Coaching for IT Success

IT professionals interested in reaching their professional and personal goals are increasingly turning to professional coaching. The CIO Forum, which started with two coaches a few years ago, now brings 16 aboard for its annual two-day conference on a cruise ship. IT pros who make use of professional coaches, whether at sea or on land, find that they can assist them in developing career plans and staying on track.

Computerworld's Robert L. Mitchell asked four coaches at the CIO Forum who have worked with IT executives what IT execs say they need and how coaching can help. Panelists were Richard Allen Canter, president of RAC3 Group in Basking Ridge, N.J.; Heather Clarke-Peckerman, president of HCP Consulting Group in Parsippany, N.J.; Phyllis Rosen, a corporate coach in New York; and Henry Barbey, director of the New York Center for Coaching's corporate division.

You have all been talking with IT executives. What's on their minds?

Phyllis Rosen

Phyllis RosenRosen: A core issue is how to get themselves more involved at the executive level — how to bring the importance and relevance of IT to the strategy planning sessions as part of the entire business so that the IT area is part of the planning and can provide input into how the strategy is being implemented.

The people I have been talking to have been talking more about how to catch up. They find themselves more in a situation of coming in after the decisions have been made, trying to fit an IT solution around. [They also talk about] how to mop up afterwards when the fit doesn't really work so well.

Heather Clarke-Peckerman

Heather Clarke-Peckerman Clarke-Peckerman: What I've seen is a lot of personal management, learning how to take a group and develop them from a team standpoint for motivation. And how they can be more influential.

How can coaching help?

Rosen: We can help them with emotional intelligence issues, which would include how to be more of a political animal, to be more politically astute. We can help them with communication skills, with interrelation skills, with how to better promote themselves.

How is coaching different from therapy or counseling?

Rosen: Coaching is about helping people facilitate change in their lives, helping them understand where they are at and where they want to get to. Therapy focuses on the past, what happened before, whereas coaching focuses on the present and where you want to go. Counseling focuses on me, the counselor, as the expert. As a coach, the focus is on the client as the expert.

Are IT executives' concerns really any different from those of other executives? Are their concerns more universal?

Rosen: They're universal in the sense that every executive is interested in how to get more appreciation, more recognition for their areas of responsibility. But the IT group is unique in that they tend to be coming from a cost-center paradigm. They have been in an operational type of structure and now they have more prominence — IT is prominent now in everything that happens in the business. Now it's really core — but in many instances, they have not yet been given the same recognition and power at the executive table as many other areas have. That's the difference.

Clarke-Peckerman: What happens is when you're designing and developing, it's fun, it's creative, it's low key. Then all of a sudden, because you're so good at it, you get promoted, and it pulls you out of what you enjoy and into an administrative role, managing other people and doing paperwork. You're forced into left-brain mode. That becomes stressful.

What skills do IT executives need to succeed?

Rosen: The newer IT manager executives are coming up with the skills. The older managers, especially those that came up through the technology ranks, were more protected. They didn't need all of the interpersonal and political skills that are being required now.

Richard Allen Canter

Richard Allen Canter Canter: Individual technical skill requirements as you go up the ladder become less and less significant. What is becoming more and more significant are those — I wouldn't call them right-brain skills — but the personal leadership, people skills, communication skills.

What do IT executives hope to achieve by meeting with you?

Canter: Most of them want someone to talk to in confidence about soft, people skills, about what are they going to do for the rest of their lives. As evidenced by the way coaching has increased in popularity, there is a great deal of interest in the coaching process itself.

Why all the interest now?

Clarke-Peckerman: It's getting more press. It's a buzzword people are curious about. But there are also a lot of positive outcomes. People have had very good experiences.

Canter: The way the world is changing, it's absolutely essential to do just-in-time learning. And that is not just self-help books. I need to be successful in my position. These are people who are changing things in their organizations or they perceive that if they don't change things, they're not going to be there.

Why don't IT executives just go to their peers for help?

Clarke-Peckerman: It's that sense of being vulnerable among your peers. You're being exposed. If you have a coach, everything we talk about is confidential. So you can let your guard down and share what your concerns are and what challenges you're facing. And you know that that person is 100% behind you. For 45 minutes, it's all about you.

Rosen: It's very lonely at the top. You don't really have people that you necessarily want to show your vulnerability to or that can give you a viewpoint that is outside of the way you always do things.

How do you get started?

