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Vol. 45, No. 6
Corporate coaches help managers produce the right plays on the job.
Imagine your boss saying he thinks you could benefit from a corporate coach. He explains that you are developing into a good manager, but you could use a little help from a trained expert. You could look at this two ways: You aren’t doing a great job, and if you don’t clean up your act, you’re going to get the boot. Or, you’re doing such a good job that the company wants to accelerate your development and put you on the executive track.
The top reason companies seek coaches is to sharpen the leadership skills of high potential individuals, according to a Manchester Inc. survey.
The corporate coaching industry has exploded in recent years. Membership in the International Coach Federation (ICF), Washington, D.C., has grown 600 percent since 1997 to 2,300 members. And, it is adding members at a rate of approximately 100 per month. Experts estimate there are 10,000 corporate coaches worldwide.
And, according to a survey by Manchester Inc., an HR consulting firm in Jacksonville, Fla., 59 percent of organizations currently offer coaching or other developmental counseling to their managers and executives.
The downsizing trend a decade ago spurred the growth of the coaching industry. “When downsizing occurred in the early 1990s, positions that would lead you to higher levels [and] prepare you for more senior positions went away,” explains Rodney Warrenfeltz, executive vice president at Manchester. “There was a big gap between senior executives running the company and the operational people.”
Now, the low unemployment rate is forcing companies to find people and put them in jobs for which they’re not prepared. “When that happens, they need help,” Warrenfeltz adds.
Also contributing to the rapid growth is the drastic change in the perception of coaching. Not only are companies offering coaches to managers, but managers are also asking for them. “Ten years ago, it was almost a personal indictment if you were told you needed a coach; there must be something wrong with you,” says David B. Peterson, senior vice president of coaching services at PDI, an HR consulting firm headquartered in Minneapolis, and co-author of Leader as Coach: Strategies for Coaching and Developing Others (Personnel Decisions, 1996).
“Today,” he adds, “virtually everyone is aware that they need constant development to keep pace. It’s more of a competitive advantage to have your own coach. A coach provides personal attention that is often lacking in today’s work environment.”
The most frequent reasons why people seek or are offered coaching include learning how to become a leader, leveraging strengths, communicating more clearly, developing self-confidence, dealing with difficult people and assuming greater responsibilities, according to Jan Austin, president of Potential at Work, a coaching and consulting firm in Rochester, N.Y.
The Investment Management Group of Bank One in Glendale, Ariz., has used corporate coaches since last June. “The participants in the coaching program have experienced greater job satisfaction, improved performance and have been better able to deal with difficult situations,” says Doreen Pollack, project manager and internal coach.
Susie Sumner can attest to those benefits. “Coaching helps me step back from my job, out of the day-to-day hassles and think about what direction to take things,” says Sumner, national accounts marketing manager at Home Director Inc., a recent spin-off of IBM Corp. in Morrisville, N.C., who has used a corporate coach for about two years.
“My coach helps me with setting goals and monitoring whether I am hitting them. She helps me when I’ve been going at a problem the wrong way.”
CSX Transportation in Jacksonville, Fla., which uses coaches mainly for high potential employees and executives, has found it helps them see the company as a whole.
“Lots of folks have blind spots around how their actions impact others,” says Doug Klippel, CSX’s director of organizational development. “They’ve gotten myopic, focusing so much on their department. Going through coaching increases their perspective, how their work area impacts other areas.”
The benefit to companies is that coaching helps retain workers and keep them interested and motivated. Training and development continually top the reasons why good employees stay at companies.
Jane Creswell, vice president of organizational development at Home Director, says retention has been one of the most significant benefits of coaching for the company, along with helping recruit qualified candidates. Creswell has been an internal coach at the company since 1988.
The objectivity and diplomacy of coaches give them an edge on managers, says Tom Gegax, co-founder of Tires Plus Stores and author of Winning in the Game of Life: Self-Coaching Secrets for Success (Harmony Books, 1999), who has been using internal coaches in his organization for the past eight years. “People are more willing to take feedback from a coach than from a boss because so many of us have been coached before, either on a sports team or in community theater,” he says. “So, I think people relate to it.”
Coaching also has advantages over other forms of training, for example, flexibility. “Instead of sending someone to a training program on a set schedule, you can meet with your coach at appropriate times,” says Michael Frisch, director of coaching services at PDI, an HR consulting firm in New York. “Another key benefit is what you’re working on with a coach is exactly what you need to work on. Unlike a curriculum in which some information will be on target and some won’t, coaching is always on target. It’s more efficient.”
What Is a Corporate Coach?
A corporate coach helps employees to identify strengths and weaknesses, set goals and discover creative solutions to challenges. “A coach helps you explore options and gives another perspective,” says Marcia Reynolds, president of ICF; a certified master coach, a distinction that requires extensive experience and passing an exam; and president of Covisioning, an executive coaching firm in Phoenix. “Coaches are there to help you figure it out.”
Many people mistakenly think of coaches as mentors. A coach typically is from outside of the organization, whereas a mentor is usually a senior executive from within the organization. “A mentor provides advice based on his or her own industry experience,” explains Austin. “The mentor shows the mentee the ropes and assists in making valuable organizational connections. A coach may not have industry expertise. A coach assists the person being coached in discovering his or her own solutions to work-related challenges.”
Who Needs Coaching?
Coaching experts say that anyone can benefit from coaching, but that not everyone is “coachable.” Someone who is not receptive to the idea of being coached probably won’t benefit from it.
“Coaching provides an objective look at performance, a way to help improve performance and a sounding board for issues and challenges,” says Warrenfeltz. “CEOs and VPs find it difficult to have a safe sounding board. A coach can fill that important role.”
