Bigger & Better

Put me in coach, I’m ready to thrive.

Pam Withers

From the April 2001 issue of B.C. Business

 

Andrea, senior operations manager for a major Vancouver company with hundreds of employees, loved her job, never lacked for confidence and knew where her career was headed. So when a good friend who had hired an executive coach for herself passed the coach’s phone number to Andrea and urged, “You’ll love it; treat yourself,” Andrea just thanked her and dropped the number in the waste bin. To her chagrin, this friend was so persistent that she had to repeat the waste-bin-toss several times over a period of months.

Then one day, for no reason she could fathom, rather than dump the number, she found herself dialing it. In retrospect she now understands why she committed money and time to the stranger’s voice on the other end of the line. “I always felt there was more to me than I was using,” muses Andrea. “This wasn’t about achieving the next title or the next zero on the end of the income. It was about being bigger in the world.”

A few months later, seated in the company’s boardroom, Andrea found herself put on the spot by the CEO, who always counted on her for quick answers and direction when uncertainty hobbled others. But Andrea shrugged off the question; she wasn’t convinced the issue warranted a quick answer. The CEO was so surprised that he approached her afterwards.

“Why didn’t you answer?”

“There was no need,” she replied smoothly.

Today, she recalls that exchange as symbolic. “He realized I had made a switch in my approach and he was intrigued by it. I had more impact by my silence and my listening than by my previous chattiness and need to direct. The coaching was having a huge influence on how I worked with my staff and colleagues. It was turning around how I looked at them and how I learned from them and how I managed and led them. When I worked with a coach, I slowed down and became more productive and comfortable with change, something the CEO recognized, even though he did not understand how it had come about.” She adds that her coach, Georgina Eden, had an approach that was “holistic and transformational on all levels.”

Over at BC Hydro, the senior strategic issues manager can relate. Ron Monk says executive coaching also changed his life. A former football player, he knew that good coaches enhance performance and assumed that hiring an executive coach would help him cope with his demanding workload and clarify larger objectives. He was right: The coach, with whom he held 30-minute telephone conversations weekly and met in person twice over the course of a year, helped him improve listening, communication and delegation skills. But the unexpected bonus was overall confidence, a better relationship with his wife, and a higher priority on healthier living. This in turn has given him more energy, improved focus and diminished sick time. Even though the coaching sessions ended two years ago, he not only credits them with helping him clinch his latest promotion; he feels that through the initiatives he tackles, and the more positive influence he has on staff, the entire company continues to benefit immensely.

 

 

 

The executive coach – part management consultant, part therapist, part career counsellor – is relatively new to the business world at large, but British Columbia, as it turns out, is an international hotbed of them, along with San Francisco, New York City, Minneapolis and Toronto. Where there were half-a-dozen personal coaches (as they’re also called) in the province five years ago, there are now at least 141, roughly one-third of them members of organizations such as the International Coach Federation (ICF), which puts inductees through an intensive 18-month to two-year training program. Worldwide, there are 10,000 full- or part-time coaches; the number entering the field has doubled every year for the past three years.

So fast has the concept caught on, and so impressive the results, that many companies (including BC Hydro, the City of Richmond, Ryzex, Nesbitt Burns, Providence Health Care and Great Pacific Management) are making them available as a perk, or sending managers to coach certification courses to keep it all in the family. Internationally, companies that have embraced coaching include General Electric, Sony, Johnson and Johnson, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, AT&T, Kodak, Chase Bank, EDS, Bayer, Merrill Lynch, the US Department of Energy, and Goldman Sachs.

Steve Mitten, one of British Columbia’s first executive coaches, attributes the surge in popularity to last decade’s downsizing, which intensified executives’ responsibilities and removed traditional support systems. Most executives these days are running so flat out they don’t have time to look at their career development or to encourage and interact with other people in the company, he says.

Then there’s the shift in desired leadership qualities, which has prompted John Kotter, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, to say: “A lot of the coaching is aimed at trying to help people develop skills and actions that are different from what they grew up with.”

In other words, coaching can be just-in-time training. In the current labor shortage, it’s often deemed easier to fix than replace an executive, and fixing becomes particularly crucial in an age where the rank and file will jump ship before putting up with someone’s rough edges. In fact, two years ago, Network Appliance in the United States brought in a coach who charged US$10,000 per manager to work with two feuding co-founders. In the end the coach couldn’t bring the two together, but he did help the company decide which one had to go.

Also triggering the growth of coaching: boomers’ mid-life self-reflection; the army of downsized employees trying to make it as entrepreneurs; and the more entrepreneurial role (thanks to empowerment and technology) of staff in any enterprise.

“They’re looking for a silent partner to help them stay motivated, someone with whom to brainstorm and strategize,” says Teresia LaRocque, a prominent Vancouver coach.

Finally, there’s the fact that we’re meant to change careers at every spin of the dial, which may explain why many career coaches are former career counsellors. It has always been intense and lonely at the top; now it’s intense and lonely at any level. So here we sit under a hailstorm of information and choices, outwardly cool while secretly longing for Mom and Dad. Or anyone else who will listen to our woes non-judgmentally, let us admit our inner fears, help us draw up an action plan for which we will be held accountable, and encourage us to think outside the box – all without actually telling us what to do.

