being a learning growing changing and emotional creature.
N: How about that insecurity you felt at the earlier stage of building your career?
C: It’s a constant state. I have less fear of it now because I know it helps me be good at what I do. I still feel it and I don’t want to stop feeling it.
N: what is that one quality you couldn’t have made it without?
C: (After a short pondering) The willingness to challenge the status quo.
I was deeply ashamed for not knowing what status quo meant but I have a feeling that this latin word would linger in my mind for many years to come. Boy, wouldn’t you want to be Richard Coombes!!
(Coombes and partner Aidn at London’s Gay Pride Parade 2008. Photo source: Coombes’s facebook page.)
Coombes Business Coaching Main Page
Coombes’ Covent Garden Cooking School