Reynolds agrees: “The higher you go up in the company, the fewer people there are to talk to. You need to get someone to bounce things off of, to help you see options and possibilities. Who does the CEO go to for that?”
GE Equity, a division of GE in Sandy Hook, Conn., offers coaching to its senior executives. “We started it in 1997, and we only included the people who were at the senior level, direct reports to the general manager,” says Stan Friedman, vice president of HR. Then the company rolled it out to managers.
The results? “It varied by individual,” Friedman says. “One senior person was shocked—shaken—by the results [of a 360-degree evaluation]. They didn’t match his perception of reality.
He made a tremendous turnaround through coaching. Now he is a much better manager. His team is much more respectful of him.”
Coaches typically meet with employees two to four times per month for a half-hour to an hour. The majority of coaching is conducted via telephone, but some coaches pride themselves on face-to-face contact. A 1998 survey by ICF found 94 percent of coaching is conducted via telephone, 45 percent via e-mail and 35 percent in person. Most coaches work with an employee for a minimum of three months, with the average relationship lasting six to nine months.
Before the first coaching session, most coaches will do some type of assessment, such as a 360-degree evaluation, and an exploratory exercise that helps employees ascertain their values and goals. Then employees have structured conversations with their coaches on selected topics. Often the coach predetermines the topic; other times the employee dictates the discussion. According to a 1998 survey of clients by ICF, most clients work with their coaches on time management and career guidance.
Meetings follow a particular structure. “The first step is to be very specific in describing where the employee is now and where the employee wants to be,” explains Creswell. “The difference between these two is the gap.”
Cynder Niemela, an executive and team coach at Vista Coach in La Quinta, Calif., adds that the next steps are “to ask a lot of discovery questions around the current situation, what is missing, what is working [and] what is not working. You help the person develop an action plan for moving forward and anticipating and overcoming obstacles. Then you recap at the end.”
Fees vary widely—from $200 to $1,000 per month—based on whether the coaching is by phone or in person and whether it is individual or for a team. Pre- and post-assessments often cost extra.
Internal vs. External Coaches
While most coaches are external contractors, internal coaches are becoming more common, and each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. For example, external coaches can provide alternative perspectives, outside of company politics, as well as confidentiality. “More senior people in the organization who are sensitive in terms of confidentiality frequently request an outside coach,” says Frisch.
Warrenfeltz agrees and adds, “There are credibility and trust issues. If you have an internal coach, it is likely that the person is at a lower level than the senior VPs. As a senior VP, I’m unlikely to disclose all of my baggage to a lower-level person in my organization. An external coach provides a level of comfort.”
But internal coaches are much cheaper. “[Internal coaches] have opened up other ranks of employees to benefit from coaching who may not have been considered when it was an out-of-pocket expenditure,” says Frisch. “Internal coaches also have an unusually valuable perspective in being able to watch the individual interact and [to] give feedback.”
Austin adds, “An internal coach is readily available. The coach knows the systems, organizational culture and how success is measured.
Relationships can be long term and less subject to termination due to changing business conditions.”
If you decide to hire an internal coach, Creswell recommends hiring one coach for every 30 to 40 employees.
“The concept of an internal coach is still new,” Frisch adds. “Internal coaching as an acknowledged part of somebody’s job was almost nonexistent a few years ago. HR people did it but didn’t label it as such and weren’t rewarded for it. I see an increasing role for internal coaches.”
Summarizes Creswell, “Internal doesn’t work for everyone, external doesn’t work for everyone. It’s very customized, based on the company’s needs.” And a company need not choose one exclusively. For example, Bank One uses a combination of internal and external coaches.
Building the relationship between the coach and the manager is the most important aspect of coaching—and often the most difficult.
“The biggest challenge is getting the participants fully engaged in the coaching relationship,” says Pollack. “The initial responses run the gamut from immediate acceptance and involvement to avoidance.”
To overcome the initial reluctance, Linda Miller, president of Corporate Coaches Inc., in Kirkland, Wash., advises clients to accentuate the positive. Tell the manager, “We value your contribution to this organization and because of that we want to pair you with a coach.”
Confidentiality may be the reason why some managers hesitate. “Make it perfectly clear up front what the coach will and won’t reveal about the client from the coaching discussion,” Pollack says. “This is particularly important when the coach is internal.”
In addition, supervisors can cause problems if they are not kept in the loop. Explains Klippel, “If I am a supervisor of someone being coached and I don’t understand the coaching relationship, I might think it reflects a shortcoming on my part, ‘Coaching? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing?’”
He also warns against problems with expectations: “When people get coached, they think they are anointed and that they are a shoe-in for the next promotion.” Be careful about any implied promises.
With internal coaches, a problem can occur when determining who fits the profile. “Companies mistakenly make everyone who holds the title of manager coaches,” says Creswell. “To be successful, coaches have to have the blood type of a coach—people who are excellent listeners, good at identifying strengths in others [and] can motivate others to find answers.”
A 1999 survey by the ICF and Linkage Inc. on corporate coaching found that one of the biggest problems with coaching is that companies don’t know how to measure its effectiveness. “Ask [the coach] for quantitative and measurable results,” recommends Niemela. Many coaches use pre- and post-360 degree evaluations to measure results.
Lastly, a common pitfall is to become dependent on your coach. David Bates, director of engineering services at Home Director, has been coached and had his team coached. “It’s easy to get co-dependent on your coach, to think, ‘I need to talk about this.’” Bates says that he started to want to talk about every decision he made with his coach. Then he took on a lot more work. “I didn’t have the time to talk about all the things. I had to coach myself. Now I go to [my coach] when I have big issues I’m stuck on and need some additional perspective.”
Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.
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