Clarke-Peckerman: I always couple my executive coaching with a 360-degree emotional intelligence assessment so that you get a baseline. They get a tangible measure to see how well they're doing, and they find out from their colleagues, their boss, their direct reports … and from customers. They find out exactly where their strengths are, as well as their learning opportunities, from every single group.

I bring them through three months of coaching, working through each dimension, and then they take another assessment.

How can you help IT executives gain the respect of other top management?

Clarke-Peckerman: It's all about perception. How do you want people to perceive you? What is your reputation, what do you want it to be, and what are you doing in order to get that respect?

The next step is coaching them to make that change. For some, it is very easy, and for some, it's baby steps.

Rosen: By helping them to understand the way the rest of the organization approaches and looks at things. What their measurements are — and I'm not talking metrics; I think they have metrics down — but what's valuable to them. It's understanding what their needs are, being able to translate what you can deliver in terms of the rest of the organization's needs and putting it into language the rest of the organization can understand.

How do you choose the right coach?

Clarke-Peckerman: It's all about chemistry. Trust and rapport has to happen from the first session. If you don't have it, you're not going to be successful.

Henry Barbey

Henry Barbey Barbey: It's about finding someone you feel comfortable with.

Is there a place I can go to find qualified coaches?

Clarke-Peckerman: If you get a coach, it should be someone who is certified by the International Coach Federation .

Canter: The ICF has directories of [ICF-certified] coaches. A coach should be willing to talk about their training and background and if they have any specialties. Check the chemistry face to face and ask for references.

Sure, chemistry is important, but how do I know the coach really has the skills to help me with my goals?

Clarke-Peckerman: If after two or three sessions you're not making any progress, then you have to make a choice. It's about someone who's supporting me but also, am I getting closer to the goal?

Canter: That's the bottom line: Are you getting the results you want to get? Oftentimes, it can be a pretty steep financial commitment. There should be bailout points.

What does it cost for an engagement, and how long does the engagement last?

Clarke-Peckerman: I usually do an emotional intelligence analysis. You pay for the assessment and the binders. [The engagement] can be in the range of $8,000 to $10,000, and it usually goes over a period of about four months. It goes anywhere from 12 to 14 sessions.

Barbey: It could be anywhere from $250 to $500 an hour for a coach on the executive level. Usually it's done as a package deal. Once the assignment is understood, there would be a proposal offered with a payment arrangement.

What metrics can you provide that can help justify hiring a coach?

Barbey: Much of it is subjective. In working with someone in IT, it may take a while to see the results.

Eventually, you may see an improvement of the bottom line functioning in the department, but initially it's going to be an improvement in the relationships. That's the real value.

Mergers and acquisitions lead to a lot of stress for IT executives. What advice can you give IT executives in this situation?

Canter: It involves some learning. Don't assume that you have those leadership and change-management skills. If you're in the middle of a change, you probably need to learn something.

Rosen: The person needs to find some advocates; they need to find an area of expertise that they can take control of so they can show their work in this new environment. They need to become part of how the organization finds its way out, rather than holding on to what was. On an emotional level, it is really important to start looking at this new configuration with almost a beginner's mind. How is this going to look? What are the possibilities? And try to take a lead somewhere.

Barbey: It's also important to help them prioritize — what are the real priorities with this change happening? — and to get them grounded in where they need to put their attention.

Rosen: Also, who do they want to be now, going forward, because this new reorganization may no longer fit who they want to be. In that case, it would be important that they start looking at alternatives. And realizing that they're not trapped. That can be very tough, especially for people who have been there for a long time. They don't have a network outside of the organization, they may not have kept up to date on the most current skills being demanded in the marketplace, and [they need to] start looking to upgrade themselves.

This profession is dominated by men. What can you say to women IT executives that will help them be successful?

Clarke-Peckerman: In some ways, it's even lonelier for women at the top.

You can't get hung up on the fact that you're the woman. If you get hung up on that, your thoughts and feelings are going to [come through], and people are going to have perceptions about you that you don't want them to have. You've been appointed because you're confident and knowledgeable and have demonstrated the ability to do the job. Focus on what made you successful. Don't focus on that external stuff you can't control. If you focus on that, you are going to sabotage your own career.

Rosen: Women who succeed have demonstrated a mastery of the technical skills, and that tends to help level the playing field a bit with their colleagues. When you get into women managing men, I think you'll always be getting into male/female issues. On the other hand, there is a respect among technologists, among people who know what they're talking about. So in some ways, [that respect] might help to mitigate some of those issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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