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Meet the New Secret Weapon For Getting Your Career Back on Track

More people are hiring performance coaches to turn their lives around.

Idiot Boss Syndrome was decimating Paul's department at work like an alien-generated germ. Three of his fellow district managers at the pharmaceutical company had gotten so fed up with their new boss that they all quit over the same weekend.

Paul, who asked that his last name and employer be kept confidential, didn't want to lose his job. He had just been promoted to a management position. He had a wife, two kids, and his postgrad tuition to think about. But his boss was paranoid, vindictive, and annoyingly slow when it came to making decisions. It was only a matter of days before Paul either stormed out the door or got escorted through it by security.

So he reached for the phone and made a confidential little call.

By the end of that 50-minute conversation, Paul had found a way to remove the "Take this job and shove it" from his lips and become the new boss' go-to guy. It took a couple of days to implement a strategy, but within a few weeks, Paul had turned the situation around. His sales team went on to have a banner year. He finished his doctoral work without stress. More important, his boss began welcoming his input, and Paul began appreciating some skills he never realized his boss had.

"Now I see other managers banging their heads against the wall, blood gushing out, and I'm cool as a cucumber," Paul says.

What made the difference?

"Mike," Paul answers emphatically. "I had Mike, and the guys who quit didn't have his help."
Mike is Michael James Stratford, one of a new breed of coaches who help corporate executives break their counterproductive habits so they can succeed in the workplace. Stratford understands less about sales than Paul does and has a far rockier employment record: He had held 54 different jobs by his late 30s, bouncing from construction to acting to vice president of operations, and traveling from New York to California. But in the end, Stratford found a way to make his career misfits pay: He got out of the game and became a coach.

From his office in Laguna Hills, California, Stratford takes thrice-monthly calls from his clients around the country. Paul checks in from the East Coast. An auto-industry executive calls from Detroit, and Bryen O'Boyle, the Mohawked lead singer of the rock band Mr. Greengenes, instant-messages Stratford from the road.

Stratford doesn't give them advice or analyze their pasts or mediate their disputes. He's not a therapist or a management consultant. He just listens and asks questions—and sends a bill. His business is booming, and he is not alone. The International Coach Federation (ICF), the world's largest nonprofit coaching federation, has seen its membership double over the past 2 years and now lists 6,000 coaches in 30 countries. "Call it professional coaching, executive coaching, or corporate coaching. Whatever the name, this phenomenon is the hottest service in corporate America today," Harvard Business School professor David A. Thomas, Ph.D., remarked in The Business Journal.

Stratford and his fellow coaches have become the shamans of the moment, a trend that will undoubtedly continue thanks to a semi-recent documentary, Some Kind of Monster, in which a pastel-sweater-wearing professional coach named Phil Towle saves the rock band Metallica from self-destruction. But the movie, and the surrounding hoopla, failed to address some very basic questions, such as how professional coaches really work and what could be the dangers of taking cues from these advice merchants. Luckily, we've answered these questions—and more—below, so read on, and see if performance coaching is for you. And for more career-boosting advice, don't miss the 40 Best Ways to Jumpstart Your Career.

What Is A Performance Coach?

performance coaching

Performance coaching barely existed 3 years ago. Back then, the field began as a tiny offshoot of "life coaching," which is essentially the mental-health equivalent of a golf pro. A life coach examines every aspect of an individual's behavior, looking for ways to unclutter everything from his garage to his mind to his date book. Some life coaches will even shadow their clients throughout the day to see firsthand how they get the kids off to school in the morning and then run a staff meeting in the afternoon.

Performance coaching came out of the realization that most executives didn't need to have their whole game overhauled-maybe just their swing modified. So a number of life coaches began focusing primarily on job-related issues and quickly saw a remarkable surge in business.

