Can professional coaching advance your career?

Sharon McCracken still remembers her stomach lurching as she heard the news: Her boss wanted her to receive professional coaching. That was one way to spoil a lunch.

"The people I knew who'd received coaching needed it because they were really bad managers," says McCracken, vice president of information technology at Twentieth Century Fox, in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I viewed this as a probationary thing."

That's not how Justin Yaros, McCracken's boss and Fox's CIO, perceived things. After all, he wouldn't have promoted McCracken to head the entertainment giant's worldwide IT effort if he didn't think she had the necessary spark and sparkle. But as he saw it, McCracken hadn't yet assumed the characteristics of a senior executive. "He sat me down at lunch, said he wanted to hand more projects to me but felt he couldn't because I was managing at too low a level, and he wanted me to take advantage of coaching," remembers McCracken. "I looked at him and thought, 'You're trying to tell me something.' I thought he had a hidden agenda."

McCracken felt cornered.

For the rest of the lunch, Yaros worked to assuage her concerns. But it wasn't until he told her that she, not he, would decide what to improve and that everything would remain strictly confidential between her and her coach that she reluctantly agreed. McCracken called Susan Cramm, president of Valuedance, an executive coaching company in San Clemente, Calif. -- the same coach Yaros used for his own personal fine- tuning.

"Because I knew Susan had been Justin's coach, I was prepared to be guarded with what I said to her," admits McCracken. "Instead, we had an immediate chemistry. I feel I can trust her completely. That's allowed me to get instant value out of every hour we've spent together."

And they have spent many, many hours together, working hard to figure out the tasks McCracken should and should not handle in her busy day, learning how to build business alliances and, in general, ratcheting up her leadership proficiency. Focus on "leadership" -- it requires a completely different set of skills than those needed to manage effectively. McCracken didn't need to hone her management acumen; she didn't become head of international operations -- overseeing the applications and systems that support 64 offices and six different business entities each with its own mini-CIO reporting directly to her -- without enormous management talent.

But as so many other successful IT executives have discovered, everything changes when you reach the more-exalted heights of a corporation's hierarchy: Instead of technology's concrete answers, IT executives must contend with the ambiguities of high- level politics and shifting corporate influences. Instead of day-to-day tactics, they must stay focused on long-term strategy even as they contend with overwhelming time demands that divert their attention. Perhaps most important, they must make the mental transition from functional boss to general manager, with an eye toward the well-being of the overall business.

What's a beleaguered IT exec to do? If she's lucky, she can turn to a trusted colleague for advice. Chances are, though, no executive inside the company has the time or the inclination to mentor anyone through all the corporate minefields. Besides, a ranking colleague -- no matter how friendly to your cause -- rarely casts a completely objective eye on a situation.

Which leads us to an executive coach, someone who's walked the same walk, talked the same talk and can provide honest and helpful perspectives foor negotiating a company's brambled pathways.

"Executive coaching with the right person can provide something mentoring can't -- an objective, nonbiased view of the company," says Yaros. "I see it as a [prerequisite] for a high-value executive to break through to a new level. To me, this is truly for the higher-level individual, who doesn't need to learn how to become a people person or develop time management skills. What they need are leadership and other executive development skills. And there are few people in an organization at this level who can teach that."

Do as I've Done

Those are precisely the skills McCracken is learning from Cramm -- former CIO of Taco Bell, one-time CFO of Chevy's, president of Chevy's-funded WrapWorks and holder of an MBA in finance and marketing. With that kind of well-rounded experience, Cramm has a decidedly practical bent. Instead of working solely on a client's soft skills, she also trains her attention on results. How? By first figuring out the executive's business objectives (emphasis on business), determining the obstacles hindering those goals, developing an action plan and then helping clients hone their hard and soft skills to hit those objectives.

"One reason I'm so positive on the coaching is we haven't done just the psychoanalysis of my style. We also work on my day-to-day activities," says McCracken. "Susan will challenge a lot of my assumptions, asking questions that really sharpen my business plan, and then help me articulate what that piece of the process provides. That's good because some of this is a stretch, and working on it in detail helps me stay ahead. It's more than just talking about it. We are working through it together."

But it's not just the doing that's at issue for McCracken. It's also becoming a leader of others. To aid that, McCracken submitted herself to a leadership survey, where Cramm polled her boss, her peers and her subordinates to rate how often she demonstrated inspiration and leadership. McCracken was surprised at some of the answers.

