Fast Company

Life/Work - Issue 32

"It takes a strong stomach to listen to how other people see you."

So what are we to make of this plethora of personal coaches who've suddenly swarmed the corporate landscape, promising to help executives organize their lives, orchestrate their careers, and define their dreams? What to make of a new field of business in which practitioners aren't required to have any specific skills or competencies?

"Buyer beware" seems a reasonable place to start.

But there is another way to look at it. The concept of tutoring goes back to ancient Athens. The term "mentoring" comes from Homer's "The Odyssey," in which the character Mentor was a tutor to Telemachus. And who would deny the enormous value of a good coach in sports -- both as a teacher of technical skills and as a source of inspiration?

So why not take advantage of good coaching to gain a competitive advantage? Why not use objective outside counsel and support to help you develop the communication, time-management, self-management, and interpersonal skills necessary to perform on today's corporate playing field -- where the pressures have never been higher and the rules are constantly changing?

Perhaps no executive coach addresses these issues more deeply and broadly than Fred Kiel and his partners at KRW International, based in Minneapolis. A counseling psychologist by training, Kiel, 59, was a pioneer in the field of coaching. He began working as a coach back in 1975, and he started KRW in 1987. Today, his 45-person company focuses almost exclusively on coaching senior executives -- the sort of people who earn $1 million or more a year at large blue-chip corporations such as Corning Glass and ContiGroup Companies Inc.

KRW relies on a coaching process that is far more challenging, probing, and long-term than most of the traditional skill-building techniques. The entire process is based on a single premise: Your job performance cannot be separated from your personal history or from your life outside of work.

Clients are typically referred to KRW by their bosses -- but not because they are failing. In most cases, they are seen as highly promising, technically skilled candidates for advancement who lack necessary leadership skills. KRW requires clients to commit to its process for at least 18 months, and the total cost runs between $150,000 and $200,000. KRW's theory is that if a company is willing to make such an investment in an executive, then it must be committed to that person. In fact, the sum is relatively modest in comparison with the cost of replacing such a high-level executive.

KRW begins its process by gathering a vast amount of data -- not only from the client but also from the client's bosses, colleagues, and direct reports, as well as parents, spouse, children, and close friends. More than two dozen interviews might be conducted for a single client. Workplace colleagues answer questions about integrity, emotional competence, stress management, motivation, leadership, and technical proficiency. Questions directed to family members focus on marriage, parenting, friendships, early family history, values, and defining experiences. The final report can run as long as 300 pages, and clients have the security of knowing that the data are entirely for their own use: It's up to the client to decide whether or not to share the data with others.

The next step in the process -- the Insight Session -- usually takes two entire days. Two KRW consultants meet with the client off-site, and each takes turns reading interviewee responses out loud, without identifying who said what. Data are divided into three categories: effectiveness in professional life, effectiveness in personal life, and family history. The feedback is always a blend of strengths and shortcomings, based on the theory that improving performance depends not just on identifying and addressing shortcomings but also on leveraging strengths. Often, it's the positive feedback that most surprises clients. Predictably, it's the criticism that commands most of their attention.

What KRW does is more goal-oriented than therapy, but it undeniably plays the edge, drawing on psychological principles and demanding a level of self-examination that is rare in corporate life. Clients are asked to peel away their defenses, to explore the underlying motivations that drive them, and to look at the impact that their behaviors have on the key people in their lives. "It's a process of undressing yourself, and that is a very sobering experience," says Paul Fribourg, 46, chairman and CEO of ContiGroup. "It takes a strong stomach to listen to how other people see you."

Kiel finds that resistance to change is common. "We're talking about people who have been very successful at doing things their way," he says. "Typically, they are very locked into their belief systems and aren't very introspective. Often, the only way to break through their denial is to use the data to demonstrate that you know more about them than they know about themselves. If you can do that, you'll have their attention, and you might eventually lead them down a path to self-understanding and transformation."

In one case, a CEO resolutely resisted feedback from colleagues who said that he was bullying and dismissive. He rationalized that the competitiveness of the workplace made his behavior necessary. Only when his teenage children and his siblings used precisely the same words to describe him did the message penetrate. At that point, he became committed to change.

