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Coached to success

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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.

Questions to ask a prospective coach
What can you tell me about your coaching practice?
What is your specialty or niche?
How long have you been coaching?
How many clients have you coached?
What is your professional background and experience?
What is your coaching format (meeting options, how often, and how long)?
What value-added services do you provide for clients?
What is your fee structure?
Do you have a referral or two that I can contact?
Source: Coach U Inc.

Coaches can help in other ways. Jennifer Peoples is a project manager for Documentation Associates Consulting Group Inc. (DACG) in Houston, an international business with about 1,000 employees. DACG helps companies map their business practices and teaches employees how to use complex business software.

Peoples first contacted Joan Bolmer, a business and personal coach based in Houston, after Bolmer presented a seminar to DACG project and operations managers. Peoples knew she needed help in her new position as project manger. She describes herself as soft-spoken rather than bold, but in her new role she was supposed to be the cheerleader and point person for her clients. To be listened to, to be taken seriously as an authority in her field, and to be influential across client-organizational structures were all critical to her success. Working with Bolmer, Peoples identified that honing her presentation skills would help her develop credibility and visibility.

Project managers typically work on-site with clients, so Peoples only saw her supervisor once a week and longed for more day-to-day feedback. Although she did receive support from operations management, she wanted to have additional resources to support her. With Bolmer’s help, she succeeded. “I tended to avoid the political side of things,” says Peoples. “Even though it can seem beneficial to focus exclusively on a project, you can get tunnel vision and miss the chance to interact with people to make sure everyone is on board with the process.”

Peoples immediately implemented some of her coach’s suggestions, such as being more assertive in the workplace and she has steadily progressed over 18 months. She is now more politically savvy and handles herself more confidently in meetings. She delegates more effectively with both clients and other consultants on their teams. “It’s great to have a coach that I can call to ask specific questions and get real-time advice about particular situations,” says Peoples.

Through coaching, Peoples successfully transitioned from doing the documentation work to leading and managing several small teams ranging from five people to as many as 14. She’s received steady pay increases and good performance reviews, and she interacts more effectively with her clients and other team members. Feeling increasingly confident, she doesn’t hesitate to make herself visible to upper management to sell the documentation-training effort to other managers and DACG clients.

Pause, then fast forward

As IT professionals move up within an organization, they often fail to see the difference between leading and doing. They were promoted for great performance, but the workload has probably spiraled out of control because they are still doing everything, instead of learning how to inspire their team to take on more of the work.

Rich Essigs, an associate director of e-commerce, reduced his noncritical workload 80% by working with coach Jennifer White.

Rich Essigs, 32, is the associate director of North American e-commerce for a Fortune 25 consumer products company. Responsible for collaborating with customers and developing e-commerce strategies for the company, Essigs was feeling overwhelmed by data and commitments. He was chronically behind and was stealing time from his personal life to keep from getting further behind at work.

Essigs accidentally found his coach, Jennifer White, during the summer of 1998 while searching the Internet for case studies about successful professional improvement methods. He called the Missouri-based coach with a synopsis of the issues he was struggling with, which included too much information, too much work, and not enough time.

He was initially skeptical and thought using a coach was kind of hokey. But the two clicked. So much of what White said in that first call made sense that Essigs agreed to a round of sessions lasting 90 days. “The beauty of White’s stuff is that it is so simple and solves problems,” says Essigs. He thought that coaching

Rich Essigs thought coaching might make his problems less severe, but he never imagined that implementing some new systems would solve them.

might make his problems less severe, but he never imagined that implementing some new systems would solve them. “I’ve become a convert, because the results have been astonishing.”

Together they used a pie chart to determine what percentage of time Essigs was devoting to various tasks such as e-mail, meetings, travel, and various projects. He was amazed to find how much time he spent on things and people that he didn’t classify as high priority. Essigs created some guidelines on how to decide the importance of what he did each day. Now he asks people why they want him to attend meetings. By simply asking that question or requesting a telephone call instead, he has reduced his total number of meetings by 25% to 30%. Similarly, once he identified the other things that really needed to be done, he eliminated lots of unnecessary tasks and distractions and learned how to prioritize his e-mail.

Sources for professional coach bios and referrals

Academy for Coach Training

Coach Referral Service at Coach U Inc.

