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.

reaching for the stars

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.

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