More and more top executives are seeking help with the myriad challenges found in today's frenzied, stock-price driven, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately marketplace. And they're finding that assistance in a willing listener and trusted adviser—an executive coach—who provides fresh and invaluable insight or simply serves as a sounding board for new ideas.
Junior executives and the newly promoted also have increasing access to coaching resources as a way to develop potential, build a team atmosphere and inspire company loyalty. Still others turn to coaches for direction and a new focus to stalled careers.
"People used to get a coach or counselor when they were in trouble," says Gerard Egan, a Chicago management consultant and executive coach with 20 years in the business. "Now, everything's good, and they want to go to the next level."
Surveys have shown a marked increase in the amount of coaching. There are some 10,000 full- and part-time coaches worldwide, according to the International Coach Federation, Washington, D.C. And according to a 1999 survey of more than 4,000 corporations by the icf and Lexington, Mass.-based Linkage Inc., companies employing external coaches do so for top executives, while both internal and external coaches are used as perks for top performers.
Most companies agree that coaching has improved performance among employees, but credentials among coaches can vary widely as can coaching models and consensus about the return on investment.
Still, the future of executive coaching appears bright.
Along with his promotion to vice president of sales and marketing, Bob Peters got an executive coach as part of American Science & Engineering's ongoing program for senior execs at the Billerica, Mass., manufacturer of X-ray equipment.
"One of the most direct benefits of coaching is that it helps me understand organizational dynamics and how it works on an officer level," says Peters. "I now have a greater appreciation of what it takes to be a senior executive."
Such coaching relationships are also common at The Charles Schwab Corp., a San Francisco-based financial services company, according to Vivian Groman. Before her promotion to senior vice president of client relationship management, Groman served as a mentor to high-potential women, which, she says "hooked me in" to the concept of skills development.
"A lot of times, it's so helpful to meet with a coach who can sometimes see things that you can't," she explains. "Even having the conversation out loud in a safe way can clarify matters."
In an effort to reduce the perception of coaching as a purely corrective measure, some companies first position coaching programs as development tools to reward top performers, says Agnes Mura, an executive coach in Santa Monica, Calif., who specializes in developing global executives.
"It becomes a privilege, a business tool for people who want to stay on the edge," Mura says. Then, if companies need to correct behaviors in certain employees, the proactive nature of coaching has been established.
Growth-oriented coaching of high-potential employees makes sense for companies that seek to develop talent from within, agrees Joy McGovern, senior vice president for Manchester Consulting, Jacksonville, Fla. That can include developing skills and competencies to help a worker advance at the company as well as changing behaviors that might interfere with success.
When Brian Calder was going through what he calls "terribly stressful and painful" negotiations with venture capitalists, he came to the realization one day that he needed help. So Calder, strategic development director and founder of Atrium Communications, a videoconferencing and networking company with offices in Dallas, London and Newbury, England, turned to Steven Cohen for help.
"I started to get coaching halfway through the funding process and re-evaluated it," Calder says. "I put my map of reality up on the wall and turned it into a win-win for everyone." What started as a negotiation class has now developed into an executive coaching relationship in which the two meet three or four times a month.
"He brings a tenacious approach to things," Calder says of his coach. "On the negotiating end, for example, you end up with a less adversarial approach and a more collaborative one."
Cohen, president of The Negotiation Skills Co. and a coach based in the Boston area, says coaching can address both general concerns—such as developing effective communication skills—and specific situations that require immediate action. The use of a coach as a sounding board to plot business strategy is the top benefit that clients name in surveys. It's what executive coach Rayona Sharpnack calls "action learning."
"You can't rehearse, and you can't practice enough to deal with everything that happens in real time," says Sharpnack, president of the Institute for Women's Leadership, Redwood City, Calif. Sharpnack runs a group training program for women, as well as doing individual coaching and counseling.
Another issue senior executives face is a feeling of isolation or, as Cohen puts it: "When you're at the top of the company, there really is no one with whom it's safe to talk." At least that's what happened to another of Cohen's clients, Ray Walters.
Walters was looking for "two big ears, some experience and guidance" when he hired Cohen. The two actually struck up a conversation while seated together on an airplane several years before Walters contacted him professionally. Walters, now managing director for Bagir UK, an international clothing manufacturer based in London, contacted Cohen because, he says, "Leading a company can be quite lonely. Steve is professional, detached, and has experience dealing with people at my level."
Gerard Egan provides similar help to Neil Davidson, ceo of Express Dairies, the largest supplier of fresh milk in the United Kingdom.
"Coaching is useful in feedback and perspective," Davidson says. "To be able to talk through issues with someone who doesn't have an angle or ax to grind, and to get feedback accurately, your own thought process and logic is more likely to be challenged."
