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HELP! YOU NEED SOMEBODY!

A coach just might make your career

Four years ago, at the behest of Continental Grain Co.'s board of directors, Executive Vice-President Paul J. Fribourg began working with an executive coach. The coach, from KRW International, put him through a series of psychological tests and in-depth interviews before asking everyone around Fribourg--bosses, subordinates, and family members--to assess his strengths and weaknesses. Then Fribourg, his wife, and the coach huddled in a hotel room for three days to go over the feedback in painstaking detail. ''It was not a process for the faint of heart,'' recalls Fribourg, who has since become chairman and CEO of Continental Grain, a New York agricultural and financial-services firm. ''I was amazed at how blunt they were.''

It's not quite like having Bill Parcells or Mike Holmgren bark out commands from the sidelines. But many top-tier executives, as well as people who hope to ascend the corporate ladder, are relying on coaches to turn them into more polished managers. Part consultant, part motivator, and part shrink, a first-rate executive coach can help execs pinpoint blind spots, alter managerial styles, and keep careers on course (table, page 70E6).

Some people hire a coach on their own to jump-start faltering careers or better market themselves to prospective employers. But it's far more common for large corporations to identify their best and brightest people and ask a coach to help smooth out rough edges. The practice is, after all, expensive. Fees may run from $15,000 to $150,000, depending on the extent of the coaching. ''It's flattering to be offered a coach,'' says Nancy L. Yahanda, a Boston-based coach. What's more, any stigma attached to working with a coach is disappearing. ''Ten years ago, people wanted us to slip through the back door,'' says Kathryn B. Williams, a senior partner at KRW in Winston-Salem, N.C. ''Now, it's like having a personal trainer.''

BETTER ODDS. Who can benefit from coaching? Certainly anyone undergoing a major transition in a company. You might be a candidate if you're an exec with strong technical skills who needs broader managerial experience. Perhaps you're a brilliant idea person who clams up, or rambles, while trying to communicate thoughts before large groups. You might be a U.S.-based manager who needs to take on a more global perspective, or a boss with a short fuse who honestly wants to change. ''They're the kind of people who, even if they won Wimbledon, would be looking for a coach to speed up their serve,'' says Reed Whittle, a New York-based coach.

But hiring a coach doesn't mean every new executive decision will turn out to be an ace. ''The question is, do we increase the odds of successfully helping [managers] move through a transition?,'' asks David DeVries, a partner in the Greensboro (N.C.) coaching firm of Kaplan DeVries Inc. ''The answer is we can, but it's not inevitable.''

There are other ways to gain at least some of what a coach can provide. You can brush up on the latest management thinking by enrolling in programs lasting days or even months at Harvard business school and Wharton School. A coach might suggest an exec participate in such a program anyway. Or you can take a short-term executive leadership course. The consulting firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc., for instance, holds day-and-a-half-long seminars for new CEOs. The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. (910 545-2810), runs a six-day course aimed at middle managers on up. But in-depth, one-on-one coaching at the home office can provide a management tonic impossible to obtain inside a classroom, and the exercise can extend up to two years.

If you're hiring a coach on your own, start by consulting the human-resources department at your company or by checking with a business school or professional association. Coaches aren't regulated, and no accurate count on the number of people practicing the craft exists. But coaches can be found working with managers at American Express, Sears, BankBoston, and other corporate giants. Be sure to ask a coach for his or her educational credentials--degrees in organizational behavior and psychology are helpful--as well as an accounting of real-world experience. Most critically, make certain the two of you have a rapport. A potential client once rejected Dale McMillin, a coach based in Cleveland, because he reminded her too much of her boss. ''She was right,'' he says.

WHATEVER IT TAKES. Before you start your coaching sessions, it's important to set ground rules. Make sure you reach an understanding on what will remain confidential: Your company may want to be kept abreast of your progress, especially if it's footing the bill. But many coaches leave it up to you to decide how much information to share with the top brass.

As with any counseling, you need to put in time and be willing to change. ''Coaching tunes you into what your subordinates are feeling, and it tells you what you need to be successful,'' says Stephen E. Prostano, president and chief operating officer of Chase Asset Management Inc., who has worked with Yahanda and several other coaches. ''Unless you're open to feedback, you're wasting your time.'' In Prostano's experience, a coach will do whatever it takes to help managers achieve goals. That might mean regular one-on-one strategy sessions or directing them toward some expert, book, or course.

Each coach, of course, brings his or her own style to the relationship. McMillin likes to get chummy with a manager's administrative assistant. That way he can stay on top of the client's schedule, and, as if pulling a surprise quiz in college, show up unannounced at a meeting to observe. Generally, the staff has been tipped off that this might happen at some point. ''I've yet been told to stop doing it,'' he says. Other coaches never shadow their clients.

Often, the coach comes close to being a therapist. In one extreme example, Larry Kahn, a coach in Lafayette Hill, Pa., worked with an executive who was so depressed after his daughter was killed by a truck that he says he ''spent five weeks keeping this man on earth.'' On another occasion, Kahn persuaded a workaholic CEO with family troubles to reserve one hour a day over a two-week period for activities not related to the job. So he put his kids to bed one night, took a walk with his wife on another, and realized at the end that he could do his work and still become warmer and less stressed.

MENTOR MODEL. While coaching is typically reserved for higher-ups, some companies are encouraging the practice lower down. Corning Inc. makes coaches available to middle managers so they can see how they stack up against leadership criteria established at the company. It's pretty much a one-shot deal--after the coach assesses survey results and helps develop a game plan, the employee's supervisor handles any follow-up. Corning also has a program in which employees serve as volunteer coaches for people in other divisions. It's similar to a mentor relationship and can give an individual a corporation-wide perspective. Both new employees and Corning veterans can be assigned or can request such a coach. The two people might meet for an hour every other week, and the relationship lasts a year. An employee who is being coached can also serve as someone else's coach elsewhere in the company.

Unlike a football coach, an executive coach's success or failure cannot be measured by wins and losses. Some managers ultimately score better on internal surveys, gain their colleagues' respect, or see profits take off. Under the best of circumstances, a coach might even lead you to the corner office.

By Edward C. Baig in New York



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