"I'd always thought articulating a vision was part of my makeup, but my group didn't feel I'd talked about where we're going or provided any future perspective," says McCracken. "When I told Susan how surprised I was at that she looked at me and said, 'Give me the compelling image of the future you think you've shared.'" Well guess what? It wasn't that compelling. That was a dramatic realization for me of what I'm supposed to be doing, combined with the whole concept of leadership and inspiration."

Fine-Tuning

Despite her initial misgivings, McCracken has become a coaching convert -- crediting her work with Cramm for making her a more effective business leader. Of course, it helps that she was at the right stage in her career. And that's a key issue: How do successful managers know when to tap the expertise of an outside coach?

Clearly, transitioning to a more challenging role represents a good time. So, too, when executives assume a role with no clear-cut definition. A coach could be in order when executives decide to sharpen their skills for the next new thing, or when they just want help setting the proper business goals -- fine-tuning what, for the most part, already works. Or maybe they are so completely overwhelmed that they need a trusted outside expert to point out the land mines before they hit them.

"At that very top level of a major company, it's hard to get good feedback because you hold people's careers in your hands," says David Dotlich, senior partner of CDR International, an executive coaching and organizational development company in Portland, Ore. "A coach can gather information about that person's blind spots, and also advise the executive on what to do with it. And that's where coaching is an art, not a science. Because the coach has to say this is what other CIOs, facing similar problems in similar companies are doing.""

Presumably, Dotlich and his company are true artists, given that CDR's 20 executive coaches are working with the top management at such companies as Johnson & Johnson, Levi Strauss, Nike and The Limited -- not to mention working with the top 2,000 executives from Bank of America and NationsBank as the two organizations undergo the largest bank merger in the country.

Dotlich himself coaches Bank of America's CIO, formerly CIO of NationsBank. Like many executives at that rarified plane, Bank of America's CIO declined to comment. But Dotlich would. When asked the question, "Why is the banking world's leading CIO working with him?" His answer was straightforward: The better to cope. "The demands coming their way tend to overwhelm CIOs," says Dotlich, previously executive vice president of IT vendor Groupe Bull in Paris, and a certified psychologist focused on balancing the demands of career and life. "For years, CIOs tried to get into the party and now they are actually hosting the party. They have to look at the needs of the company three to five years out. Keeping them on that agenda is what coaching is all about."

Choice Is Good

At least, it's what dotlich's brand of coaching is about. Oddly enough, the word coaching has assumed an almost contradictory hodgepodge of meaning and practices. "People mix up coaching, mentoring and consulting," says Rich Fettke, president of Fettke Success Development Group, in Lafayette, Calif., and spokesman for the International Coach Federation (ICF), the world's largest association of personal and executive coaches. The differences? According to Fettke, a mentor has the same business experience as the client. A consultant tells clients how to be more effective. And a coach works with the client to reveal and build on his or her strengths, improve performance and enhance quality of life. Today even psychotherapists, escaping the vicissitudes of managed care providers, are calling themselves coaches.

"Coaches look at the business side and, at the same time, look to see whether [clients] are working too many hours, examine their time-management effectiveness, their fitness and their life relationships," says Fettke. "A coach can be skilled at coaching, but not as experienced as an executive. As a coach, a big part of my job is to be a resource -- to have an extensive database of people I can refer to, so that I can call in a mentor when the client needs one."

Clearly, knowing what you want from a coach will determine what coach to hire. To help potential clients make sense of the coaching mishmash, the ICF has begun a credentials program. Anyone able to document 750 hours of coaching becomes a professional certified coach. Those documenting 2,500 hours can be called a master certified coach. So far, says Fettke, there are over 150 professional coaches and over 150 master coaches in the country.

Sometimes, others decide for you that you need a coach. That can, as Fox's McCracken initially thought, be bad news. Sure, forward-thinking companies will call in a coach during times of transition or to spruce up an executive undergoing grooming. Usually, this sort of arrangement has a remedial focus -- used by companies as a last- ditch effort to salvage ill-fitting or abusive managers.

Which is why so many senior executives prefer to be coached by someone experienced in the ways of business. Someone like Dotlich or Cramm, who help them get through their days -- and their careers -- intact. How? By helping them prioritize, delegate and take risks with people they might not think are capable.

Then there are the politics. "We don't teach about diplomacy, but we do teach CIOs how to link their agenda to reach the right people to succeed," says Dotlich. "You have to think about the sources of resistance, the supporters and the neutral parties. We often do political mapping, showing all the stakeholders, their influence and their political bent."

Eye on the Prize

Of course, not all cios need help juggling their day or sidestepping political land mines. Sometimes they just want an objective outsider to keep them focused on what's important. That's exactly what Joe Fink wanted -- and got -- from Neal Lenarsky, president of Strategic Transitions in Woodland, Calif.