International Coach Federation Referral Page

New Ventures West Certified Coaches

One especially dramatic technique White taught Essigs was to devote certain days to a single theme. For example, he spends Wednesdays taking care of all the activities that support his key projects. Focusing on one kind of task for many hours builds momentum. He also reorganizes his calendar at the beginning of each month, setting aside a certain number of days each for focused tasks, support activities, free time, and travel. Now when people call, he declines opportunities that don’t match his priorities.

Coaching made it possible for Essigs to reduce his hours of work, regain excitement for his work, and balance the elements of his personal and professional lives. He also identified and trained his replacement, so he could move to a higher-level position within the organization later in January 2000.

Out with the old

A coach can also help clients figure out why they’re miserable in their current positions. According to career coach Bumpus, “Usually they’re compromising their values somehow, whether it’s in terms of time, freedom, creativity, or integrity. Often they can’t be objective enough to see it on their own.”

Melanie Flanders learned how to delegate work with the help of her coach Joan Bolmer.

Melanie G. Flanders, an IT information architect and documentation designer, was working for a software development company in Texas. It was a good job, but she wasn’t happy and had begun to do freelance training and design work on the side. “I had things I wanted to achieve, but I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted,” says Flanders. She needed somebody to help her develop a career plan.

Flanders turned to coach Joan Bolmer for advice on starting her own business. Flanders knew she wasn’t ready to go out on her own, but she wanted to get started. “First, she needed to get financially and psychologically prepared for the move to self-employment,” says Bolmer.

Flanders needed to decide how she wanted to run her business. Did she want to be a sole proprietor or have others work for her? Through coaching, Flanders was able to put concrete financial goals in place. Then fate stepped in. Nine months after she began the coaching, the company where Flanders worked had a large layoff, and she was given a severance package. Even though she launched her business sooner than planned, Bolmer helped her with self-confidence and tactical issues along the way.

One of Flanders’ major concerns was marketing–she simply didn’t think she knew how to do it in a way that would support her business. Working with Bolmer, she realized that she was a born networker who was promoting her business all of the time. She needed help learning how to close on her deals. Bolmer also helped Flanders learn how to delegate some of her work to contractors as needed when the load is more than she can handle.

In Oct. 1998, Flanders decided to incorporate. Today she has her own successful company, KnowledgeMasters Inc., where she serves as chief information architect. The company provides training, information design, and technical documentation services to several large and small companies in Texas, including a large computer manufacturer, an oil refinery, two mainframe software development companies, and another consulting firm.

After she was laid off, Melanie Flanders launched her own business–with tactical help from coach Joan Bolmer.

“I’ve never been happier in my life than I am now,” says Flanders. “I used to be a real worrywart about things that I couldn’t control, expending energy in the wrong direction.”

Costs and results

Coaches are expensive, charging anywhere from $200 to $500 per month for weekly individual telephone coaching and as much as $1,000 per month and more for on-site corporate coaching.

If IT pros decide that they want to invest in coaching, the coach chosen should be knowledgeable about the specific issues at hand. Job and career-transition coaching is different from personal development coaching, although one coach may be trained or skilled to address several kinds of issues. While some coaches focus on goal setting, time management, and business communications, others take a more holistic approach, working on personal and spiritual as well as professional issues.

As clients begin to see results, they generally experience renewed excitement for their work. They often decide to sharpen their business skills, so they can move to the next level within their organizations. Sometimes clients dip in and out of coaching, checking back in when they want to work on a new task or problem or when they hit a wall on their own.

Coaching is effective because it creates an ongoing relationship focused exclusively on the client’s personal transformation. White, Essigs’ coach and the author of Work Less, Make More: Stop Working So Hard and Create The Life You Really Want!, believes you should only pursue the things that are really going to pay off for you. “The client identifies what they are good at, and then we leverage around that,” she says.

Essigs says that coaching has given him a much better sense of what’s important. It helped him learn that he could better assist others and more profoundly impact their lives by giving them his full attention. “I’ve become a much better leader, a much better spouse, and a better father, too,” he says.

Whether IT professionals want to receive more recognition for their efforts, acquire new skills and competencies, or achieve better balance between work and the rest of their lives, coaching can provide customized hand-holding that gets results. //

Andrea R. Williams is a freelance writer specializing in business & technology, professional development, and consumer issues. She is based in northern New England and can be reached at

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