The ins and outs of IT executive coaching

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 senior director of IT shared services at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, has eight direct reports and manages just over 300 full-time employees.

Shakoor started working with coach John Baldoni in 2009. They had scheduled face-to-face meetings and talked on the phone to discuss additional topics as they arose. A coach, says Shakoor, 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," he explains.

The initial goal was for Shakoor to improve his executive presence and executive style, and a six-month assessment, based on feedback from company executives, showed he had indeed improved in those areas. Nonetheless, Shakoor continues to meet with Baldoni for an hour every month or two as he works toward his ultimate goal of one day becoming a CIO.

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 has 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 taken advantage of such services at the same pace as senior managers in other fields, say coaches, CIOs and other corporate leaders. But that's changing as tech executives -- and their companies -- begin recognizing that IT can gain as much from coaching as others in the C suite. In fact, coaching may be even more beneficial to IT leaders, particularly those who rise through the ranks on the strength of their technical expertise rather than their management experience.

The good news: As IT demand for coaching services has risen, there's been an increase in the number of coaches with experience in either IT management or coaching IT leaders, says Suzanne Fairlie, 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 units, 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 because they're rising stars who are being groomed for promotion or, on the flip side, because they're 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 careers.

Prices vary, but multiple sources say the cost of coaching services ranges from $200 to $500 per hour. Though employers usually cover the cost of the service, some professionals do pay coaches out of their own pockets for various reasons. Some might work for companies that are having financial difficulties and just can't afford such expenses. Others might want their coaching arrangement to remain private, or they may not have reached a level where the company is willing to pay for them to get coaching.

At what point in an IT leader's career does it make sense to engage a coach? Baldoni, president of Baldoni Consulting in Ann Arbor, Mich., and author of several leadership books, says there is no set rule. However, in general, "most companies hire executive coaches for more senior leaders -- director, VP and above," he says. "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 of its executives. For 18 months, she and her coach talked once a month for an hour or two, usually by phone but sometimes in person. Shiozaki also called her coach to work through particular scenarios as they cropped up.

The meetings were unstructured, she says, allowing her to talk about whatever challenges she faced at the time. Typical topics included how best to build relationships throughout the organization and how to rally support from other business leaders for 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 recalls. "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."

Checklist

5 Simple Truths About Executive Coaching

1. 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."

2. 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.

3. It's not a magic cure-all. Clients should identify areas where they want to improve, but they should 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.

4. 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 pricing, objectives and the frequency of meetings. They also generally offer details of how they approach coaching, explaining how they assess their clients and measure success. Guibord and others say it's important for coaches and clients to agree on such terms up front.

5. It requires a personal willingness to change. "The only way that coaching can be successful is [if] the person being coached [is] open-minded, humble and willing to accept advice," says Guibord. "That's a hard part for everybody."

- Mary K. Pratt

Shiozaki worked with a coach a second time after she became CIO at Thornburg Mortgage in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2007 (the company is now known as TMST). 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 says she looked for 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 in person or by phone for 18 months. That coach had a more structured approach than her first one, giving her particular tasks to accomplish by specific deadlines and holding her accountable for meeting those goals. For example, she and her coach devised a plan to help a direct report who was having a difficult relationship with a colleague.

Different Coaches, Different Styles

Shiozaki's experience with different coaching styles 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 and what they want to change. He uses assessment tools and tests to evaluate leadership styles and personality traits. As privacy and access permit, he also conducts interviews with "stakeholders," who might include peers, supervisors and direct reports.

Baldoni says he and his clients then choose 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 he also assigns homework -- which could be as straightforward as reading an article 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 limits his engagements to a specific period of time, often six or 12 months, at which point he confers with clients to evaluate how their performance has improved. "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, a coaching firm in Memphis, acknowledges that some of the goals established in executive coaching might 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 goal was to bring her IT organization to the forefront of her company, Helena Chemical in Collierville, Tenn. She hoped that IT would be recognized as an essential department that was 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 director of IT at the time 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 for her technological vision both within the department and throughout the company. They created agendas for their meetings, and Greil had assignments for Smith to tackle -- such as reading a particular book.

Smith says she believes the coaching has had a clear return on investment for her and her department.

The results are tangible, she says, adding that "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."

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."

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

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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