More than an executive coach, Lenarsky is among the few career agents for high- flying executives. Like an entertainment agent, he "brands" his clients, hooks them up with prospective employers and advises them on various issues, including stock options, bonuses, internal politics and finding good staff. Perhaps most important, he also helps clients chart where they want to take their careers, and keeps them on that course.

That was the case for Fink. Previously CIO at Guess in Los Angeles, Fink had a grander vision for himself: the broad responsibilities of a general manager. He almost lost sight of that goal when another company offered him an obscene amount of money to step into its CIO role. With Lenarsky's help, Fink stayed true to his dreams -- accepting the position of vice president of operations at Nautica Enterprises in New York City. Today, Nautica's CIO reports to Fink. And while Fink feels he's up to the job, he stays in contact with Lenarsky.

"There's not a month that goes by that I don't speak to him at least once," says Fink. "Generally, it's because I have some political issues to think through, and I find him to be great for working things out. It's not possible to overstate how valuable it is having someone I can talk to. Otherwise you have to wing it or rely strictly on your own judgment, and you worry about that sometimes. Neal can cut immediately to what's at stake."

Without question, Fink already demonstrated many of the strengths needed by executives at the top of an organization. With the encouragement and insight from his coach, he's ready to take his career even further. And in today's quest to conquer e- commerce -- with companies placing a premium on technical and business acumen combined - - he could rise very high, indeed.

Rich Chadwick has yet to achieve the same heights, but his career is definitely on the rise. Director of development information systems at pharmaceutical company Amgen, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Chadwick has been asked to apply for a more senior position within IS that oversees nearly 500 staff. Chadwick knows technology and knows the business. But while he's taken graduate studies in finance, he's not versed in it enough to "speak the lingo" on the executive floor. He needed someone to guide him through unfamiliar territory. A friend suggested Cramm.

"I already know the business here very well, so I can talk about cycle times and regulatory submissions [to the FDA]," says Chadwick. "Susan's background as a CFO helps me tie the technology's value back to our investments, since that's driving everything inside the executive suite. I wanted to prepare myself before I'm in the job that will have me talking to the CEO and COO."

In other words, Chadwick wanted preemptive training, with the professor all to himself. Anna-Lisa Silvestre, general manager of Kaiser Permanente Online, in Oakland, Calif., had similar issues to contend with. As the manager in charge of the HMO's online business, Silvestre wanted coaching about finance in particular and a deeper understanding of technology in general. Frankly, Silvestre just didn't know what to focus on in her job. "I was always successful at what I did, but being on a national project was the big timee," says Silvestre. "I had to know how to position myself, how to frame the issues -- even who I needed to meet with." In essence, says Silvestre, she needed to practice, refine and hone her approach to people. With the help of a coach like Cramm, she has.

"I know what questions I need to ask, how to ask them, how to approach the job, how I will pull this off," says Silvestre. "She has made me fearless."

Isn't that a great feeling to have?

The Right Fit

These days, all sorts of people can call themselves professional coaches -- and all sorts of people do, be it psychotherapists fleeing penurious HMOs, human resource professionals, business consultants, organizational development specialists or retiring executives. That makes finding a coach a rough proposition. How does someone find the right coach, given so many choices? The first step is knowing the kind of coaching you actually need. Looking for a coach skilled in honing your emotional well- being as you work your way up the corporate food chain? If so, cast around for someone with a background in psychotherapy. Do your underlings pull straws to see who has to interact with you? Then by all means hunt down a coach adept at organizational development. And you have two choices if your growth plans emphasize improvement as an executive: You can hire someone who hails from the executive community. Or you can find a professional coach whose rolodex includes mentors that can be called in, as needed, even as the coach helps you through unfamiliar organizational and HR minefields. Once you hone in on the kind of coach you need, you still have to find the right individual. Probably the best locating technique is word of mouth. After all, if a coach worked for someone you know, she could work for you too. Other sources to find an executive coach include:

Internal Coach Federation, 888 ICF-3131, www.coachfederation.org

Professional Coaches & Mentors Association, 562 799-2421, www.pcmaonline.com

American Coaching Association, 610 825-4505, www.americoach.com

Valuedance, 949 361-3096

CDR International, 503 223-5678, www.cdr-intl.com

Consider this list a good first start. Just remember, this is a field dependent on personal chemistry, personal trust and confidentiality. That's why it's so important to interview potential coaches to see how well your personalities mesh.

This story, "Can professional coaching advance your career?" was originally published by CIO.

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