"Corporations of today aren't leaving executive development up to chance, and that's where I come in," says Lora Adrianse, a Michigan-based coach who leads corporate workshops and works one-on-one with executives. "Companies are doing assessments to identify successors, and they've realized guys can be great at their jobs but not great with one another. Big egos don't always work well together. So a lot of what I do is work with these up-and-comers to develop 'emotional intelligence.'"

Since so much of a man's identity (and anxiety) is tied up with his work, it is an area where he may be open to seeking the sort of professional help he would avoid for gooey emotional problems. Throw in a term like coach, which conjures the comforting sense of locker-room camaraderie, and add a steel-belted-radial modifier like performance, and you've got a program a lot of guys feel comfortable with.

"A good number of men continue to find the idea of therapy threatening," says Thomas Krapu, Ph.D., a psychologist who spent nearly 20 years as a practicing psychotherapist in St. Louis before he retrained to become a performance coach. "They're threatened not just by the stigma that has become attached to therapy-that it's for people who are weak or too self-obsessed-but also because it carries the connotation that something is 'broken.' Men like to feel that they're okay, that they're capable and can fix things on their own."

Where performance coaches differ from other mental-health professionals is that they steer clear of delving into your past traumas and instead focus on your future. This is a large part of their allure. There are no teary-eyed sessions in a Santa Fe-style office rehashing father-son issues. Most coaching is done by phone, usually in 1-hour sessions every week or two.

How Does It Work?

performance coaching

Stratford uses a variation on the Socratic method, asking clients a two-part series of questions to determine (1) what the client hopes to accomplish in his life and (2) what he's doing now that's moving him ahead or holding him back. That first question, surprisingly, is often the trickier to answer. Many men haven't really thought about what they want; they've focused on what they don't like. So instead of asking, "What experience do you want to have on a daily basis?" Stratford will instead back into the issue by asking, "What kind of food do you really like?"


"What do you like about it?"

"It's cool, refreshing in your mouth, and the presentation is really beautiful. And, uh, it's light, not too filling…."

"Good," Stratford will say, and then he'll start collecting those descriptive factors and repeating them back, letting the client see for himself what he values in daily life.

"We need clarification about what really juices us," Stratford says. Then, once he's got the client on the road toward recognizing his passions, Stratford starts looking at behavior. He may do a little role-playing, but otherwise he eschews any kind of preplanned "sharing" or "awareness" drills. Instead, he keeps asking questions until the client's own answers provide a solution.

"If the answer doesn't come from within, then he won't 'own' it," Stratford explains of how his talking cure works. "I can't impose any behaviors on people….What I do is get them to voice their ideas until they say, 'Oh my God! That's the answer!'"

So how does that work when, say, a drug-company manager named Paul calls with a serious Idiot Boss crisis?

"What Mike asked me was, 'You have a choice, so how do you want to experience this situation?'" Paul recalls. "That may sound really 'no duh,' but when you're caught up in the soap opera of your life, you tend to forget that you do have a choice."

What Paul chose was to pull away from his bad-mouthing fellow managers. "I got out of the 'Let's commiserate about how bad things are' group," he says. That was his first move. His second was to force himself to examine the boss' behavior as honestly as possible and try to discern some special skills he'd been overlooking. "Once I tried finding something positive, my whole tone and manner with my boss began to change by itself, and my boss noticed," Paul says. Soon, his boss began warming to him and welcoming his input. At that point, with both of their guards lowered, Paul finally felt comfortable having a constructive heart-to-heart with his boss, which advanced their relationship even further.

Is Professional Coaching For You?

performance coaching

There's not one specific character flaw that means you're ripe for coaching. Some of the common situations that coaches deal with are the aggressive yet talented person who intimidates coworkers or the top manager who suspects no one is willing to contradict him. Coaches also spend a lot of time working with executives who have recently been promoted into leadership roles and are not sure how to motivate their team. Another common client is the person who feels overwhelmed and needs to set priorities and maximize his time.