Developing Potential, Measuring Success
Many other executives turn to coaches for career moves, planning or simply rejuvination. For Pat Healey, a stalling career and advice from a friend led her to Agnes Mura, who helped her evaluate her strengths and weaknesses and to find a job with a good fit.
Now as vice president of corporate communications at Coors Brewing Co., Healey still works with Mura, who has developed other relationships within the Golden, Colo.-based company. Coors pays for the coaching, Healey says, gaining a "more effective leader" for its money.
Raminta Jautokas also was doing a career evaluation when she turned to Mura, who helped her "get things out of the way so I could see where I wanted to go. She refocused me."
Jautokas, who landed a job as senior project leader at Honda Motors, speaks positively of the experience and would not hesitate to contact a coach again if needed.
Although coaching is most commonly reserved for senior executives, employees on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder are increasingly reaping its benefits. "We've seen a rise in demand for coaching at lower levels," says Mark Ernsberger, president and ceo of Farr Associates, an organizational change consulting firm in High Point, N.C. In response to that demand, Farr has added a new tier of service that incorporates parts of the flagship process used for high-level executives but is specifically targeted toward junior-level workers.
Sharpnack, of the Institute for Women's Leadership, also has seen more lower-level managers seeking help. But she says that during economic downturns "people at lower levels don't have access to the same resources."
More often that not, it's the employer, not the individual, deciding—and paying for—who receives coaching. "The organization has a lot at stake because these people are valuable," says Mura, who estimates that 90 percent of the coaching programs she administers are paid for by employers. She describes the relationship among coach, client and company as triangular with each side sharing responsibility for success.
Mura's employer contracts cover payment and duration, but also terms such as confidentiality, scope of work, goals and other stakeholders involved in the process. The contract for individual clients also includes confidentiality, along with definitions of the roles and responsibility of both coach and client.
Fees for coaching services vary widely. Hourly rates of $200 to $500 or more are common. And fees frequently must take into account company size, position of the individual receiving coaching, the amount of work needed, the type of interaction (face to face vs. phone, e-mail or a combination) and the coach's experience.
Most experienced coaches that Agnes Mura knows charge a day rate of $2,500 to $3,500. On the front end, the fee would include a complimentary interview session in which coach and potential client meet to gauge fit. Depending on the coach, this preliminary session can last from a couple of hours to an entire day. Still other executive coaches, like McGovern from Manchester Consulting, say that fees can run up to $15,000-$25,000 for a six- to nine-month engagement.
Most coaches agree that the personal touch is best when establishing a coaching relationship. After the groundwork has been laid, phone calls or e-mail can solve little problems, but nothing can replace live interaction.
Like most coaches, Gerard Egan relies on face-to-face communication, racking up substantial frequent flier miles crisscrossing the country and traveling to Europe to meet with clients.
"I need to have that interaction, and I think most people want that," says Egan, whose book, Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management Approach to Helping (Wadsworth Group, 1975) will be released in a seventh edition in July. "I've heard talk of using the Internet [for coaching], but I can't even imagine it." In fact, most consultants agree that upwards of 70 percent of the actual coaching is conducted face to face, with phone coaching the only exception.
Regardless of delivery, no coaching program will succeed without a game plan and a way to measure its success. Few companies perform standard roi on the coaching process, but nearly all have some way to judge whether it's working.
"We spend a lot of time making sure that what the organization is asking the coach to do with the coachee is specific, measurable and obtainable," says Luis Valdes, a consultant in the Atlanta office of rhr International. "Then we try to find a way to measure it, like conducting a 360-degree evaluation before and after the intervention or put some performance measures around it."
Peters from American Science can't tick off any quantitative measures of success, but has a long list of qualitative ones. "Overall, we've seen noted progress," Peters says. "The senior staff gets along, we're maturing, building strong routines, growing into our roles and level of leadership. For someone who wasn't a believer in executive coaching, I'm converted—I firmly believe in it."
Healey, in her corporate communications role at Coors, shares the belief in intangible benefits. "What I do isn't particularly quantifiable," Healey says. "One of the challenges and frustrations of corporate communications is that if you do your job, you don't see the fruits of your labor."
The key to success, according to executive coach Steven Cohen, is the ability to establish a professional bond between coach and client. "My personal philosophy as an executive coach is that I don't make assumptions going in," he says. "I listen and learn about what the concerns are. What I propose—either as an affirmation or a proposal to change—necessitates that I listen hard first."
And that honest feedback is what Cohen's clients such as Ray Walters are looking for. "Why did I do this? I suppose it's checks and balances," Walters says. "I like learning and to learn. As I'm honest with myself, I want someone else to be honest to me. And that's what I'm paying for."