Globe & Mail

Outside coaches help employees stick-handle their careers

An outside adviser can offer an objective view of a person’s weaknesses — and strengths — in the workplace, VIRGINIA GALT writes

Saturday, August 7, 2004

As part of the professional development program at Ernst & Young LLP, all partners, principals and directors receive “360-degree feedback” from their bosses, peers and employees.

“But if you are going to open it up and expose people to that feedback, you also need to provide people with the tools to deal with that feedback and improve.”

said Colleen Albiston, director of national marketing for the Toronto-based accounting firm.

That’s why Ms. Albiston embraced the opportunity to work with an outside career coach.

Sheeba Varghese of Forward Focus is based in Burlington, Ont. Sheeba has many clients who need strategies for promoting themselves and advancing in their careers — And she has others who need help scaling back.

“For me, it was like having an independent person on your personal board of directors. Most people have kind of a personal board of directors that helps them manage their career and their life — and that might include your husband, your mother, your best friend, a mentor, a boss, the people you talk through your important decisions with,” said Ms. Albiston, adding that she is definitely “one of the converted.”

Corporate coaching, a common executive perk in the United States, is not widely employed in Canada. But interest in the concept is building, those in the field say.

Some executives go to corporate coaches because they’ve discovered they come on too strong. Others are struggling with the wimp factor.

Many managers want impartial advice on how to fast-track their careers. But it’s not always about harder and faster. Some actually want to slow down, asking themselves: Do I really want to keep working this hard until I’m 65?

So why do they need a career coach’s help? The reason is simple: Those closest to you — often your biggest fans — will naturally tend to say “you’re right” even when you are not. A coach, being more objective, might modify that to “you may be right, but it’s not going to be perceived that way,” Ms. Albiston said.

Most people who go to corporate coaches are already good to begin with, corporate coach Alanea Kowalski, of Toronto-based AdVantage Consulting Group Inc., said in an interview this week.

“Coaching is not remedial; it’s about taking someone who is good and making them better.”

Corporate coach Sheeba Varghese of Forward Focus, based in Burlington, Ont., has clients who need strategies for promoting themselves and advancing in their careers — and she has others who need help scaling back.

“You have to have a clear idea of what that individual really wants: Does she want to be a career climber or does she want to punch a time-clock?”

Balancing work demands with family demands is a struggle for many. But even someone who is only willing to work a 40-hour week can find ways to do more in those 40 hours, she said.

From their vantage point as outside coaches, Ms. Varghese and Ms. Kowalski get a fascinating inside look at the issues people are wrestling with at work.

Often, people feel “stonewalled by their bosses,” Ms. Kowalski said, and need strategies for getting around the barriers. Ms. Varghese has had older clients who are not prepared for their impending retirements and she has had retired people planning to make a comeback because “they have a lot of knowledge and skills . . . they just happen to be older.”

There are people who need coaching on how to be a team player, without sacrificing their individuality to the corporate cause. “How do you merge the personal objectives with that of the team?” Ms. Varghese said.

The impact of a divorce or the stress of looking after an ailing parent can sometimes arise with people struggling to stay on top of their jobs.

Ms. Albiston said she found it valuable to receive an independent opinion on her communication style.

“If you are a very self-confident person and you are very extroverted, you might present an opinion in a very forceful way. In my mind, it’s an opinion and I’m very open to dialogue . . .” she said.

“But to someone who is intimidated by that style or uncomfortable with that style, you have told them what to do, or you have told them the answer, or you have told them this is how it is going to be, when it wasn’t the message you intended to send at all,” Ms. Albiston said.

“You intended to say, ‘this is what I think and I am open to what you think,’ but you are so strong in the way you present yourself.”

Ms. Albiston said her coach is available as a sounding board on any issues that come up. “She’s the first person I would think to call when I really have a dilemma, when I am trying to make a decision, managing something in my workplace or managing something in my career . . . and I feel I would benefit from some independent advice.”

Ms. Albiston, who also has a busy home life as the mother of two young boys, feels coaching has made her a better, more effective manager.

Ms. Kowalski specializes in working with women leaders and with senior-level employees about to embark on overseas assignments, or returning home from overseas postings.
Coming home is often more difficult than leaving, she said, because after the glamour of a foreign posting, people often feel they are coming home to a job that is not nearly so interesting.

She has also worked with people who have achieved high status and are earning good money, but find themselves asking: Is this all there is?

Often, as people near the end of their careers, they want to leave a legacy. She works with them on ways they can exert a positive influence on those who will eventually succeed them.

Coaching is not therapy, Ms. Varghese said, but there is inevitably some overlap between personal lives and business lives.

“We don’t compartmentalize our lives,” she noted.

How to hire a Coach

Need a corporate coach to help you navigate your career path? Some employers provide access to outside coaches as part of their professional development policies, but coaches can be retained through individual contracts as well.

The International Coach Federation, which has chapters in Canada, recommends that clients shop around before settling on a coach.

“Remember, coaching is an important relationship. There should be a connection between you and the coach that ‘feels’ right to you,” the federation says in an advisory posted on its website, http://www.coachfederation.org.

Interview three coaches before you decide on one. “Ask them about their experience, qualifications, skills and ask for at least two references,” the federation advises.

Corporate coaches are not therapists — they cannot heal your emotional problems — but they can listen, act as sounding boards and help you develop strategies for dealing with workplace issues or developing your skills.

“Professional coaches are trained to listen and observe, to customize their approach to the individual client’s needs and to elicit solutions and strategies from the client,” the federation says.

“While the coach provides feedback and an objective perspective, the client is responsible for taking the steps to produce the results he or she desires.”

Even when your employer is picking up the tab, the process should be totally confidential.

“In coaching, information drawn from the client is used by the coach to promote the client’s awareness and choice of action. The information is not used to evaluate performance or prepare reports for anyone but the person being coached,” the federation says.

The purpose of the exercise is to help clients focus on where they are now, and what they are willing to do to get where they want to go in the future.

Corporate coach Sheeba Varghese of Forward Focus, based in Burlington, Ont., says referral to a corporate coach should be regarded as a perk rather than a punishment.

“In the United States, it is much more mainstream. It’s more accepted, it’s more recognized,” Ms. Varghese said in an interview this week.

The coaching process is based on the client’s own goals.

“Often they know they want something more, but don’t necessarily know how to go about getting it,” Ms. Varghese said.

The coach’s role, she said, is to help them come up with a game plan.

Virginia Galt


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