Executive and leadership coaches gain ground for business, corporate clients

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Tim and Brian Kight have achieved what all executive coaches aspire to: A concrete demonstration that leadership coaching can grow a good team into a team of champions.

The father and son behind the Columbus-based Focus3 coaching firm gained national attention when their clients, Ohio State University Head Coach Urban Meyer and his Buckeye football team, won the inaugural college football playoffs in January led by their third-string quarterback.

It wasn't just the sidelining injuries to two starting quarterbacks that challenged OSU's football program last fall. In 2011, Coach Meyer stepped into an organization that had been upended by player scandal, NCAA penalties and the resignation of its previous head coach. The culture within the program was in need of serious repair.

"It started from ground zero in 2013 when I really saw a void in leadership (among players). Ironically, that's when I met Tim," says Meyer. Kight's methods of cultivating organizational leaders aligned with Meyer's approach to team-building.

"We're nothing more than teachers. (We're) trying to teach leadership," says Meyer. The Kights began working with players in 2013; in 2014, they began more intensive work with Meyer's coaching staff. The goal was to build trust and resilience among team members and between players and the coaching staff.

"Leadership was lacking. A lot of those kids became great leaders," says Meyer. To get there, they relied on Focus3 development tools, primarily one simple equation: E (event) + R (response) = O (outcome).

"We didn't go out on the field and play. It was the young men who did that," says Tim Kight, Focus3's founder and president. It takes buy-in from the head coach and his assistants, the starting line and clear through the red-shirts to make a championship team. "We can teach the tools, but there's no guarantee someone's going to use them. These kids used them."

Columbus, a city full of OSU alumni, corporate donors and Buckeye football devotees, was collectively awed when the battered team willed itself to the national championship win last January. The team gained national attention from football pundits and professional executive coaches alike.

"It was anything but an overnight success. This is not a surprise to us," says Brian Kight, Focus3's CEO. "That's why Urban Meyer uses us: It's a system, it's clear and it's simple."

Simple, but not easy, Tim adds. Focus3's coaching techniques are based on copious organizational and psychological research that's been distilled into simple applications like the aforementioned "R Factor" equation.

Like student athletes, the businesses and executives that make up 90 percent of the Kights' clientele don't have time to study themselves to better leadership habits. Even if they had the time, there's a wide gulf between knowing the qualities of a good leader and systematically acquiring those qualities oneself.

That's where executive coaches come in.

The demand for executive coaching is high. A 2011 Forbes article estimated annual U.S. corporate spending on executive coaching to be over $1 billion. Rates range from $200 to $2,500 per hour (and far, far above for rockstar coaches like Tony Robbins), according to a 2009 study conducted by the Harvard Business Review. More than half of the coaches retained are hired by companies on behalf of executives or rising talent, HBR reports.

Typically, human resources departments or HR divisions focused on talent development set company standards around hiring external coaches, says Ann Huttner. Huttner, an executive and leadership coach, is the president-elect for the Midwest Region Chapter of the Lexington, Ky.-based International Coach Federation.

The nonprofit organization of personal and business coaches was founded in 1995 by Thomas Leonard (recognized as one of the "fathers of coaching"). The ICF accredits training programs, certifies coaches, provides ongoing training and informally governs the field's ethics guidelines. It's the commonly recognized authority in the industry. ICF has 25,701 member coaches in 128 countries.

Huttner recommends weighing the training credentials and references of leadership coaches before retaining their services. During the first decade of the coaching industry's development, there were only a handful of small independent programs like Coach U, the oldest and most well-established, founded in 1992.

Today, there are 350 ICF-accredited coaching programs worldwide. That includes the growing number of colleges building coaching into their business curricula. The New York Times reported in 2012 that 30 American universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Duke, Georgetown and UC Berkeley had coaching programs.

Aside from credentials, personal compatibility is key to a successful coaching relationship. Potential clients should hire coaches only after a meaningful initial consultation. Huttner cautions against working with a coach with whom "you have the slightest inkling of discomfort."

"Any professional you're working with in this capacity, it's going to be a trusting, confidential relationship," she says. ICF certified coaches sign a code of ethical conduct as a term to membership. That includes strict confidentiality; some coaches may even be required to sign non-disclosure agreements in their contracts with executives or organizations.

While some coaches work under contract with larger consulting firms, most are entrepreneurs like the Kights who own their own practices. Despite the demand, the executive coaching field is crowded, says Brian Kight. That means firms have to distinguish themselves through their personal recommendations and demonstrated results.

Executive coaching is nothing new, but it is a relatively young industry. Ann Gallagher first read about the emerging field in the early 1990s in a copy of Fortuneshe picked up on an airplane.

Gallagher had just facilitated a board retreat for a consulting client. She'd spent her travel time ruminating on the retreat; it hadn't delivered the breakthrough the board members had been striving for.

"They knew what they needed to do, they just weren't getting there," says Gallagher. Something was missing, but it wasn't more corporate consulting. She opened her magazine to find an article on the coaching trend.

"I was like, 'That's it!' That is what would enhance that group. They had individual needs that they were trying to get met at the organization. How can I get that to the individual?" In answer to her question, Gallagher pursued coach training at Coach U. After completing the two-and-a-half-year program, Gallagher folded executive coaching into her firm, Gallagher Consulting Group.

Today, Gallagher works with executive coaching clients at Fortune 500 companies including AEP and Cardinal Health. Corporate clients approach Gallagher when they're preparing to promote a "high potential." She also works with proven executives who have taken on new roles or just need a boost in their presence or communication skills. Her average client engagement lasts 10 months, but can range from six months to several years, depending on the situation.