"Our clients are the sort of people who create an enormous amount of stress in other people's lives, but they are also very achievement-oriented," says Kathryn Williams, 57, a KRW partner and a clinical psychologist. "When they make the decision to put energy into their personal development, they can be very effective. I've seen more profound, lasting change in the 10 years that I've been working with executives than in all the years I spent as a therapist."

The next stage of the KRW process requires clients to consolidate what they've learned. "They're very good at analyzing data," explains Kiel. "This process forces them to own what they've heard."

Jim Berrien, 47, now president of Forbes, became a KRW client in 1993, when he was working at American Express as senior vice president and group publisher. After his insight session, he sat down separately with each of the 34 people who had been interviewed, including every member of his family. "It was very difficult," he says of the experience, "but it was also the beginning of a major fix. The next step was to get a percentage of those people to point out whenever I slipped back into old behaviors."

Awareness can be a powerful catalyst for change. Says one former KRW client, a senior female executive at a large communications company: "Hearing people's feedback in their own words, rather than getting some number or ranking, makes what they have to say harder to deny -- and, in some ways, easier to accept -- because you get the whole context."

At this point, clients are required to create a values mission statement. "We try to get them to focus on what's important to them, but congruency is also key," explains Williams. "If they say, 'Family is important to me,' but they never see their kids, we point out the disparity. The real question is 'How are you demonstrating this value in your life?' "

Next, clients focus on drafting a development plan that targets their specific shortcomings and strengths. For Berrien, one of the key challenges was to become a more supportive and empathic leader. "I have a very strong personality and a need to achieve," he says. "I used to believe that there was only one model that worked -- to be a type-A, hard-charging, extroverted killer. Now I'm wholeheartedly convinced of the fallacy of that model. What makes a high-performing team is the ability to create a climate of support."

Berrien began with some simple behavioral changes. For example, he had a habit of drumming his fingers on the table and staring at people intently during meetings. Through the feedback, he learned that his finger-drumming, which he viewed as merely a by-product of high energy, was read by others as evidence of boredom and impatience. The staring that he attributed to concentrated focus was experienced by others as intimidating.

"I still have a reputation for demanding high performance," Berrien says, "but I've been able to channel my energy so that it's more motivating to people, whereas they used to feel threatened by it. It took concentration on my part, and ongoing feedback from my troops and my family, but I think that the people around me would agree that there has been a huge change in my behavior."

Once a development plan is in place, KRW then enlists several specialists who focus on a client's specific areas of weakness. One expert addresses time management, another focuses on "executive presence," and a third deals with interpersonal and communication skills. The primary KRW consultant on the case also follows up with the client regularly -- at least once a week in the early months. In some instances, the primary consultant will shadow a client at work, or even reinterview key people in the client's life, in order to monitor progress.

"I used to focus on problems at work," says the communications executive who went through KRW's coaching. "By comparison, I now feel as if I'm running around in a cheerleader outfit. The people who work with me are able to be more productive because I put a little less baggage in their way than before. I also feel more loyal toward my company for having given me this experience."

So what can you do if your company isn't about to invest $150,000 to provide you with KRW coaching? One option is to seek out a well-respected coach who charges a more modest hourly fee. You can also make an effort to take stock of your own behavior and its impact on others. Ask yourself, What patterns from your past and in your current personal life get played out at work -- and are they serving you well? If not, what efforts are you undertaking to make changes? Conversely, what are your key strengths, and are you using them to their best effect? Finally, is what you're doing aligned with your deepest values -- and with your company's mission?

As KRW looks to the future, its goal is to broaden its reach. "Right now," says Kiel, "we depend on the capacities of several highly skilled clinicians who work only with executives at the very top of companies. But the trickle-down effect just isn't sufficient. The challenge is to systematize this training so that we can deliver it at a lower cost to many more people."

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is a writer whose current work focuses on integrating work and life. You can visit KRW at (www.krwinternational.com).

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