You're a Player. Do You Need a Coach?
The hottest thing in
management is the executive coach--part boss, part consultant, part therapist.
Who are these people? And what are they doing in your company?
Since Mary Bradford took
over as sales manager of the New England region of Met Life's resources division
a year ago, her sales office has acted more like a New Age institute than an
old-line insurance company. She has organized retreats at which her sales
associates could get massages or do tai chi along with their business. She has
encouraged them to keep journals. Last fall they had a combined business meeting
and bicycling trip at Bar Harbor, Me. And oh, yeah, by year-end they had boosted
their sales by nearly 60%.
Bradford attributes her
unorthodox approach and her uncommon results to a secret weapon: her executive
Several years ago Bradford
was another middle-management burnout candidate: on the job early each morning,
on the phone each night until ten, giving far too little time to her family. She
was facing a stressful mid-career move from Washington, D.C., back to Maine and
a big transition to a new job at Met Life. But a boss let her in on his little
secret: He had a personal coach. She might want to get one too. A friend of
hers, who also had a coach, made the referral, and Bradford began having weekly
phone conversations with Talane Miedaner, an executive coach in New York City
who has worked with people at Bear Stearns, Citicorp, Motorola, Salomon Smith
Barney, and Sears.
Miedaner pushed Bradford to
reexamine her goals and values. She helped her to reclaim control of her time.
Often, she helped her with the nitty-gritty of her job. As is so common with
salespeople, Bradford had a habit of overpromising. Miedaner coached her to
underpromise and overdeliver--much more impressive. Miedaner helped Bradford
plot strategies for opening doors with prospective clients, and rehearsed with
her when Bradford interviewed for a promotion. Bradford began to believe that if
something felt impossible or outrageous, it was exactly the right thing to do.
Bradford says her year of coaching
"was like a grenade in my life that's still going off." It taught her,
she says, that "people have to take more responsibility for their own
growth and development. They can't depend on human resources. Coaches can help
people come to grips with huge changes in the way we do work, in getting through
Even so, she's careful whom
she tells about her coaching.
"Some people think it's therapy," she says. "They think it's
is one of the stranger wrinkles in management these days--one of the hottest
things in human resources, except that it doesn't usually come out of human
resources. (In fact, HR is often the last to know.) It is a grassroots movement
that is spreading in some of the unlikeliest corners of corporate America,
including IBM, AT&T, and Kodak. Some companies don't want to talk about it
(like Goldman Sachs, which canceled an interview for this story).
Coaches are everywhere these
days. Companies hire them to shore up executives or, in some cases, to ship them
out. Division heads hire them as change agents. Workers at all levels of the
corporate ladder, fed up with a lack of advice from inside the company, are
taking matters into their own hands and enlisting coaches for guidance on how to
improve their performance, boost their profits, and make better decisions about
everything from personnel to strategy.
It's not that executive coaching
is particularly new. Chief executives and those approaching the top have long
sought counsel from personal consultants, wise board members, or industrial
psychologists. But in the past five years coaching
has gone mass-market. In the age of Every Man for Himself, every man can have a
coach--and, in an ever more commonly held view, needs one. The four-year-old
International Coach Federation says its online coach-referral service gets 2,600
hits a month. Its membership has increased eightfold in the past two years, to
2,400 members, but the federation guesses the total number of coaches is more
like 10,000. At Harvard Business School, Linda Hill, professor of business
administration, says she's inundated with requests to coach. "Coaching
is becoming something of a heavy industry. It's amazing," says Warren
Bennis, professor of business administration at the University of Southern
California's business school.
What exactly is a coach?
Part personal consultant, part sounding board, part manager. Yes, manager.
Remember him? That person whose job used to be to advise, motivate, and
train--but whose nose is now mostly stuck in e-mail? For a surprising number of
people, it is now the coach--not the boss--who pushes them to hire, to fire, to
fine-tune a sales pitch, to stretch.