The most important thing Gallagher learned at Coach U was to ask the right questions. "Coaching really is an inquiry-based methodology," she says. Asking the right questions helps her take CEOs to higher self-awareness. Self-awareness is the first step for her clients in accomplishing their goals.

"Annie is helpful at helping all of us see ourselves as we are and (identify) the things that can help us all be better," says Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

Executives polled for a 2013 Stanford Graduate School of Business executive coaching survey cited conflict management, leadership delegation, team building and mentoring as their top reasons for using coaches.

For Bev Ryan, founder of the Columbus-based digital branding agency Ologie, working with coach Jan Allen brings her a third-party, holistic perspective on running her business.

"I've been in this company for 28 years. It's my job to keep stretching myself," says Ryan. She began working with Allen eight years ago. Today, Ryan sees Allen every other week for an hour. Their meetings give Ryan a set schedule for focusing on the more introspective facets of running her business.

"She forces the conversation and guides it, too," says Ryan. Allen works as a coach for Ologie employees who are going through a transitional promotion or just joining the creative team. The dynamics of coaching a group differ from one-on-one executive coaching.

"All change engenders resistance," says Allen, a senior consultant and business coach with Columbus-based Business of People who has also run her own coaching firm. "The way I coach, we need a pretty keen grasp of the foundational human skills that underlie business processes."

Before she became a coach, Allen was a staff member in the administrations of Ohio Governors Dick Celeste and Ted Strickland. Working directly with the governors, she saw firsthand how important it is that leaders be enterprising in their work, have strong, clear values and move ahead decisively on goals.

Even the most accomplished professionals may lack those executive qualities. For Amy Null, system director of laboratory services for Mount Carmel, working with a coach helped grow her technical expertise into the ability to oversee her entire lab operation. Her boss recommended an executive coach to aid her through the transition. Mount Carmel retained Mary Ann "Skipper" Singer, coach and CEO of Synergy Consultants, for 10 months of face-to-face and telephone coaching sessions. Singer's broad coaching practice has a niche in coaching medical professionals.

Coaching kept Null on track and accountable for progressing toward the goals she, her supervisor and Singer had set for her professional development.

"It's not like I learned anything I didn't know before. It was just a way to refocus on the things I can control, do away with negativity and self-doubt. I'm way more energetic, productive and focused on positive outcomes," says Null.

In corporations and the fast-evolving medical sector, people are constantly changing roles and moving up. "What brought you to the dance is not what you need to keep advancing," says Singer. Moving from a technical or creative expertise to a more strategic role is challenging for most.

"It's hard for people to let go of the actual doing of the role as they're starting to lead other people," Singer says. "How can they be a leader who gets people to reach their potential versus always doing it themselves? That's a very hard mind shift."

Coach Janine Moon, founder of Compass Point Coaching, is a certified career coach and executive coach. Corporate career paths changed dramatically over the past half-century, say Moon. She has created a new partnering career model that allows managers and associates to work together to achieve mutual goals within a business.

"For a long time, the idea of career development belonged solely to the organization. As part of that, there were career ladders or tracks...organizations are very different today," says Moon. She works with young professionals and baby boomers, averaging three to four months for a career coaching engagement. Her career partnering model gives professionals "very specific steps to find their best direction, provide value in the organization and move forward."

Moon says large companies are continuing to provide coaching to their executive leaders, and sees a slight increase in coaching offered to employees at all levels. Over the last decade, internal coaching positions have been on the rise within organizations.

There's a rising business trend towards developing an in-house "coaching culture," says the ICF's Huttner. "Leaders get additional training and mentoring in using coaching as a skill in leadership."

In addition to hiring external coaches for senior leaders, training those executives to lead more like coaches themselves has a trickle-down benefit for a company's overall culture.

How do you quantify the benefits of a strong organizational culture? Often, the results of executive coaching are intangible. In the case of Focus3 client Pike Electric, a Charlotte, N.C.-based company that contracts with American Electric Power, the return on investment was clear.

Pike worked with the Kights to establish a leadership training program around safety. The company had never had any type of employee development training, says Frank Brinkley, director of leadership development. His position was created five years ago when he and the Kights built Pike's Leadership Academy. Their customized program, based on the Focus3 R Factor and other models, has reached 1,500 of Pike's senior and frontline leaders, who then lead their teams using the Leadership Academy methods.

"We knew this would have an effect, but we had no idea it would have the impact it did on our business," says Brinkley. "Not only did our OSHA incident rate drop significantly, the savings has been in the millions."

The programs have been so meaningful to Pike's safety ratings and bottom line, they've begun developing an advanced Leadership Academy and four-hour programs in the field to take the leadership training to all employees.

Focus3's fees and the cost of week-long training for those 1,500 employees were built into the operation's training budget. "It does cost, but the payoff is extraordinary, says Brinkley.

The ICF uses two metrics to measure coaching outcomes. "One would be return on investment. I've worked with organizations that have a specific methodology for calculating that," says Huttner. Many corporate clients use the book Measuring the Success of Coaching to set those metrics, she says. The second measure of coaching outcomes is internal return-on-expectations benchmarking, often used by corporate consultants.

When organizations bring coaches in for their top players, it's important that the expectations of all stakeholders-the organization, the coach and the client-be clear.

By early April, OSU's football coaches had already had several workshops with Tim and Brian Kight. Players will work with Focus3 through the summer and hit the turf ready to defend their title come fall.

Focus3's impact will be measured off the field as much as on. The Kights' training complements the career-building programs Meyer has established for OSU football players.

"That's more important. This is short term," says Meyer of the game many of his players will leave behind after graduation.

Meyer's own mark as a leader will be made in how well his student athletes succeed over the course of their future careers. "The information we're providing them is the foundation for the rest of their lives."

Kitty McConnell is the assistant editor.