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GP5Feb03:  Coach

The Harder They Fall.  Who would have thought it? In country after country, we find the world's largest organizations are coming seriously unglued. The bigger they are, the faster and harder they're falling. AOL Time Warner, to survive, will probably have to shut down or sell half its business. It's the biggest victim of the never-ending dotcom crisis, with the AOL digital New Economy part weighing heavily on the healthy Old Economy publishing, cable, and entertainment assets. It has just reported a $99 billion-plus loss, and its leaders are even more stunned by its $28 billion in long-term debt, the central legacy of Steve Case and Gerald Levin.

United Airlines, the nation's biggest airline, is now bankrupt. High wages and a terribly flawed trunk route strategy, employed by all the majors who universally adopted the same lemming-like hub scheme, put it in the tank. The electrical equipment colossus ABB Group, cobbled together by the once celebrated Percy Barnevik, has been chewed up by asbestos suits and paralyzing recrimination: it will be a vestige of itself in short order. All these huge, eroding enterprises, and hundreds others like them, are not unlike the horrendous State-Owned-Enterprises in China, which need to disappear if that country is not to lose the momentum responsible for its acclaimed 7-8% growth rate. All had agendas that had little to do with business common sense, and the ills of all were exacerbated by the worldwide credit bubble, fueled by the stock market capitalism that drove the financial system in the 1990s.

CEO Coaches.  Is it any wonder, then, that chief executives, more and more, are turning to coaches to help them through this maelstrom? Take a peek at "CEO Coaches," Business Week, November 11, 2002, pp.98-104. As Michelle Conlin correctly perceives in the article, the CEO job has become too big for one person even in the best of times, and a coach can help plug some of the holes. Smarter companies tend to have co-chief executives anyway, whatever their titles. Capital Cities Broadcasting, no longer around, was brilliantly run for this reason: it had two chiefs who made music together. It's an open secret that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are really sharing the hot seat, and that's why the administration's engine usually purrs.

Ms. Conlin suggests that chief executives mainly value their coaches because they get brutally honest feedback from them. That's actually only half true. They only need or want just so much laceration. Having advised senior executives for more than a quarter century, we think there's a deeper need that "coaches," or "advisors" as we prefer to call them, fulfill, in order to add something much more constructive to the executive brew. If you will refer to our Annual Report on Annual Reports 2001, you will uncover quite a paradox. Major corporations have been turning over chief executives at a mad rate, but the new fellows in the corner suites are still working on the same tired 20th-century agenda that tripped up their predecessors. For some reason their eyes are fastened on the rearview mirror. They all desperately need to update their bag of tricks.

Creativity.  The best thing harried executives get out of these coaching conversations is new thinking. To get rid of old baggage, the brighter chieftains use sounding-board coaches to genuinely rethink where they are heading and how to get there. The intuitions that arise in close dialogue inspire them to look forward rather than backwards. As well they should, because it ain't going to be that way (the old way) anymore.

Health Coaches.  Clearly all coaches are not equal. Some harangue you and remind you of all your sins. A few others may be creative and take you to a new place. Nowhere is this more evident than in health coaching, which is now blossoming throughout America. Health plans and other organizations now employ coaching companies to reach members afflicted with diseases to prompt them to take care of themselves in a more rational way. This may include dieting, or exercise, or taking cholesterol drugs, or a battery of other things depending on the problem. Average coaching may reduce health costs by 5 or 10%. But companies such as Health Dialog that correctly implement the principles of Shared-Decision Making trim the dollars by as much as 20% with commensurate improvements in health for the patients. Likewise, in Denmark, intensive health counseling has markedly improved the lives of diabetics, while Finland has worked wonders with people in coronary risk categories. Not all coaches are created equal, nor is all coaching, and you have to seek out the winners who just will not accept average outcomes.

Sales Coaches.  In no aspect of corporate life are we in more need of coaches than in sales. Garden variety consultants have spent the last 30 years helping us take costs out of our companies, but they are hopeless when it comes to helping us rack up revenue gains in dying markets. And most markets are dying these days.

A few brave souls are hard at it, however. Old friend John Tyson, a veteran Silicon Valley CEO, now is teaching Fortune 500 companies how to make a sale. Sales ability atrophied during boom times. What he has discovered again and again at his new berth is that corporate departments all put out conflicting sales messages that will help them get bigger budgets from top management but which rarely have anything to do with what real customers want to hear about. Recently, he sat down in China with all the key players of a Western telecommunications equipment company competing for major orders, and he hammered out a sales message that would light up Chinese officials. Lo and behold, the company got the contract. For sales to happen, a big part of the coaching chore is to get people to focus on the real world. Here, as in much coaching, the trick is to align people around the demands of the marketplace.

Bad and Good Coaching.  Often enough, coaching is a negative experience which produces short-term gain and long-term burnout. In My Losing Season, the coach hopes to win by cursing and belittling his players, trying to fire them up by angering and embarrassing them. This abuse has little to do with the normal discipline and direction a coach must impose. The author, Pat Conroy, who recounts his basketball experience at the Citadel, comes alive, however, only when he begins to ignore the coach. He shines, more than other more talented players, because he isolates himself from the barbs of a coach who was schooled to rule by fear.

Negative vibrations have so crept into big-time, big-money athletics that the fans of baseball, football, and several other professional sports are no longer showing up, put off by a world where everything has gone a bit sour. Several teams with huge payrolls are showing meager results. Attendance is declining in sports, just as audiences are melting away from the major TV networks. The sharper executives at the networks, in turn, are now unwilling to pay huge prices for broadcasting rights, as mainstream pro sports become a losing proposition. The foul atmosphere is producing poor teams, unsportsmanlike behavior, and shrinking audiences.

Coaching at its best probably dates back to the Greek philosophers. It's about wisdom, not browbeating. When you read Socratic dialogues, you realize that the teacher (coach) and the pupil both gain from their conversations. Coaching is a collaborative effort where everybody grows. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom; nobody prevails at the expense of the other; everybody is richer for the experience. Rather than turning a glaring spotlight on somebody's faults, the Platonic philosopher has his eye on mutual illumination. The right coaching makes talented people wiser and, by the way, creates enduring economic value.

Best of the Week.  We've just been to the National Arboretum in Washington, and we'll sing its praises on the Global Province in future weeks. But, for now, let's just say it is a marvelous place to get away from it all.

And that's yet another aspect of the best coaching. When we advise executives, we work very hard to get them out of their offices. It's the only way to escape humdrum thinking and rat-caught-in-a-maze behavior. The creativity will not soar when executives are bottled up in their warrens. Aristotle and the Greek Peripatetics knew this, often doing their thinking and talking while walking around Athens. Suffice to say, the National Arboretum is a righteous place to do the creative exploration that leads to new places, away from old behaviors.

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