Observers of the phenomenon
say that an executive coach often functions as a therapist, too--though the
coaches themselves tend to deny this with some fury. Warren Bennis believes that
"a lot of executive coaching is really an acceptable form of psychotherapy. It's still
tough to say, 'I'm going to see my therapist.' It's okay to say, 'I'm getting
counseling from my coach.' "
If ever stressed-out
corporate America could use a little couch-time, it's now. Trust in big
companies is at an all-time low. Baby-boomers have been burned; Gen Xers aren't
expecting the Corporation to take care of them. Under the circumstances,
employees are much likelier to go outside and get independent advice to help
them be better managers, says Karen Cates, assistant professor of organizational
behavior at Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Beyond that,
she says, mentoring systems have mostly failed. Organizations are so lean that
they don't have time for it. You're paid for what you produce, not for time you
spend developing people. Bosses are managing by e-mail. "Given the
impersonal nature of business today, we're likely to say, 'Go take that
hill--and oh, by the way, send me an e-mail when you get there,' " says
Charles F. Cleary, chief operating officer of Log On America, a
telecommunications and Internet service provider in Providence.
Times could hardly be more
trying for people all up and down the corporate ladder. Woe to the boss who's
too authoritarian; he'll just cost the corporation good talent. Woe to the
manager who leans too heavily on hierarchy; virtual teams call for flexible
leaders who can pull together strangers in distant parts of the country and, for
the duration of a project, get them to bury their personal agendas and work
together. Meanwhile, the major currency of the manager--experience--has never
been so devalued. "You can't turn to your nice gray-haired mentor and say,
'From your 30 years of experience, how does one handle a dot-com?' " says
Barry Mabry, a partner at Ernst & Young who is using a coach. "Nobody
on earth has experienced this kind of business environment."
What's really driving the
boom in coaching,
says John Kotter, professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, is
this: "As we move from 30 miles an hour to 70 to 120 to 180...as we go from
driving straight down the road to making right turns and left turns to
abandoning cars and getting on motorcycles...the whole game changes, and a lot
of people are trying to keep up, learn how, not fall off."
in its present form began in the 1980s, when some of these trends were just
beginning to take shape. Thomas J. Leonard, a financial planner in Seattle, was
trying to help some yuppie clients figure out what to do with their six-figure
salaries and realized that they needed more than just the traditional tax and
investment advice. He asked them if they wanted to talk more broadly about life
issues, "and they jumped at it," he recalls. "They had no
emotional problems; they didn't need to see a therapist. They wanted to
brainstorm," he says.
Leonard gave up his
financial planning practice and began full-time "life planning" a
couple of years later. At some point, one of his clients suggested that he call
By the late 1980s he was training others to coach. "I had an inkling there
was something interesting and powerful about this idea," he says. The need
intensified through all the corporate downsizing and restructuring in that
period. "All of a sudden you had all these people starting their own
businesses or consulting practices. They were people leaving the corporate
environment and they'd never had Entrepreneurialism 101," he recalls. They
wanted to figure out how to make more money, how to launch a great new concept
or project, how to reduce stress. Sometimes they just wanted somebody to talk
to. He began a formal coach training program called Coach University in 1992,
which put him ahead of the curve; soon there followed managed care, which left a
lot of therapists anxiously seeking new ways to earn a living; and then came the
Internet, which, combined with globalization, left a lot of managers looking for
ways to cope with breathtaking change.
But who, exactly, can be a
coach? That's the scary part: pretty much anybody. Many of them are therapists.
Many more are dropouts from consulting. Many of the coaches interviewed for this
story were garden-variety professionals, in past lives an Andersen consultant, a
CPA, an IBM salesman, a low-level bank executive, a marketing vice president for
Bloomingdale's. The federation says that so far there's been no attempt to
It has made an effort to establish standards, but the boom in coaching
worries even a lot of coaches, who are concerned that rogues may give the
profession a bad name.
But right now coaches are so
hot that credentials are almost beside the point. What seems to matter most is
word of mouth--did the coaching work miracles for somebody you know? Corporate coaches are in such
demand that they can charge from $600 to $2,000 a month for three or four 30- to
60-minute phone conversations. Some charge as much as $400 an hour. So a lot of
them are earning far more than psychologists or psychiatrists.
