Tiger, Lance, and You

An executive coach may be your ticket to peak performance.
Theresa Sullivan BargerFebruary 21, 2007

Tiger Woods has one. So does Roger Federer. And Lance Armstrong. People in virtually all walks of life, from sports to the performing arts to education, now have private coaches to guide them toward their full potential. Lately CFOs have joined the party as they, or their companies, realize that a demanding and multi-faceted job often requires some external guidance. As a result, the field of executive coaching is booming, with the ranks of practitioners swelling and companies in related fields rushing to add coaching to their menu of services.

“Over the last five years, we have probably seen more people come in for coaching who are in finance or information services parts of the business,” says Bill McCarthy, a coach with LeaderSource, an executive coaching firm recently acquired by executive search company Korn/Ferry International. The reason: the technical expertise that helps a CFO or CIO rise to the top is just one part of the skill set needed to succeed in a C-suite position.

“Nobody has taken the time to train promising executives to be effective at strategy,” says Melanie S. Robbins, a Boston-based executive coach whose clients include Fidelity and Johnson & Johnson. “There’s no formula for being a good manager. One of the things a really good executive coach can do is help somebody find their style, their voice, their process.”

There was a time when coaching was positioned as a last-ditch effort to prop up a failing manager, but these days executive coaches are usually called in to help talented executives reach for the next rung on the corporate ladder. “Executive coaching is widely accepted. Everybody either has a coach or wants a coach,” said Suzanne Bates, president of Bates Communications, a Wellesley, Mass. firm that specializes in coaching communication skills. To be sure, if your company shells out for a coach (and it isn’t cheap—the average engagement can run $30,000) you should be flattered, not insulted. “If you were that much of a train wreck, they’d get rid of you,” says Robbins.

Coaching is not therapy, although some coaches are psychologists who emphasize an understanding of human behavior. Nor is a coach a mentor, but there are similarities. “A mentor is someone who imparts experience, expertise and information,” says Kevin Cashman, president and founder of LeaderSource. “A coach tries to draw forth your potential in the most effective way.” Coaches often specialize in, for example, communication skills or teamwork or making the transition to a new company or new position. While good chemistry between a coach and coachee is desirable, don’t expect your coach to be your friend. Coaches may ask difficult questions and prod their clients to address weaknesses or confront problems.

This can be helpful. When Mark Young, chief financial officer and senior counsel at Personnel Decisions International, found himself with a new hire who was 15 years his senior and had been a CFO, he found that he was apprehensive about the situation; his coach helped him talk with the new hire so they could both adjust to this potentially awkward relationship.

One of LeaderSource’s clients, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, provides executive coaches for each member of the executive management team. Thrivent CFO Randy Boushek says he considers his coach an “unbiased accountability partner”: A coach is to an individual what Weight Watchers is to a dieter, he says. “My coach can honestly help me identify my own derailers and my own self-delusions,” he says, and provide encouragement at critical junctures, “especially when it comes to stepping out of my comfort zone.” The coach doesn’t tell him what he should or shouldn’t do, Boushek says, but asks a series of questions to help clarify and guide his thinking.

Busy as they are, most CFOs who work with coaches make it a point to keep their appointments and commit to their own development. “This is very time consuming,” said Bruno Combe, CFO at performance management software company Cartesis. “You need to prepare for your sessions, to digest the feedback and advice, and then to implement it. It requires a significant share of mind if you want to go through the experience seriously and profitably, but the outcome is well worth it.”

Coaching sessions begin intensely with an evaluation of skills and weaknesses, and typically include a 360-degree evaluation and a Myers Briggs Type Indicator assessment. Usually the company hires the coach but allows a C-level executive to choose from among a pool of vetted coaches. The employer, coachee, and coach should all be clear on the expectations, goals, and measurable results. Most coaches insist on written confidentiality agreements with the understanding that they’ll only report general progress to the employer as a way to foster trust with the coachee, but some coaches do share details about a coachee’s strengths and weaknesses with the employer.

Expect to hear more about executive coaching. The industry is mushrooming; the Wall Street Journal reported that more than 60 percent of corporate executives at Fortune 500 companies now work or have worked with an executive coach. The International Coach Federation, (ICF) the first global association to represent business and personal coaches, reports more than 11,500 members in 80 countries. Kay Cannon, president of the ICF, expects coaching to become a standard part of the benefits package offered to C-level executives. Eventually, she predicts, universities will offer degree-based coaching programs and companies will have in-house coaches to work with people at virtually all positions.

David Peterson, senior vice president and practice leader of executive coaching for Personnel Decisions International, said coaching has been more prevalent in the financial services, high tech, pharmaceutical, and automotive industries but expects it to spread to many other sectors. “Companies are beginning to realize that if they can develop someone from within they can create a better performer who can move up in the organization,” said Gary Hourihan, executive vice president, and president, Leadership Development Solutions for Korn/Ferry International.

In addition to its purchase of LeaderSource, Korn/Ferry recently acquired Lominger International, a leadership development company. Heidrick & Struggles, another recruitment firm, has expanded to offer leadership consulting.

So if your golf or tennis game gives you little in common with Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, consider another source of commonality: a coach may be just what you need to rise to the top.

Unlicensed and In Need of Vetting

Executive coaching is an unlicensed, unregistered industry, so buyer beware. With that in mind, it’s best to understand some industry basics before inking an agreement and doling out part of your bonus—or company funds—to pay for sessions.

To start, executive coaches’ fees vary, and a cursory look highlights a sizeable difference in service levels and prices. Here’s a sampling: $300 an hour; $3,000 per month for four, one-hour phone calls, plus on-call service; $5,000 per day for in-person coaching. For the average 6-month to one-year commitment, fees range from $10,000 minimum for a mid-level manager up to $60,000 for a CEO, with an average fee for an individual coaching commitment of $30,000. Some coaches offer everything from resume writing to interview skills a la carte.

Some coaches insist on a minimum relationship of three months or six months, and coaching partnerships average six months to a year, followed up quarterly or annually with phone tune-ups where the coachee can get guidance before a crucial board meeting or a new challenge.

While some coaches are psychologists who focus on human behavior, others are former executives with MBAs who draw from personal experience. Some have been coaches for 20 years and are certified master coaches who have agreed to ethical standards in order to attain membership in a professional organization.

The key to hiring a coach, as is the case with other business relationships, is to check references carefully because it is possible to be duped. Some businesses sell coaching certificates to people who take a brief course, with no competency testing or related education and experience required. When selecting a coach, ask friends and associates in other businesses. Personal references are essential.

The presence of professional degrees, high fees, and a website aren’t enough, though. Kay Cannon, president of the International Coach Federation, suggests working with coaches who have an understanding of the position held by the coachee. Cannon is a former executive who coaches executives.

Finally, coachees should screen potential coaches and pick the one with whom they have the best chemistry, say several coaches. While a masterful coach can work with nearly anyone, coachees will see faster results if they’re working with someone with whom they’re comfortable. –TSB