When Frank Leibold retired in 2001, he fully expected that retirement would give him the time needed to finish his first book, From the Boardroom to the Classroom: Competencies for a Life of Success. He also thought he'd spend more time golfing, fishing, and visiting his nine grandchildren.
But the former executive soon found himself wanting to return to the world of work. After building his career as corporate director of technical development at Corning Inc., vice president of sales and marketing at Celwave Technologies Inc., and group president at Alcatel North America, Leibold founded his own management consulting firm in the late '80s. Drawing on his additional experience as a professor of business administration and head of the marketing department at Averett University in Danville, Va., he decided to further integrate his knowledge of business and passion for learning. "I just want to give back my experience," Leibold says. "I want to help new entrepreneurs and small business owners to become successes."
Today, Leibold, 65, is one of the more than 1,200 online counselors volunteering for SCORE, a nonprofit organization that coaches entrepreneurs via email, as well as in workshops and seminars. Since January — in just over six months — Leibold has mentored more than 800 people, sent more than 2,000 emails, and established himself as the only SCORE counselor who's worked with leaders in all 50 states. From his Myrtle Beach, S.C. home, Leibold works with people building businesses in locations ranging from Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico to Guam and Germany. Fast Company caught up with Leibold to learn more about his approach to mentoring — and what he's learned working with leaders around the world.
Seed the Need
Leibold says that about 30% of the people who contact him don't ask the right questions initially. A client might ask how to market a product he's developing when the real issue is whether his idea is feasible. They're not sure what they want, and it takes some probing and clarification to figure it out.
In fact, some business owners simply send him emails containing phrases such as "new business," "invention," and "startup," but lacking specific questions. Leibold replies to ask for more information, but many never get back to him. "They don't know what their questions are," he says. "These are not the ones that are successful."
Leibold gauges his correspondents' needs and helps them understand them better by continually asking for specifics. How is your company incorporated? What is your target market? How will you reach the market? How will you promote the product? How will you use the Web? "Make sure you understand their real needs," he says. "This can take a fair amount of probing."
When Brian Peasley was developing a business plan for his digital mapping company, he read several books on the topic before turning to the Web to do even more research. The result? A 16-part plan that, in the end, was overkill. "In retrospect, I was covering something that wasn't really pertinent," Peasley says.
Leibold emailed him SCORE's business plan template, and Peasley cut his plan in half. Today, Peasley is president and CEO of Siren Mapping Systems LLC, which designs digital maps used by emergency service agencies. While his business plan is still in the works, Leibold continues to encourage him to return to the key document. "He is unflappable," Peasley says. "If you feel wild and excited inside, he gets back with a calm-down focus and makes me work on this portion of the plan for a while."
Explore Every Option
Eager to expand sales, North Carolina-based metal worker Jim Teachey approached a local retailer. The store owner declined ordering Teachey's handmade pewter jewelry and ornaments, claiming that they wouldn't sell. Leibold helped Teachey realize that part of his jewelry's appeal was that it wasn't mass-produced — and that he could capitalize on that.
Now that Teachey's targeting a slightly different market base, his pewter ornaments are a hit among brides, and his custom-made medallions and pendants are auctioned off at church and college fundraisers. "Try to look at all sides of an issue and then make the decision," Leibold says. "You aren't competing with China."
Be Critically Constructive
Another of Leibold's clients wanted to open what he called the "next eBay." So Leibold peppered him with questions about what products or services he offered, who his competitors were, how his company was different, and what niche he filled. Leibold then asked him to compare his capabilities with those of eBay — and asked to look at his Web site. The client never got back to him.
"The closest to negative feedback I come is to ask a bunch of questions," Leibold says. "But it's equally important to dissuade people from pursuing bad ideas and tactics."
Keep on Top of the Talent
Leibold receives more than 100 new queries every month and keeps in touch with about 70% of his current clients. But he spends no more than 15 hours a week on the Internet. The key to his efficiency? Four lists.
The first list Leibold keeps is a daily record of queries including the name, address, location, case number, question, email exchanges, and Web site of the correspondent. The second is a master list that records all of his clients' information. The third list shows clients by town and state. When Leibold starts working with a new client, he puts a pin on a map to indicate their location.
And the final one is a "hot" list of Leibold's most promising clients, those who have sent between 10-80 emails each. Leibold updates the list every month and aims to keep it around 150 — a manageable level for him — and checks in on their progress more often than he does with other clients. This has effectively cut his workload by about 80% because he no longer devotes an equal amount of time to everyone. It also allows him to offer more help to leaders who are building promising businesses. "I realize that 70% will never develop a business," Leibold says. "I prioritize the winners. I know their business will be a success."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.