by Liz Michalski
The Hartford Courant
January 22, 2001
When you want to tone up your body, you hire a personal trainer. When you need to get your work life in shape, you hire a career coach.
Whether you call them career, executive or business coaches, their goal is the same – to enhance a person’s workplace abilities and skills.
Career coaches are increasingly being hired by organizations as large as Aetna, where they groom employees for the fast track, and as small as one-person start-ups, where entrepreneurs rely on them as business-savvy mentors. Although the price tag is expensive – a career coach can cost up to $2,000 a day – those who have been helped by one swear by the results
At Aetna, career coaches are part of an overall drive to attract fresh talent and develop veteran employees, said Laurel Ennis, who manages coaching initiatives for the Hartford insurer. The company has increased its use of coaches over the past three to five years as the search for employees has become more competitive, she said.
Coaches are primarily used for Aetna employees at management level, said Ennis. The company uses them for everything from helping an employee improve her presentation skills to grooming a middle manager for a leadership role, she said. Aetna has some coaches on its staff and, depending on the need, supplements those by hiring consulting coaches. Costs for a consulting coach vary widely, but as a rule the fee is between $250 and $400 an hour.
Despite Aetna’s recent financial woes, the company is still committed to using coaches, according to Ennis. While Ennis wasn’t able to specify how much Aetna spends on coaching a year, the company’s financial commitment to it and to other leadership development programs is increasing, she said.
“We’re looking to leverage and build on the quality of our leadership. It’s one of our competitive advantages,” she said.
Manchester Inc. is a leading career management consulting firm in Norwalk. It has seen a big increase among Fortune 1000 companies that are using coaches to attract and retain employees, said Bill Brimmer, senior vice president and general manager.
Manchester supplies coaches to major corporations, including some in Connecticut that it declined to identify, to develop leadership skills with individual executives, said Brimmer. Typically, Manchester’s coaches are hired for assignments that can last from three months (totaling about 25 hours of consultation time) to six months (about 50 hours of consultation ) at cost of roughly $15,000 to $20,000, he said.
A recent study commissioned by Manchester found that coaching an executive to improve leadership skills can produce additional benefits for an employer, according to Brimmer.
He cites as an example a manager who was responsible for a $5 million construction project. The manager lacked communication skills, often yelling and screaming instead of talking, according to Brimmer.”He had an explosive personality,” he said.
With coaching, the manager learned to communicate more effectively, Brimmer said. The techniques he learned, such as speaking clearly and calmly, helped the executive communicate better with vendors and clients. And over the course of the project, the manager estimated that better communication prevented his company from making frequent or unnecessary changes, saving his organization about $400,000, said Brimmer.
Corporations aren’t the only ones to see the benefits in career coaches – individuals are hiring them as well. Matt Rodriguez of East Hartford, a former business-technology consultant, said his professional and personal life – before he hired career coach Jill Berquist – was like something out of a Dilbert cartoon. “I was caught in a dilemma. My career was on fire, but I really didn’t like my lifestyle,” he said.
Constant travel, late nights and too much fast food had left him out of shape and out of touch with what was important to him, he said. Working with Berquist for 14 months helped him get back on track.
Part therapist, part cheerleader, part advisor, coaches often act as a sounding board, working with clients to discover what is important to them and how they can achieve those goals. Sessions usually take place over the phone, or via e-mail.
Coaches aren’t the same as consultants, according to John Seiffer, a career coach in Brookfield. “You hire a consultant for knowledge or experience that you lack,” he said. “A corporate coach, on the other hand, works to sharpen your talent, similar to the way a golf coach might work with Tiger Woods,” said Seiffer.
Berquist, a career coach in Glastonbury, typically asks new clients to fill out a short form before the first session detailing their strengths, weaknesses and short-term goals. Using that information, she works with clients to identify gaps between what they are doing and what is truly important to them. A session might end with homework for the client – anything form writing down her fears about not achieving a particular goal to envisioning what she wants in a life partner.
Individual sessions can last from 40 minutes to two hours, and usually involve follow-up e-mails and phone calls, according to Berquist, whose fee works out to about $200 an hour. Most clients have two to three sessions with her a month, she said.
Although corporate coaching has been around for years, it used to be seen as a remedial step for an employee one step away from being shown the door, said Tom Philips, spokesperson for the International Coach Federation, a professional association in Washington.
Today’s coaching trends, which traces its roots to the late 1980s and early 1990s, helps people build their strengths, rather than simply improve their weaknesses, according to Berquist. “My clients are usually very driven, high-performance individuals,” said Berquist, 38. “They want more from their time, from their relationships, and they want to leverage their strengths and skills.”
Berquist, who has been a coach for 3 1/2 years, has a background in human resources, the career field she worked in before becoming a coach. Her human resource and corporate experience has helped her understand the needs of her coaching clients, she said.
Berquist was in the human resource department for the Hartford office of Anderson Consulting when she first met Rodriguez, who was working there as a business-technology consultant. Although they both eventually left the company – Berquist to become a coach.. Rodriguez to become a self-employed technology consultant – the two kept in touch.
“She could see the stress in my life,” he said. When Berquist, who had been coaching for about 10 months, offered to work with him, Rodriguez admits he was skeptical. “I didn’t think there was any magic answer. I’m basically very self-aware and didn’t think anything could change for the better,” he said. But over the course of a year, Berquist helped him to identify what was missing in his life, he said.
The two spoke on the phone for 40 minutes to an hour three times a month. Rodriguez also spent another hour or so preparing for each session, reviewing information and completing assignments Berquist gave him.
Through long discussions about what he wanted out of life, writing assignments that helped him identify his priorities, and personality and aptitude tests, Rodriguez formed a vision statement for what his life to be like. A year later, he’s basically living it, he said.
Gone are the long ours and frequent trips. Today, he works at his family’s business in East Hartford, installing computer networks and software packages for small companies. His job allows him to use the experience he earned as a consultant, yet still leaves him time to see family and friends.
He’s working out regularly and has even managed to date – something that was impossible to do on his old schedule, he said. With his professional and personal goals achieved, Rodriguez no longer needs Berquist as a coach.
“Basically,” he said “she designed herself out of a job.”
Used with permission of The Hartford Courant Company