Hiring a coach to call your career plays

Sharon McCracken still remembers her stomach lurching as she heard the news: her boss wanted her to receive professional coaching. That was one way to spoil a lunch.

“The people I knew who’d received coaching needed it because they were really bad managers,” said McCracken, vice-president of information technology at Twentieth Century Fox in Beverly Hills, Calif.

That’s not how Justin Yaros, McCracken’s boss and Fox’s CIO, perceived things. After all, he wouldn’t have promoted McCracken to head the entertainment giant’s worldwide IT effort if he didn’t think she had the necessary spark and sparkle. But as he saw it, McCracken hadn’t yet assumed the characteristics of a senior executive.

“He sat me down at lunch, said he wanted to hand more projects to me but felt he couldn’t because I was managing at too low a level, and he wanted me to take advantage of coaching,” McCracken said. “I looked at him and thought, ‘You’re trying to tell me something.’ I thought he had a hidden agenda.”

For the rest of the lunch, Yaros worked to assuage her concerns. But it wasn’t until he told her that she, not he, would decide what to improve and that everything would remain strictly confidential between her and her coach that she reluctantly agreed. McCracken called Susan Cramm, president of Valuedance, an executive coaching company in San Clemente, Calif. – the same coach Yaros used for his own personal fine-tuning.

” I was prepared to be guarded with what I said to her,” McCracken said. “Instead, we had an immediate chemistry. I feel I can trust her completely. “

And they have spent many, many hours together, working hard to figure out the tasks McCracken should and should not handle in her busy day, learning how to build business alliances and, in general, ratcheting up her leadership proficiency. Focus on “leadership” – it requires a completely different set of skills than those needed to manage effectively. McCracken didn’t need to hone her management acumen; she didn’t become head of international operations – overseeing the applications and systems that support 64 offices and six different business entities each with its own mini-CIO reporting directly to her – without enormous management talent.

But as so many other successful IT executives have discovered, everything changes when you reach the more exalted heights of a corporation’s hierarchy: Instead of technology’s concrete answers, IT executives must contend with the ambiguities of high-level politics and shifting corporate influences. Instead of day-to-day tactics, they must stay focused on long-term strategy even as they contend with overwhelming time demands that divert their attention. Perhaps most important, they must make the mental transition from functional boss to general manager, with an eye toward the well-being of the overall business.

What’s a beleaguered IT exec to do? If she’s lucky, she can turn to a trusted colleague for advice. Chances are, though, no executive inside the company has the time or the inclination to mentor anyone through all the corporate minefields. Enter the executive coach, someone who’s walked the same walk, talked the same talk and can provide honest and helpful perspectives for negotiating a company’s brambled pathways.

“Executive coaching with the right person can provide something mentoring can’t – an objective, nonbiased view of the company,” Yaros said. “I see it as a [prerequisite] for a high-value executive to break through to a new level. To me, this is truly for the higher-level individual, who doesn’t need to learn how to become a people person or develop time management skills. What they need are leadership and other executive development skills. And there are few people in an organization at this level who can teach that.”

But it’s not just the doing that’s at issue for McCracken. It’s also becoming a leader of others. To aid that, McCracken submitted herself to a leadership survey, where Cramm polled her boss, her peers and her subordinates to rate how often she demonstrated inspiration and leadership. McCracken was surprised at some of the answers.


Despite her initial misgivings, McCracken has become a coaching convert – crediting her work with Cramm for making her a more effective business leader. Of course, it helps that she was at the right stage in her career. And that’s a key issue: how do successful managers know when to tap the expertise of an outside coach?

Clearly, transitioning to a more challenging role represents a good time. So, too, when executives assume a role with no clearcut definition. A coach could be in order when executives decide to sharpen their skills for the next new thing, or when they just want help setting the proper business goals, fine-tuning what, for the most part, already works. Or maybe they are so completely overwhelmed that they need a trusted outside expert to point out the land mines before they hit them.

“At that very top level of a major company, it’s hard to get good feedback because you hold people’s careers in your hands,” said David Dotlich, senior partner of CDR International, an executive coaching and organizational development company in Portland, Ore. “A coach can gather information about that person’s blind spots, and also advise the executive on what to do with it. “

Dotlich himself coaches Bank of America’s CIO, formerly CIO of NationsBank. Like many executives at that rarified plane, Bank of America’s CIO declined to comment. But Dotlich would. When asked the question, “Why is the banking world’s leading CIO working with him?” His answer was straightforward: The better to cope. “The demands coming their way tend to overwhelm CIOs,” said Dotlich, previously executive vice-president of IT vendor Groupe Bull in Paris, and a certified psychologist focused on balancing the demands of career and life. “For years, CIOs tried to get into the party and now they are actually hosting the party. They have to look at the needs of the company three to five years out. Keeping them on that agenda is what coaching is all about.”


Oddly enough, the word coaching has assumed an almost contradictory hodgepodge of meaning and practices. “People mix up coaching, mentoring and consulting,” said Rich Fettke, president of Fettke Success Development Group, in Lafayette, Calif., and spokesman for the International Coach Federation (ICF), the world’s largest association of personal and executive coaches. The differences?

According to Fettke, a mentor has the same business experience as the client. A consultant tells clients how to be more effective. And a coach works with the client to reveal and build on his or her strengths, improve performance and enhance quality of life. Today even psychotherapists, escaping the vicissitudes of managed care providers, are calling themselves coaches.


Of course, not all CIOs need help juggling their day or sidestepping political land mines. Sometimes they just want an objective outsider to keep them focused on what’s important. That’s exactly what Joe Fink wanted – and got – from Neal Lenarsky, president of Strategic Transitions in Woodland, Calif.

More than an executive coach, Lenarsky is among the few career agents for high-flying executives. Like an entertainment agent, he “brands” his clients, hooks them up with prospective employers and advises them on various issues, including stock options, bonuses, internal politics and finding good staff. Perhaps most important, he also helps clients chart where they want to take their careers, and keeps them on that course.

That was the case for Fink. Previously CIO at Guess in Los Angeles, Fink had a grander vision for himself: the broad responsibilities of a general manager. He almost lost sight of that goal when another company offered him an obscene amount of money to step into its CIO role. With Lenarsky’s help, Fink stayed true to his dreams – accepting the position of vice-president of operations at Nautica Enterprises in New York City. Today, Nautica’s CIO reports to Fink. And while Fink feels he’s up to the job, he stays in contact with Lenarsky.

“There’s not a month that goes by that I don’t speak to him at least once,” Fink said. “Generally, it’s because I have some political issues to think through, and I find him to be great for working things out. It’s not possible to overstate how valuable it is having someone I can talk to. Otherwise you have to wing it or rely strictly on your own judgment, and you worry about that sometimes. Neal can cut immediately to what’s at stake.”