IT careers: Do you need an executive coach?

CEOs have long used executive coaches to take their leadership to the next level. Now IT pros are following suit.

IT director Karriem Shakoor noticed a trend among high-performing athletes: They all had personal performance coaches. It made him wonder: Should he get a coach to up his professional game?

His own boss supported the idea, and his research showed that many CEOs hire executive coaches. So Shakoor, who has worked in IT since 1991, hired a coach to help him take his leadership skills to the next level.

"I felt that in order for me to really assess my strengths and weaknesses, I had to engage with a coach who could step back to observe me, provide feedback and then help me tweak my performance," says Shakoor, who, as the senior director of IT shared services at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, manages eight direct reports and just over 300 full-time employees.

Shakoor started meeting with coach John Baldoni in 2009 for scheduled face-to-face meetings, interspersed with phone calls to discuss additional topics as they arose. A coach, he says, is different from a mentor or a boss. "What he really is, is a person who has an understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and how they translate into my style as a leader."

The initial goal was for Shakoor to improve his executive presence and executive style. Even though a six-month assessment showed he had indeed improved in those areas, based on feedback from company executives, Shakoor continues to meet with Baldoni for an hour every month or two as he aims to earn a CIO position in the future.

Shakoor can't point to any one work situation where coaching helped him score rather than strike out; rather, it's his overall ability to assess and successfully navigate various management challenges that's improved. "As an executive in a very fast-paced, demanding field, I view myself as an athlete, and having a coach who keeps me well-tuned as a corporate athlete has been a great benefit," he says.

Could a coach do the same for you?

Typically, IT professionals haven't engaged such services at the same pace as other senior managers, say coaches, CIOs and other corporate leaders. But that is changing as tech executives -- and their companies -- see that IT can gain as much from coaching as the others in the C suite. In fact, IT leaders may even benefit more, particularly those who rise through the ranks on the strength of their technical expertise rather than their management experience.

The good news: As CIO demand for coaching services increases, they're able to engage coaches who have experience in either IT management or coaching IT leaders, further bringing value to the service, says Suzanne Fairlie, the founder and president of national executive staffing firm ProSearch in Ambler, Pa., who frequently recommends coaching to CIOs.

Who gets coached, and when

Like their counterparts in other business lines, IT professionals sign on with executive coaches under a variety of circumstances.

Some get coaches as part of executive compensation packages that come standard to all leaders at certain levels of the company. Others are assigned coaches individually -- either as rising stars who are being groomed for promotion or, the flip side, as struggling managers who need help in specific areas of performance. And some people decide on their own to work with a coach as a way of investing in their career.

Costs vary, but multiple sources say $200 to $500 per hour represents the range of rates for such services. Though companies most often pay for the service, some professionals do pay out of their own pockets for various reasons. They may work for companies in financial crisis where such expenses are just not possible. Others may want their coaching arrangement to remain private or may be at a less senior level where the company has decided not to cover the cost.

At what point in an IT leader's career does it make sense to engage a coach? Shakoor's coach, Baldoni, president of Baldoni Consulting LLC, in Ann Arbor, Mich. and an author of several leadership books, says there is no rule, but in general, "Most companies hire executive coaches for more senior leaders -- director, VP and above. That said, anyone can benefit from coaching, and some companies do provide it to emerging leaders."

Effective, focused leadership

IT executive Caren Shiozaki has worked with two coaches over the course of her career.

She first had a coach when she was CIO at a Dallas-based Fortune 1000 media company that paid for coaches for all its executives as a way to help them improve their individual performance.

For 18 months, she and her coach connected once a month for an hour or two, usually by phone but sometimes in person. In addition, Shiozaki called her coach at other times if she needed to work through particular scenarios as they cropped up.

The meetings were unstructured, she says, allowing her to talk about whatever challenges were in front of her at the time, whether they had to do with how best to build relationships throughout the organization or rally support from other business leaders for the changes she wanted to implement.

"There were some initiatives directed from the top that I was responsible for implementing. These had major implications for a number of stakeholders, who understandably reacted very emotionally," Shiozaki recounts. "Being able to better take into account their perspectives helped me develop better approaches to change management. The coach helped me improve my 'emotional IQ.'"

Shiozaki worked with a coach a second time after she became CIO at Thornburg Mortgage Inc. in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2007 (the company is now known as TMST Inc.). She hired -- and paid for -- the coach to help her keep herself and her team focused as the company dealt with the fallout from the 2008 economic collapse.

"It's challenging coming in as CIO into any situation, but when you add onto it the looming possibility of bankruptcy and the financial turmoil, it compounds the challenges," she says. Shiozaki sought out a coach who could help her stay grounded and be "the strong leader the company needed."