Of course, this whole notion
is still foreign to much of traditional corporate America. "I have worked
for organizations that would find this quite threatening," says the Kellogg
School's Cates, who, like lots of other business school professors, increasingly
finds herself called on to coach her consulting clients. Part of the fear has to
do with confidentiality. "As a coach, I know a lot about the companies and
the people who live there," she says. Beyond that, "it can be very
frightening for an organization to have its own employees talking to outsiders.
They'll want to know: Are the outsider's goals aligned? What are you talking to
that person about?" She adds: "Ten years ago, you certainly wouldn't
have been allowed to do this."
It was pretty threatening
when Charles Cleary broached the idea of using an outside coach as a change
agent in his region of AT&T's Growth Markets sales organization. Rosemary
Turner Slade Lucerne remembers it well. Cleary was a vice president and general
manager in Growth Markets and new to AT&T; she was the staffing and training
manager and an 11-year veteran. "My first reaction was to say, 'Chip, we
don't do that. It's not part of our training curriculum. It's not on our
intranet. We don't have the budget. We can't,' " she recalls. But Cleary
had spent the better part of the prior decade at Teleport Communications Group,
a telecom maverick acquired by AT&T. He'd come from a nimble,
entrepreneurial culture and knew that was what he needed to somehow graft onto
AT&T, to make his region a truly high-growth sales unit. "If AT&T
and I both spoke languages, it was speaking French and I was speaking
Spanish," he recalls. "I knew what I had to make happen at AT&T.
And I knew the road would not be smooth," he says. He enlisted the help of
Cheryl Weir, an executive coach who had spent 13 years in sales at IBM.
In one of their early
conversations, Weir asked Cleary, "Where do you want to end up at the end
of the year?" He told her "something pretty loosey-goosey" like
that he wanted to be No. 1. "Well, quantify that," she insisted. When
he told her 5% over his revenue target, she replied, "Ahhh, you can do that
in your sleep." What would constitute hypergrowth? she wanted to know.
Fifteen percent? She nudged: Why don't you aim for 20? (That's big, Cleary says,
about double the rate of his piece of the industry.) "She made me put a
stake in the ground," recalls Cleary. "This team was not used to
putting stakes in the ground."
Cleary brought Weir into the
office for a couple of days of intensive training with the staff. "We got
into a room and locked ourselves down," Cleary recalls. They talked about
their bad habits and what they were really like at home with their families, and
they confessed their workplace failings--things like, "Well, I don't spend
any time with my people. Or, when they come into my office, I say yeah, yeah,
yeah, boom," says Cleary. At some point Cleary gave an impassioned speech,
and they all agreed on a sales target (the consensus was to boost revenues by
16%, which would be about double the prior year's growth rate) and began to plot
how they'd pull it off.
By year's end, revenue
growth was 16%. That put Cleary's outfit in the top three fastest-growing in
AT&T's Growth Markets. "We blew out the numbers," he says.
"Cheryl accelerated our transformation, no question about it." In
January, Cleary was lured away by a job as chief operating officer of Log On
America. But by that time, Lucerne had long since been won over. The whole
package cost $11,000 for two days of training plus about $2,000 quarterly for
with Weir, "and I honestly think we earned that back in a week," says
Lucerne. Weir is continuing her work at AT&T with Cleary's group and four
others, and will be coaching
at Log On America as well.
Another way to look at the
spread of coaching
is that it bridges the growing chasm between what managers are being asked to do
and what they have been trained to do. It is almost like the difference between
generals in peacetime and generals in war, says Harvard's Kotter. "We have
a lot of people who were trained to be superb managers but now have horrendous
leadership challenges thrown at them. I think 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."
That has certainly been the
case at Kodak, which has experienced upheaval in the past five years as it
adjusts to new competition and the Digital Age. Dan Carlson began working with
an outside coach last year to solve his part of Kodak's horrendous challenge:
cranking up productivity with a work force that had all but melted down. At the
time he was a department manager in the color film manufacturing operations of
Kodak--"This is the heart and soul of Kodak," he says--and he was
to the factory floor. Here people were used to top-down,
command-and-control-style management. Here there was an entitlement mentality.
