Executive Coaches Fill Critical Mentoring Void
by Harv Sims, Director of Training & Development, Front Range Solutions
This article first appeared in the Denver Business Journal.

  Bob Anyman is a bright and technically competent regional manager for a national electronics manufacturer. Like hundreds of other up-and-comers, Bob has an MBA but claims he has never had a leadership course. He can write vision statements, strategize ways to reach goals, develop organization charts, and identify resources, but he's scared to death to lead. As a result, his team is about to mutiny and his job is on the line. What's happened to leaders like Bob in corporate America, and what can we do to help them?

During the past decade, we've heard a lot about "corporate culture" and have seen it used to explain away the ills of our companies and justify the decline in productivity. What is corporate culture? I never heard a good definition until an anthropologist said, "Culture--any culture--is defined as the way a society functions; it includes their ability to educate the next generation on what is behaviorally expected of group members."

Corporate culture is "the way we do things around here." It's also our ability to educate the next generation of employees as to our traditions, work values, performance standards, how we communicate, how we celebrate our accomplishments, and how we support each other.

Sadly, the message we convey all too often is that year-end financial results are the only things that really count. When the going gets tough, businesses stop investing in management development. They cut the training budget and add the money to the bottom line.

So, how do we communicate our accumulated knowledge to the next generation of leaders? Traditionally it's been through management development programs and mentoring by the company's sages. But organizations are operating so lean these days there are few internal mentors with enough time to pass on their wisdom. Candidates are often promoted into executive ranks because of their technical skills, but they often fail because they lack so-called people skills, and have no one to turn to for help.

I recently consulted to a small, high-tech, R&D company producing state of the art hardware and software. In spite of long term contracts, they continue to experience a 75% annual turnover because their managers lack fundamental leadership skills.

As Director of Organization Development for several large companies, I always saw the training department among the first wave of layoffs, and trainers the last to be hired when we were doing well. I was a manager in a 300-employee bank when the yearly management training budget went from a quarter of a million dollars to zero in just three months. I saw an electronic engineering and manufacturing firm withdraw its management development support with the implementation of a "reengineering" project.

During a recent business lunch, a Vice President of a $100 million Colorado corporation said flatly, "We're so busy there's no time to do mentoring and we haven't invested in training. In our company, you're either performing or you're out." That's increasingly true in the harsh world of just-in-time employment.

Paul Shaddock, Vice President of Human Resources for CSG Systems, Inc., a $170 million billing systems company, put it this way: "Once a person is soured in the organization, it's difficult to change the person, or to change the organization's perception of that person."

As a result of these issues, there's a growing trend to look outside one's organization to "Executive Coaches" to help fill the need. Good executive coaches are chosen for their real-world, rubber-meets-the-road experience gained as successful senior level managers in specific jobs and industries. They have a good grasp of organizational politics and have developed their leadership skills in the heat of corporate battle. They can provide non-threatening, and often confidential counseling, to fill gaps in a wide range of management skills for a fraction of the cost of a full-blown management training program. Typical fees for a coach range from $150 - 200 per hour to 5% of salary for a specific project.

In the case of Bob Anyman, Executive Coaching saved his job. Bob's problem was that he cut a large swath through the jungle every time he came into contact with employees or customers. Complaints to senior management centered around his inability to listen to what others were telling him. An "Executive Coach" was brought in on a consulting basis, and after five sessions employees were overheard to say, "Whatever they're doing with Bob, it's working. I hope they keep it up." The coach helped Bob see himself as others saw him, and when he didn't like what he saw, he changed.

Management development is not rocket science. After a terrible beginning to their season, Vince Lombardi turned his team around by going back to basics. I believe that we need to go back to leadership basics if our workforce is going to give willingly what we cannot demand or command.

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