Exec coaches: When careerists need bucking up

NEW YORK (AP) -- On the trading floor at Merrill Lynch, a trader in a blue polo shirt juggles calls on 150 phone lines, filling orders for 20 blue-chip stocks under his command. Above the din of TV broadcasts, he shouts over the intercom for help selling stocks he can't seem to move.

The pace here demands peak performance -- and he's lagging today, after a bad night with his sick baby.

Amid frenzy, he feels a touch on his shoulder.

It's a tanned, well-built man, exuding serenity. "Is this still a good time?" asks the man, Don Greene. The two head for a private conference room.

Greene, a sports psychologist and executive coach, circulates weekly at Merrill Lynch, helping more than 50 traders overcome setbacks and regain the focus required to handle stock transactions worth billions of dollars each day.

Executive coaches like Greene, part personal trainer and part shrink, are paid handsomely -- some earning up to $5,000 a day -- to work on brokerage floors and in executive suites. They help top performers stay cool while profits slip and see clearly through a haze of information. While they don't do psychotherapy, they do take up issues that cut deep.

"Merrill Lynch gives me a free hand to talk to people one-on-one about their concerns, whether it's a poor decision here or a problem at home," says Greene.

He's a former Green Beret whose techniques for "centering" have helped compose Grand Prix drivers, Olympic divers and Metropolitan Opera divas.

'Masters of the universe'
Coaches have built an industry by "helping relieve the stress of the masters of the universe," says Walter Wriston, who led Citibank's international push in the 1970s.

"I think they've created a lot of good," he adds, but then takes a step back, reflecting his uncertainty about something that he and other corporate heavyweights never had: "I don't know enough about their results to say that."

Once used to bolster troubled staffers, coaching now is part of the standard leadership development training for elite executives and talented up-and-comers at IBM, Motorola and Hewlett Packard. These companies are discreetly giving their best prospects what star athletes have long had: a trusted adviser to help reach their goals.

Between 25 percent and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies use executive coaches, according to a recent survey by The Hay Group, an international human resources consultancy with a $10 million coaching practice.

The coaching boom over the last five years coincides with the rise of management by e-mail, which has reduced face-to-face interaction at work, and the dot-com boom and bust, which seemed to change the rules of business.

"People are in a legitimate state of doubt -- about galloping technology, globalization, heightened competition and increased complexity," says Warren Bennis, who teaches leadership at the University of Southern California. "They need someone to bounce ideas off of and to listen to their existential grousing."

Officials at IBM think hiring 30 organizational psychologists to coach its top 300 managers gives it a competitive advantage.

It calls them leadership consultants and credits them with "creating a climate where everyone in the organization feels empowered and capable and committed," says Tanya Clemons, the IBM vice president overseeing executive development. "We can already see the results."

Motorola's administrators say they expect to spend "in the low millions" this year on executive coaching for the company's best middle managers.

"We need individuals who are really connected with who they are and how they lead and what gets them energized," says Kelly Brookhouse, a director in the office of leadership.

'Develop their flat sides'
Sometimes coaching fills a gap in the corporate hierarchy. With individuals moving from company to company, few managers rise through the ranks under the guidance of a senior mentor.

"When companies went into downsizing, they neglected developing their people, so to some extent, this is catching up on what they should have been doing all along," says David Dell, research director at The Conference Board, a nonprofit business research group.

And within many large corporations, outside coaching is still not accepted. "To a certain extent, folks still consider it a sign of weakness," says Michael Chayes, a partner at~ PricewaterhouseCoopers helping companies navigate organizational change.

Coaching, however, does seem to resonate with Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers seeking practical advice about workplace problems. Many are already comfortable with the idea of therapists, but this is help of a different kind.

"Psychotherapy is looking through the rearview mirror at life and coaching is looking through the windshield," says Judy Rosemarin, a dynamic veteran who teaches coaching at New York University's Center for Career Education.

When his boss first offered him a coach, Ken Saji, a director for MTV Networks, hedged a bit.

"I didn't want anything touchy-feely," he says.

The 30-year-old, who considers himself a bit of an introvert, wanted to show more leadership in meetings. His coach, Dan White, suggested he build on his analytical nature to become an "active listener," who distills what's been said and offers new suggestions.

"I feel I perform 100-percent better in the areas we worked on," Saji says. "I'm now much more confident and more self-aware."

The most thorough coaches develop an "action plan" only after erformance. To create this fuller portrait, coaches interview a manager's bosses, subordinates, customers, even spouse.

The process, called 360-Feedback, "really holds a mirror up to someone. It grabs them," says Bob Kaplan, a founder of the coaching firm Kaplan DeVries of Greensboro, North Carolina.

For example, it helped one executive recognize that he was intellectually gifted -- and needed to have more patience with his staffers who weren't. Others learn that they are forceful leaders, but don't leave room for employees to develop their own leadership skills.

Such an intense process makes sense for companies demanding more of their managers. Division heads are not only expected to be experts, but also visionary leaders, strategic thinkers and inspiring communicators.

"Coaching isn't about telling people what to do," says coach Mark Lipton. "It's about helping people see their strengths and develop their flat sides."

People, rather than companies, do hire their own coaches -- some of whom charge as little as $50 an hour for phone or e-mail consultations. But the cost for top-flight coaches is often prohibitive. Companies pay up to $100,000 for yearlong engagements with CEOs, or $5,000 to $15,000 for a three-month engagement with senior managers.

But "they're cheaper than making a recruiting mistake," says Candice Carpenter, the former head of the women's Web site, iVillage. She now is coaching entrepreneurs to make succession plans.

Lots of coaches are hanging out shingles, from Yale Ph.D.s in organizational psychology to Jack Welch, the legendary chairman and CEO of General Electric who's retiring this year. The spread of Prozac and managed care can make clinical psychologists look for ways to enter the business realm.

D.J. Mitsch, president of the International Coach Federation, estimates that 15,000 people call themselves executive coaches in the United States. Her organization has certified close to 4,000 people, including many graduates of "Coach University. "

The company, based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, charges $4,500 to train students via weekly conference calls, and says 1,000 students entered last year.

Some of those coaches are working abroad as the trend spreads.

Thirty coaches work in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa with 250 top managers at Unilever. Bonnie McIvor, who oversees training for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate and is herself getting coached, says it's too soon to see any link to profits. But, she says, "We have seen changes in behavior and the way managers are leading their people, which has got to have an impact."

Still, as the economy softens, some companies are cutting their training budgets -- and deferring their coaching contracts.

"In the last five years, it's become a management perk as much as anything else," says John Renner, a Menlo Park, California., coach called in to help dot-com techies thrust into management jobs.

"And that's what's going to get cut."

But Marilyn Puder-York, who ran Citibank's employee assistance program, is getting extra calls from Wall Street executives forced to lay off colleagues.

Elite coaches, like Bob Lee, whose midtown office overlooks the New York harbor, say their clients need them even more during a downturn.

"With the help of learning and perspective," he says, "tough times can bring out real leadership in a great many people."