"These are folks that are third-generation employees, some of them. When
they stepped inside Kodak, they had an expectation of lifetime employment."
But restructuring had taken 18,000 jobs out of Kodak's work force and had torn
at corporate loyalties.
Carlson began to work with
coach Jan Austin last March on the advice of an outside consulting firm. She met
with frontline supervisors and their group leaders. She also conducted, among
other things, a dozen two-day clinics to teach managers how to motivate rather
than command, how to communicate with workers and elicit their opinions. At one
point the group spent four hours discussing fear: was it a good motivator?
Carlson, an 18-year Kodak
veteran, realized that he sometimes stinted on overtime even when it was truly
needed. "It's one of those metrics that sticks out like a sore thumb,"
he says. He began to stand up and say, "No, we need to make this
investment, and here's why." He began to shift his focus from managing for
results to investing time and attention in his people. "It was a leap of
faith," he acknowledges. But it produced results. As employees became more
invested in their work, waste levels dropped significantly. So did overtime.
Productivity increased. He'd wanted workers to "find their voice," to
start speaking up when they saw how to make things better. They started taking
more initiative both inside and outside work. One factory worker confided to him
that she'd always wanted to sing a solo in her church choir but had been afraid.
Not only did she sing the solo at church, but she also sang it for
Carlson--right there on the factory floor.
Carlson recently got a
promotion. He is now manager of color film sensitizing, a division of more than
1,000 employees, and he has called on Austin to work with the larger group until
the end of this year. He wants to develop coaching
abilities in-house, and he has sent three employees for coach training.
At many companies, coaching
has become the Band-Aid for a lot of the dysfunction caused by the trial and
error of doing business in new ways. Matrixed organizations, 360-degree
performance reviews, virtual teams--they don't always work as well in practice
as in theory. At Ernst & Young, Cynder Niemela has made a career for herself
as a coach who troubleshoots teams. Niemela had collected an MBA, a degree in
sports psychology, and a decade of informal coaching
experience before Ernst snapped her up 2 1/2 years ago and made her a
change-management consultant. She'd worked with virtual teams before--groups of
clients, consultants, and outsourced workers all pulled together around a
temporary project. Often, she says, "they're dysfunctional. They don't
align their goals with the corporation or with each other...."
When she began to work on a
big hospital merger project at Ernst two years ago, the 120 members were divided
into subteams, but each of those was off in its own orbit. She assumed the role
of head coach, teaching the subteam leaders how to coach their teams and
communicate with one another. She devised a toolkit and a training program to
keep everybody on the same track. "Executives now are so challenged,"
she says. "When you bring a group together around a task, people become
commodities for the sake of the task. They get lost."
The hospital project was a
success, and word of her work got around. Since then she has been in hot demand.
She's currently coach for two big project teams, and she is working to spread coaching
around Ernst. She counsels 15 partners, she conducts coaching workshops for 18 of Ernst's human resources employees, and she's
launched an internal coaching
network and a rigorous certification program for those inside the firm who'd
like to become coaches. Rigorous because "so many people are coaching,
and they don't have the experience or the skills," she says.
really is the Wild West of HR. Until a year and a half ago, the federation
didn't have a credentialing program. There is still not much consensus about
what kind of business experience or academic pedigree qualifies someone to be a
corporate coach. "I wonder about the vulgarization of coaching," says Warren Bennis at USC. "I'm concerned
about unlicensed people doing this." Angelo DeNisi, president of the
Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, says, "If somebody
comes in and doesn't know anything about your job or your organization and they
lay out a plan for you, it's time to run."
At Ernst, Niemela says,
"I've met so many consultants who just call themselves coach." She's
also seen psychologists who claim to be corporate coaches but don't know what's
meant by the Big Five. Even Marcia Reynolds, president of the International
Coach Federation, expresses concern. "Surprisingly, we've had no major
ethical violations brought up to our membership," she says. "We do
have to watch ourselves. There are going to be unethical coaches."
The association is trying to
impose discipline by requiring training at places like Coach U, which was
started by Leonard and then sold two years ago to his protege Sandy Vilas.
