Winning the game

Companies hiring `coaches' for their executives

Adam Katz-Stone   Contributing Writer

Baltimore Business Journal, June 2000

As a rising star at Oracle Corp., Kim Smith needed help.

"I was a young consultant moving up in my career at a rapid pace, yet there is no book you can read that really tells you what to do," she said. "I was looking for mentoring and coaching, both on the personal side and primarily on the professional side."

In the world of executive coaching, Smith was the exception to the rule: a success who only wanted to do things better. Executive coaches say the folks they see most often are those who ride the bumpy road.

"When someone is already successful, the companies generally will be less likely to spend the dollars on added training, because they don't see the issue there," said Ellen Burke, senior vice president and general manager with Lee Hecht Harrison in Columbia, which offers executive coaching in addition to a range of other career services.

Such coaching is becoming a popular tool for companies that are trying to help executives perform at a higher level.

"There's a huge gap between what managers have been taught and what they are being asked to do," said Alan Dobzinski, a principal with the Coach Development Group in Ellicott City. "Coaching is the most guaranteed method we know ever devised to improve their productivity of their department or their organization.''

Dobzinski, who is affiliated with Coach U, a national coaching network, said companies are developing employees through either a one-on-one or group approach. He's doing work for Pizza Hut, Johns Hopkins University and Marriott Corp.

He and other coaches say they see all types of issues pop up in management these days.

Coaches typically see the people who are having problems. These may be recently promoted supervisors who need help adjusting to their new roles, Burke said, or they may be employees who "need to develop more effective behaviors or resolve specific issues that may be interfering with their ability to be successful managers."

Managers who are insensitive to gender or ethnicity issues, or whose leadership style frustrates or disappoints subordinates and higher-ups -- these folks clearly need some help.

There are plenty of them out there, too. A 12-year study by the Hagberg Consulting Group in New York, for instance, found that a quarter of executives at high-technology companies are ineffective managers who lack the people skills to inspire and develop a cohesive team.

It's a circumstance Skip Pettit has seen repeatedly.

"An organization will have this valued employee who they have invested a lot of time and money in, and they want to know is this person salvageable or if this person is just a lawsuit waiting to happen," he said.

As president of the eight-year-old International Training Consortium in Rockville, Pettit oversees some 100 consultants and offers a range of coaching programs. He typically gets $1,500 a day for one-on-one training.

A former Army first sergeant, Pettit can sympathize with managers who have trouble wearing their authority with grace and tact. In the military, "we would say jump and people will jump. But in the work world today it is no longer, `You work for me, do what I say.' Now the question is: How can I help you be successful so that we can be successful together?" he said.

Pettit's approach to these issues is essentially behavioral. His programs give people the resources to act differently in everyday situations.

"A hammer is a wonderful tool. Nothing beats a nail better than a hammer. But if you go home tonight and take a hammer to your VCR, you are going to have limited results," he explained. "You need to have a number of tools in your toolkit, and we try to help get those new tools into people's hands."

Other executive coaches take a more systemic approach, working almost as therapists to help clients examine and hopefully alter deep-rooted behavioral patterns.

A good example is Mickie Crimone, who has operated her one-woman shop The Leader's Edge in Potomac for five years. Crimone is the coach who helped Kim Smith adjust to her changing role at Oracle a few years back.

A psychiatric nurse by training, she said that workplace problems and domestic strife share much in common.

"To the degree that the person at the top is clear and visionary, that leads to success," she said. "That is true whether you are talking about a parent or talking about a president."

Likewise, "corporations can get wedded to `we have always done it this way' in the same way families get wedded to `we don't talk to Aunt Susie.'

In a corporation this mean it is always the sales division that has a problem, or always this other section that cannot get the information that it needs."

Crimone urges clients to first become aware of themselves and their surroundings. She teaches them to step back and take an objective view of the corporate culture and of their own role within that system. In this effort, she often sounds more like a couple's counselor than a corporate coach.

"You can't control those around you, but you can control how you operate. You can change what you do, and you can change your responses. The more you do that, the more you act from a mature thinking stance, the better you will be able to function," she said.

In work as in life, she said, "you can keep the lungs breathing, you can keep the heart pumping, but you really don't function unless the head is in charge."

Smith was turned off at first by this deeply personal approach, but in the end she became a believer.

"I had always been reticent to do that. I said business is business, and I keep my professional and personal lives separate," said Smith, an Arlington, Va., resident who is presently on leave from Oracle and pursuing personal interests.

By breaking down that wall and coming to view her work relationships as meaningful bonds, she found herself able to function more effectively in the office.

"Your manager is a person just like you, and so are your peers," she said. "All the way up the chain, people above you have not just organizational goals, but also personal goals, and getting to know those people as people helps tremendously."

A note of caution: While executive coaching can help managers be more productive and organizations more effective, one needs to beware of unintended consequences.

Burke for example gets $20,000 to $25,000 for a 12-month coaching commitment, and $12,000 to $15,000 for a six-month program. (These consist of an average of two in-person meetings a month and numerous phone calls.) She said that despite the weighty expense, there is no guarantee that the end result will be an improved executive.

In fact, the program may result in no executive at all.

"This is a major change process the person is going through, and when people go through this kind of process, they may decide on their own to leave an organization," Burke said. "Sometimes when there is a performance issue, for example, it is because that person is not a good match for that job. Companies need to be aware of this possibility going in."

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