"But the simplest way to tell if you could benefit from a coach is [to ask yourself] whether you feel some dissatisfaction," advises Krapu. "No one needs a coach. You should want a coach because you're pushing forward and want to learn how to operate more efficiently."

If you're in the realm of "need," he explains, you're probably dealing with anger-management or acting-out issues or passive-aggressive behavior and should be looking for a therapist, not a coach. Coaches try to limit their input to efficiency and job-satisfaction issues, and they often outsource clients to therapists if they detect more-troubling factors at work. And for more corporate life, check out the 50 Things You Don't See in Offices Anymore.

What Are the Risks?

performance coaching

Consider the strange relationship between the members of rock giant Metallica and midwestern therapist Phil Towle.

Towle was a Kansas City psychotherapist who (according to the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board) lost his license for twice trying to improperly convince clients to continue treatment. Towle was forced to dissolve his practice in 1993. Four years later, he cold-called then St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil and volunteered to help troubled running back Lawrence Phillips.

Vermeil was so intrigued by Towle's mottoes, such as "I embrace my fears because they contain my greatness within," that he not only gave Towle a crack at Phillips but also made plans to coauthor a book with him, to be titled Life as a Contact Sport.

But the running back continued to get in trouble with the law and eventually left the team. Towle then got a chance to try to stop Rage Against the Machine from raging against each other, thanks to Vermeil's son-in-law, a Sony Music executive. The band broke up, but Towle got the call yet again: This time, one of the most successful rock bands of all time—Metallica—was on the verge of breaking up just when they stood to cash in like never before.

By 2001, Metallica's still-unstarted studio album was eagerly awaited and had enough prerelease orders to guarantee it would hit No. 1 worldwide the day it launched. But the band was fighting so much, it looked as if the album would never get made.

Towle began meeting with the guys for 2 or more hours a day, having them sit in a circle and talk about whatever was on their minds. Those free-flowing rap sessions, some of which were captured in the documentary Some Kind of Monster, helped the band connect in ways it never had before. The movie ends with Metallica finally finishing its St. Anger album and setting off on a sold-out concert tour. Lead singer James Hetfield, who several times tried to get rid of Towle or at least cut back his hours, is seen choking up in the documentary as he says, "Phil has been like an angel to me, an angel who was sent to save me."

But an angel who sometimes has a hard time letting go. According to Rick Ross, a nationally recognized expert on cults and mental coercion, one danger of enlisting coaches is that it can be difficult to find a way to terminate the relationship. "There are a lot of personal coaches who do a great job, but it can be an exploitive situation, since people open up to them and can be manipulated," he explains.

Because coaches aren't licensed or monitored, Ross points out, they have no code of ethics to follow and no monitoring board to rein them in. In cases involving fragile creative egos, there can be an erosion of boundaries-even with a licensed clinical psychologist. "You saw it with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys," he says. "Dr. [Eugene] Landy came in and initially made some good progress. He got Brian out of bed, got him to lose weight. But over time, he moved into the house with him and started controlling all his decisions." In the end, Wilson's daughter had to take legal action to break the relationship, and Landy lost his license to practice.

Safeguards to prevent your professional coach from turning into your own personal Dr. Landy should be discussed in the early stages of any coaching relationship. "Right from the start, the coach and client should determine exactly what the goals are," says Krapu. "After a reasonable period of time-I'm talking months, not years-client and coach should assess whether progress is being made. If the client isn't much closer to the goal than before, then it's time to think about terminating the relationship." What's most important, Krapu adds, is that the client should be moving toward self-sufficiency.

Still, the field is in its infancy. "Lamentably, anyone can hand out a card that says 'Coach,'" Krapu acknowledges. "That's something we're working on, to establish a standardized accreditation." The ICF does issue "master certified" status, which means the coach has graduated from a recognized 1-year training program and passed an ICF exam. But ICF participation is strictly voluntary. The organization doesn't have the power to censure any coach or strip away a license, because there are no licenses, meaning that anyone can be a coach…of anything.

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