(Vilas had been a speaker, a trainer, and a stockbroker, and had worked in oil
and gas, and real estate, before becoming a coaching guru.) Coach U is a virtual training firm that offers
more than 50 teleclasses--that's right, courses conducted via conference call.
Its headquarters is Vilas' summer home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. But plenty of
other coach training firms have sprung up that aren't accredited by the coach
federation; some don't care to be. There are even new coaching
associations. And plenty of coaches with impressive academic pedigrees and
corporate track records don't have the slightest inclination to go back and
attend correspondence classes at a place like Coach U, no matter how convenient.
And they are convenient. As
a student at Coach U, you can take a class at your desk in the middle of the
week. Just clear your calendar for an hour, put on your headset, and bring a
case study from something you've tried on your friends. Assignments are made by
It is 1 P.M. on a Tuesday in
November, and Cheryl Weir is about to conduct a class on that most basic of
coach skills--Listening. She is at the telephone in her office, which is at
home. She dials into the conference call first, and several minutes later her
pupils begin to assemble, each one entering the virtual classroom with an
electronic beep that signals they're on the line. Via e-mail, they've been given
a couple of reading assignments and asked to practice on ten people since last
week's class. Today one student describes an executive client who "is like
a hamster in a wheel, running around and around, and just doesn't know how to
get off." This sends the class off into a discussion of running on
adrenaline and how this interferes with their ability to listen to their
clients. Another student admits to being an adrenaline junkie: "I am very
results-oriented," she confesses. "I am always in a hurry, always
listening for the bottom line: What do they want? How can I fix it?"
Periodically, Weir will ask, "How many agree with that statement?"
Those who do press a key on their phone pad, which produces a beep, in a virtual
show of hands.
This is all just a prelude
to actual coaching,
much of which takes place over the phone. Many coaches and their clients have
never met face to face. But it may not be the face-time that matters most in
managing to get the best out of employees. One size doesn't fit all, according
to research by Cynthia McCauley, vice president at the Center for Creative
Leadership. When it comes to management styles, some employees need lots of
feedback, others need lots of challenge. Some need somebody to hold them
accountable, others need a sounding board. "It all depends on your
psychological makeup and what you're good at," she says.
Ernst partner Barry Mabry
has found a coach to be a valuable sounding board in today's crazy business
climate. He'd received a notice last year telling him that coaching
would be available to Ernst & Young partners. He made a call and soon found
himself on the phone with "a strange woman." (It was Cynder Niemela.)
"I was in New Orleans; she was in San Francisco. She didn't know much about
my area of work," he recalls. But within 20 minutes, he decided she could
be both trusted and helpful. Ever since, he has had routine telephone
conversations with her in which he has discussed matters ranging from the
mundane (how to improve communications with subordinates) to the cosmic (what do
you want to get out of life?). "Why do I need a coach?" he muses.
"I've wrestled with this." He's a corporate finance partner in New
Orleans. He has been with Ernst 27 years. He's successful; he's happy. His
recent performance review was quite flattering. "Perhaps it's for the same
reason that Tiger Woods needs a coach or Pete Sampras needs a coach," says
Mabry. "Tiger Woods would say, 'I know how to play golf.' But his coach is
probably the most important person in his life."
phenomenon, like all mass movements, will have its excesses: dubiously
credentialed people hanging out their shingles, no doubt; conflicting advice and
agendas, quite possibly, in offices where Everyman has a coach. But corporate
America had better heed the phenomenon, even if it falls outside the traditional
corporate organizational chart. It's a reminder that people won't run on
autopilot or by remote e-mail. No matter how much the world has changed, people
on the job still need some mentoring, some monitoring, some meaningful
interaction. And if workers can't get that in-house, why, they're likely to
Who qualifies as an
executive coach? At the moment, just about anybody. "I wonder about the
vulgarization of coaching,"
says Warren Bennis of USC's business school. "I'm concerned about
unlicensed people doing this."
Copyright © 2000, Time Inc., all rights reserved.
Accomplishments / HEAVEN
Bold Colorful Life
/ Bold Colorful Life