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Cambridge Judge Business School author is executive coaching star

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Dr Helena Kim, author of ‘Soft Skills for Hard People’. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Helena Kim, author of ‘Soft Skills for Hard People’. Picture: Keith Heppell

Helena Kim, an executive coach and coaching psychologist at Cambridge Judge Business School, has seen her first book trending on Amazon within days of its launch.

Soft Skills for Hard People: A practical guide to emotional intelligence for rational leaders offers guidance on the emotional intelligence required to succeed in the 2020 workplace.

Written during lockdown and published on October 6, the book was three years in the making, says Dr Kim, who was an assistant professor at the University of Virgnia before switching to corporate coaching following a move to the UK in 2004.

“The book reached number one in the downloads chart in two leadership and management categories in the UK and US following last week’s launch,” said a delighted Helena, who describes herself as “a coaching psychologist and recovering academic who works with cynics and high potentials”.

With a masters from Harvard University in counselling and consulting psychology, she spent 15 years coaching and training individuals and organisations including Amazon, Google, UBS, JP Morgan, Fujitsu, Royal Mail, the National Gallery, the NHS, Cambridge Angels, i2i and the US Air Force. She joined Cambridge Judge as coaching psychologist in 2018 and has since developed and runs MindWorks@CBJS, a hybrid personal and professional support service for MBA students and alums.

“We came to Cambridge in 2006,” says Helena of the move to the city with her husband, Dr Sanjay Sinha , a cardiologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. “I’m an academic, I’m a geek, I thought how do I get my foot through the door? I contacted UBS bank in the City, and had a reply from someone called James who I asked to meet. He said I could meet him between meetings, so I had five minutes of his time. I said: ‘Give me five clients, I’ll work for free, if it doesn’t work out let me go, otherwise put me on a contract.’

“The first client was the head of HR and after two sessions she told James: ‘Hire her.’ That was my first step.”

By the time she was approached by the Cambridge Judge Business School two years ago, Helena’s ability to meld the personal and professional contexts was very apparent.

“They said: ‘We’ve noticed you are a professor working with graduate students and have also trained as a therapist – and you’re a leadership and executive coach. We’re not looking for one of those skills – we’re looking for all three.’

“Many graduates don’t fall into clean categories of having clinical or personal issues. My work is a cross between personal and professional development. I say to them: ‘What the personal and professional have in common is you.’”

Meditation is good for those working in the corporate world, says Dr Helena Kim - just remember to turn the phone off or on to silent! Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
Meditation is good for those working in the corporate world, says Dr Helena Kim - just remember to turn the phone off or on to silent! Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

This straddling of personal and professional also lies at the heart of Soft Skills for Hard People, which gets off to a great start with a description of how to have a successful conversation with a colleague. Useful for anyone!

Later sections also look at harnessing anger, maintaining clean boundaries, self-awareness, focused listening and a chapter called ‘Do empathy’.

So is empathy learned?

“It is teachable,” replies Helena. “It is learnable for people as long as they can understand it and it’s practical for them. I say ‘do empathy’ because it’s like confidence – you’re not being confident, you’re doing confidence.”

Is the executive coaching sector making progress in encouraging a healthier society?

“There’s a huge push for the whole concept,” says Helena. “During the 2008-09 recession, when I got into the field, people were saying things like ‘Fake it until you make it’ but there has to be reflective practice because the only way to lead yourself is when you have that self-awareness.

“If I had my way everyone would practise meditation.

“I’ve been called an undercover Yoda, and while I’m not sure if I’m flattered by that, it’s certainly the case that people should sit down and consider the situation before they make an important decision.”

As a therapist Helena’s speciality is group dynamics, and Soft Skills for Hard People has benefitted from input from others, including her “frustrated editor” partner.

“I’m not a great writer, it took a village, it was a team effort,” she says.

Whether or not she is a great writer, she’s brilliantly entertaining, and the book is fun to read and very instructive. Helena’s approach – “I guess I’m a hybrid service where they get both coaching and training in one session” – makes Soft Skills for Hard People worthy of a wider audience.

“It’s emotional intelligence but the book offers a rational take on it.”

Her new-found success notwithstanding, Helena plans to carry on with what she’s doing.

“I love what I do as a coach and trainer,” she says. “I especially love working with the MBA students.”

And will there be another book?

“Actually people have emailed me asking me to write a sequel – to be called ‘Hard Skills for Soft People’!”

The book cover is below and photo attached courtesy of Julian Eales Photograph

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