So You're a Player. Do You Need a Coach?
thing in management is the executive coach--part boss, part consultant,
part therapist. Who are these people? And what are they doing in
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, Maine. And oh, yeah, by year-end
they had boosted their sales by nearly 60%.
her unorthodox approach and her uncommon results to a secret weapon:
her executive coach.
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.
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
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 weird."
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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,"
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 it coaching. 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
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 license coaching. 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
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."
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
follow-up coaching 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.
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 taking coaching 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
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?
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.
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."
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,"
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
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."
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
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 e-mail.
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.
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 outsource it.
Back to TOP