 

 

Of course, friends or supportive spouses will do some of this, and there’s certainly a crossover between coaches and mentors, therapists, attentive co-workers and bosses (see Friendship by the Hour, previous page). Indeed, back when friends, spouses, bosses and co-workers had the time to spend, coaches were strictly a sports phenomenon. Then came personal trainers, financial counsellors – and therapists for the introspective rather than just the broken.

Not to mention consultants in every flavor.

Mitten should know. He used to be a consultant. Now, instead of offering answers, he guides through questions. “I’ve given advice and people have liked it, but when I help people find the solutions best for them, they really come alive.”

So who hires coaches and how does it work? According to an ICF survey, coaches’ clients tend to be professionals with college degrees and an average income of US$63,000. Senior managers typically initiate the relationship themselves, while half of middle managers have coaches foisted upon them by senior management. Some corporations even hire teams of coaches to enhance a work team’s performance.

“Executives involved get a demonstration session so they get a feel for how this works,” says Mitten. “The process is confidential; they are in charge of directing how it works. And when it’s well introduced, they see they have nothing to lose.”

Might a manager view any suggestion that a coach is needed as a warning shot, a message that something in his or her management style needs fixing, and rebel against the idea? Michael Nott of Great Pacific Management – who has both enjoyed the services of a coach and embraced the concept for his company’s managers – disagrees. On the contrary, he says, he would worry about an employee not eager to take advantage of the opportunity.

Says Nott; “I was better at my job and more efficient instantly. In fact, it was shocking. At the end of one year, I couldn’t believe the improvement. If I had all the answers in my head, I wouldn’t need a coaching program. But I need to think outside of my head. With coaching, one becomes more accomplished with less effort invested due to working smarter. Many entrepreneurs will also argue that one of the biggest benefits is lower blood pressure. The evidence [I’ve seen in our company that coaching offers payback] is crystal clear. Now it’s important to get as many people as I can on some type of coaching program.”

 

 

Coaches cost anywhere from $50 to $400 per hour ($100 being typical). Some offer an initial get-to-know-you session lasting between 45 minutes and two hours. Most require a minimum three-month commitment to thrice-monthly half-hour phone calls, during which they listen, guide and push clients to set weekly goals for which they hold them accountable. Many never meet their clients personally – Mitten has clients in South America, Europe and Australia. Some (especially newly-minted coaches) alternate phone work with in-person sessions according to the client’s preferences and budget. A few, like LaRocque, hold phone-in group sessions with up to 18 clients at a time, during which the coach acts as a facilitator on a common theme, followed by mini one-on-one sessions with each client, known as ‘laser coaching’. Then again, coaches that offer work-shadowing and 360-degree feedback (exploring colleagues’ opinions of your work style) can run US$3,000 a day.

A former daycare supervisor who recently received her coaching certification from Rhodes Career College in Vancouver, Lisa deLusignan attracts clients who are also parents, including an executive and new dad in Scotland whom she met in Whistler. She has even coached a young boy who was being bullied at school, helping him resolve his problems in two sessions.

“Coaching is like cheerleading,” says the diminutive Vancouverite, who has been known to hold parties for single clients desiring to meet one another. “People get blocked and scared. Fear holds them back. If we all had husbands and wives who were completely supportive without a vested interest, we wouldn’t need coaches. Sometimes people just need a little change of perspective on something.”

That change of perspective, along with the benefits of structure and accountability, is what leads many clients to redesign their lives around new priorities. LaRocque emphasizes that her only agenda is a client’s success and fulfillment. “I help clients become aware of what’s draining them in their life, frustrations holding them back. We often think those things are part of our lives, but they don’t really have to be. I help clients get clear what their values are, the activities in their lives that give them the most fulfillment and passion, and we come up with a strategy to design their lives around their values. In the process I do a lot of work around effective delegation and business success habits.”

At the start, Mitten and a client talk for about two hours to clearly identify desired outcomes, then clarify values and tackle the life/balance issue. A professional coach will always focus on the client’s agenda, but the work often expands to other parts of the client’s life. Says Mitten: “You’re asking the client, ‘So what’s your most critical area?’ If it is a problem in sales, you ask, ‘What needs to happen there?’ A consultant has answers. In contrast, a coach generally works with the client to find the answers best for them. You are always raising the client’s awareness and responsibility and making sure all this work is in line with their strengths, interests and values.”

Ten years ago these individuals, this concept, was virtually unknown. Today, we have at least 141 coaches in our backyard – not that we can’t tap into some of the other 9,859 coaches around the world with as little effort as an email message, the same way executives in Scotland, South America, Australia and who-knows-where are tapping ours. Are the new private cheerleaders silently expanding the B.C. economy by nudging its best and brightest to greater heights? Hey, whatever fires up the players is worth trying. Check back at half-time and we’ll let you know.

Pam Withers is a regular BCBusiness contributor who, when she needs a coach or listener, talks to her cat – for free.

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Other Coach related sites:

www.principalevolutions.com

www.stevemitten.com

www.acoach4u.com