Coached to success

IT pros can't advance without good people skills. A professional career coach can help.


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In this article:
Top reasons for using a coach
Questions to ask a prospective coach
Costs and results
Sources for professional coaches

Loyalty used to count when the time came to move up the corporate ladder. If employees worked hard and stayed in one place long enough, they'd eventually make vice president of this or director of that. For good or bad, times have changed. These days, workers can't just sit in their cubicles waiting for their careers to take off. They need to do something more.

That something may mean hiring a professional coach to help them plan a successful strategy. First, it's important to emphasize that professional coaches are not counselors. Coaches help their clients find direction, but they don't dig into their psyches. A coach asks questions to help pinpoint problems that must be addressed. This technique generally propels the clients to take action either by learning new skills or by changing their behavior to become more effective.

Top reasons for using a coach
Hire one if you want to:
Take yourself more seriously.
Set better, more personal goals.
Create positive change.
Deal with overload.
Get rid of what is dragging you down.
Acquire new skills and competencies.
Find more joy outside of work.
Integrate the various parts of your life.
Source: Datamation reporting
In the coaching relationship, the client sets the agenda and the coach helps to clarify the vision, functioning more as a partner than as an expert. A good coach can make a connection, integrating various approaches that match the client's learning style, so the client can make productive shifts in behavior. "As a coach, I'm there in the trenches with clients week after week, riding their roller coaster of life, reminding them of what they wanted to change," says Jennifer White, a master certified coach based in Kansas City, Mo.

Why IT pros need a coach

Despite the current shortage of experienced IT workers, IT pros still need the complete package to advance, including computer skills, technical expertise, and business savvy. A coach can help these workers think and communicate like businesspeople, not just as IT people. Even if they're not on the fast track for a management position, a coach can help employees make their careers more satisfying.

IT workers have special skills and abilities, but they may lack strength in crucial areas, according to IT career experts. They're intensely analytical and tend to be independent contributors, focusing on what they're doing and the results. Coaches and clients alike cite improving interpersonal skills as a key area of improvement for IT professionals, who tend to process information internally, which often makes it difficult for their colleagues to figure out what they're thinking.

"The higher up you go in a corporation's hierarchy, the value of your technical skill declines, while the value of your interpersonal skill increases." --John Agno, president, Signature Inc.
Because of this characteristic, IT pros often struggle with delegation. They frequently believe they're the only ones who can do the job correctly. Learning how to work and get along better with management, co-workers, and customers gets them greater recognition for their efforts. In addition, it changes the way management perceives them when it comes time for performance reviews and promotions.

An IT pro may want to redirect his or her career from the technical side to the management side. However, those with an IT background who enter management may be unfamiliar with goal setting and offering constructive feedback to their workers. Coaches teach these new managers how to think long term, rather than getting caught up in the minutia of day-to-day issues. Over time, even incremental changes can produce significant improvement.

Companies value technology staffers for their specific skills, but coaching offers a way to groom them socially so that they can function in a wider circle than they've traveled before. "The assets of IT companies are their people," says John Agno, a high-tech career coach and president of Signature Inc., a coaching firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The higher up you go in a corporation's hierarchy, the value of your technical skill declines, while the value of your interpersonal skill increases."

Many roads up the same mountains

High-tech clients, say coaches, tend to be in a hurry. They may be moving from more conventional roles such as programming and coding to more creative avenues such as Web design. Or, they may want to retool and repackage themselves on the fly to respond to new opportunities.

Neal Jacob, a 29-year-old tech-support specialist for Jack B. Larson & Associates Inc. a consulting firm in of Erie, Pa., works on contract for General Electric Transportation Systems. He supplies telecommunications and connectivity help-desk support to over 5,000 staff and other contractors at the local, national, and international levels. However, all of GE's tech support will soon be outsourced to Southeast Asia.

Tech support specialist Neal Jacob called on Tracy Bumpus for advice about some tricky salary negotiations.
Jacob is actively looking for a new job, but the Erie area lacks technical opportunities, and he and his wife don't want to relocate. He knew he needed help, so in the summer of 1999 he enlisted "job search tech support" from Tracy Bumpus, a job and career-transition coach who works only with IT professionals, managers, and executives. Jacob had met Bumpus a couple of years before when he was working on an Internet job-listings site.

"At first I didn't want to use a professional service because I wanted control over what I was doing," says Jacob. "I guess the truth is that I didn't want to take advice." Their first project was to redo his resume. Jacob wanted it to stand out from the others, but it had to call attention to his specific skills and experience and be easy to follow.

By discussing potential interview scenarios, Jacob can now better anticipate the kinds of questions that might be thrown at him. And when the interviewers ask if he has any questions, he actually does--which makes him look like a more engaged and informed potential employee. Bumpus has also given him very basic advice such as the proper etiquette for writing thank-you notes following his interviews.

Jacob now feels more comfortable and prepared on his job interviews, and he's pleased to know that he can always call his coach to ask key questions. Recently, he called Bumpus for advice about some tricky salary negotiations. The director of a company's computer-services department called him to ask for a salary history, but he had always been told not to divulge specifics to keep from being pigeonholed in one way or another. Bumpus gave him some guidelines for redirecting the conversation away from salary to more information about his skills and experience.

"It's definitely worth having a coach, unless you're a negotiator by nature," Jacob says. "Getting advice from someone who does this stuff for a living has made me a lot more assertive during the interview process." Now he's following up that experience by reading a book recommended by Bumpus, Negotiating Your Salary: How To Make $1,000 a Minute, by Jack Chapman, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

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