Not everyone has a single, pivotal turning point in their life, but like those who do, Emma J Bell recalls hers clearly.
As a young partner at MacRoberts Solicitors, Bell’s drive for perfection was by the early part of the millennium propelling her towards a reputation as a leader in her field of employment law.
But despite all the outward signs of professional success, she was “stressed and anxious” most of the time, to the point that one day she found herself revving the engine and nudging the bumper of her car into the parapet atop a multi-storey car park.
She knew she wouldn’t drive over the edge, but something in her life had to change. From there evolved a quest into human relationships and how these impact on working life.
“That really was my road to Damascus moment,” she says. “I became voracious about motivation, engagement and what it is that makes people tick. It really has been a journey where I have one foot in my personal life and one foot in my professional life.”
Today she coaches individuals sent to her by a variety of professional firms and public bodies seeking to unlock the potential of key people within their organisation.
Whether the issue is stress, an inability to engage with clients or failure to motivate the team, the problem is often rooted in the manager’s own beliefs and drives.
“Generally, the organisations that hire me see this as an investment in talent, when the employer has someone who they think has the potential to achieve more,” Bell explains.
“It’s about shifting mental blocks, but you don’t know until you get into the coaching what those mental blocks are.”
Born in 1970, Bell was raised in Ecclefechan, where her family owned and ran the Kirkconnell Hall Hotel which at that time catered primarily to coach tours. From an early age both she and her sister worked in the hotel carrying suitcases, staffing the gift shop and occasionally entertaining the guests by singing on a Saturday night.
By the age of 11 she was a regular viewer of the Crown Court television series, which she watched with her grandfather, and it was then that she decided she wanted to be a lawyer.
She went on to get an honours law degree from Strathclyde University before joining John Wilson & Co, a small Glasgow firm where she quickly made her way into the courtroom handling routine proceedings.
A year later Bell moved to MacRoberts, where she soon settled on employment legislation as her field of choice.
“It is the one area of the law that allows you to focus on people and how relationships break down in the workplace,” she explains.
“For me it was the only part of the law that came alive because it involves people – although family law does that as well, but I find family law distressing.”
She made partner at the age of 30, but soon after fell prey to the anxiety that led to her epiphany at the top of the car park.
With the support of the firm she started putting together a ‘soft skills’ course that would eventually become the training arm of MacRoberts.
Called Potential, its aim was to teach managers how to improve relationships with staff so that fewer problems arise, while also providing traditional employment law training.
In 2005, Edinburgh-based Brodies poached Bell to set up an employment law team from scratch in Glasgow.
She ran her leadership and coaching practice alongside her legal work for a further five years before leaving the law altogether in 2010, but continued providing development programmes for Brodies. To this she has added clients from the accountancy, charity, health, local authority and private sectors.
She actively works with about 15 individuals at any one time, whom she meets with every four to five weeks. About 70 per cent of her clients are women.
“What I have noticed is that women tend to be more open to doing what needs to be done to achieve change,” Bell says.
“Coaching will only work if someone wants to do it. But once they are there, there is no difference between the two. Men are as prepared to do the work as women.”
The ‘work’ involves objective assessments of personal perspective and assumptions, and various exercises to “overwrite” thinking patterns that get in the way of good management.
In addition to coaching, Bell is also a prolific public speaker, and earlier this year published her first book entitled The True You.
30 SECOND CV
Born: Stafford, 1970
Education: St Joseph’s College, Dumfries; University of Strathclyde
Ambition at school: It was to be a lawyer – I used to watch Crown Court with my grandfather.
First job: Working in my family’s hotel in Ecclefechan.
Can’t live without: Having the people I love around me.
Kindle or book: Book, every time
Favourite city: Lucca in Italy’s Tuscany region.
Preferred mode of transport: Motorbike – my KTM Adventure.
What car do you drive: A VW Scirocco Sport
What makes you angry: Injustice
What inspires you: Being able to make a difference.