Shiozaki connected with her second coach once or twice a month via phone or in person over 18 months. This coach had a more structured approach than her first, giving her particular tasks to accomplish by specific deadlines and holding her accountable to meeting those goals. For example, she and her coach devised a plan on how to best help a direct report who was having a difficult relationship with a colleague.

Different coaches, different styles

Shiozaki's varied experiences with different coaches is the rule rather than the exception. Coaches, clients and others familiar with the process say coaching arrangements vary based on the executive's needs, company policy, the coach's own style and other factors.

Baldoni says he works with a model that goes from assessment to action plan to evaluation. As part of the assessment, he asks clients about their current performance as well as what they want to change. He uses assessment tools and tests to get at leadership styles and personality traits. As privacy and access permit, he also conducts stakeholder interviews, which might include peers, supervisors and direct reports.

Baldoni says he and his clients then chose one or two areas to work on -- most often communication skills, the ability to influence, leadership presence and delegation skills.

The process involves a lot of talking and listening, but also he assigns homework -- something as straightforward as a reading assignment or as amorphous as working on behavioral changes. He might, for example, have a client who's trying to improve his communication skills work on letting others have a chance to voice their opinions.

Like most other executive coaches, Baldoni's engagements happen over a specific timeframe, often of six or 12 months, at which point he confers with clients to evaluate how their performance improved over that period of time. "Coaching is a guided form of self-discovery. You get out of it what you put into it," he says. "It's about helping yourself become more effective as an executive and as a leader."

Soft skills, hard results

Mary Jo Greil, president of The Carson Greil Group LLC, a coaching firm in Memphis, acknowledges that some of the goals established in executive coaching may seem esoteric, but she says improvements are quite tangible.

Greil, whose coaching arrangements typically involve phone or face-to-face connections for one hour every two weeks, says she begins with a statement of work and then has her clients evaluate how they're doing against their articulated outcomes.

When Vickie Smith first started working with Greil eight years ago, her goals were to bring her IT organization to the forefront of her company -- Helena Chemical Co. in Collierville, Tenn. -- by having it recognized as a department that was needed and very much a champion for the business.

"Before, [IT] was seen as just a support department; it was seen as being in the back, and I wanted to make sure I was giving the company the best that I had," says Smith, who was at the time director of IT, but wanted the company to elevate the position to CIO.

Smith and Greil developed a plan to accomplish that goal, with Smith focusing on gaining trust within both the department and the organization for her technological vision. They created agendas for their scheduled meeting times, and Greil had assignments for Smith to tackle on her own -- such as reading a particular book.

Smith says she believes the coaching has had a clear ROI for her and her department.

"Just the results -- all the relationships you have within the organization, whether it's with your peers, your superiors, your subordinates, you can tell when you've gotten results and you're providing better service and they recognize IT as a top organization -- those are tangible," she says.

Another clear result: Smith became the company's first CIO in December 2009.

"I can't say coaching actually did it. Certainly hard work and results [earned it] for me," she says. "But I do know that coaching helped me and gave me some additional skills and information where I felt more comfortable going and proving the role that I wanted."

Executive coaching: 5 reminders for a successful relationship

  • It's a perk, not a punishment. "At one time coaching was seen as remedial," says executive coach John Baldoni. "But more and more it's a badge of honor, because as more CEOs talk about being coached, it's seen as a perk. It's also couched as a developmental tool, so even when there's an issue, it doesn't mean [someone] is a poor performer; it's just others see that they can be a better performer if they address the issue."
  • It all hinges on the client/coach relationship. Executive coaches say you have to have some chemistry to make the relationship work. You have to trust your coach and have confidence in his or her experiences and expertise in order to feel comfortable speaking openly about issues. "It's like a doctor or an architect -- try the relationship on for size. You have to click with that person," adds Suzanne Fairlie, founder and president of executive staffing firm ProSearch in Ambler, Pa.
  • It's not a magic cure-all. Clients should identify areas they want to improve but also understand the limits of coaching, says Larry Bonfante, CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association, an executive coach with his practice CIO Bench Coach, and author of Lessons in IT Transformation: Technology Expert to Business Leader. "I've had people who want me to wave my magic wand or sprinkle fairy dust over them, but it doesn't work that way," Bonfante says. He says it's more about bringing a C performance up to a B, or a B up to an A.
  • It's a business arrangement. Alan Guibord, founder and chairman of The Advisory Council in Salem, N.H., says coaches generally use contracts to specify costs, the frequency of meetings and objectives. They also generally offer details of how they approach coaching, explaining how they will assess their clients and measure success. Guibord and others say it's important for coaches and clients to agree on such terms upfront to ensure they're both on the same page about requirements and expectations.
  • It requires a personal willingness to change. "The only way that coaching can be successful is in the willingness of the person being coached to be open-minded, humble and willing to accept advice. That's a hard part for everybody," Guibord says.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Read more about it careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

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