Four years ago, when Nancy Trent hired a business coach to help grow Trent & Co., her New York-based public relations firm, she didn’t know what to expect. Since then, with her coach’s prodding, Trent has introduced a host of new initiatives, from holding weekly updates with clients to developing an orientation program for new accounts. The result: According to Trent, she’s increased staff and client retention, as well as profits. “The coaching has opened my eyes to a smarter way to do business,” she says. “
Like anyone else, small business owners need a helping hand, an impartial third party to bounce ideas off of and to provide insights that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise. That’s where a business coach comes in. For $100 to $500 a session, depending on area of the country and other factors, these professionals can help guide you through just about any business challenge you might face, from problems delegating or meeting deadlines to forming a strategic plan.
Still, using a coach doesn’t always come naturally to many entrepreneurs. For one thing, “We believe we can do everything ourselves,” says Trent. “But that’s precisely what strangles an organization as soon as it starts to grow.” For another, like Trent, many entrepreneurs don’t understand exactly what to expect or how to get the most out of the relationship. Here’s what you should know.
Understand want a coach can—and can’t—do. While there’s a lot to gain from working with a coach, it’s important to learn just what won’t happen. Most important, a coach is not a psychotherapist. What’s the difference? “Psychotherapy, especially traditional psychotherapy, tends to focus on the past and childhood experiences,” says Dani Ticktin Koplik, a coach based in Tenafly, NJ. “Coaching, on the other hand, looks forward.” To that end, the focus is on achieving specific, practical goals, often over a matter of months, or even weeks. If you find that deeper issues are getting in the way of your progress, you should seek help from a therapist. A coach can’t help you.
Plus, a coach’s job isn’t to be a cheerleader. “We’re there to challenge the business owners’ basic premises, thinking and behavior,” says Koplik. That doesn’t mean coaches will be openly critical or judgmental—in fact, that’s a sure sign of someone you don’t want to hire—but their role is to provide useful insights and techniques for your business, not to boost your morale. Plus, you can expect to be given homework assignments in between sessions—anything from working on a new business plan to trying out new management skills. “You won’t improve your business unless you take these lessons seriously,” say Koplik.
Expect to work hard. Usually, coaches don’t tell you what to do. Instead, they help you figure out solutions for yourself, making suggestions when appropriate. Trent, for example, recalls discussing with her coach early on how to increase employee retention and help new staff avoid making mistakes. Instead of coming out with a recommendation, however, Trent’s coach posed a series of probing questions that helped Trent came up with a solution on her own—to develop a new, standardized training program for employees at all levels of the organization. “By responding to some very directed questions, I was able to understand just what the real issues were,” says Trent. “That’s something I couldn’t have done on my own.”
In addition, you can expect to be given homework assignments in between sessions—anything from working on a new business plan to trying out different management skills. “You won’t improve your business unless you take these lessons seriously,” say Koplik.
Learn how to find one. Because the industry is entirely unregulated, you need to be careful. That’s why it’s a good idea to look for coaches certified by such organizations as the International Coach Federation, according to Koplik. In addition, coaches come from a variety of backgrounds, from therapy to teaching. But for the small company owner, it’s important to find someone who has had previous business experience and has worked with entrepreneurs before. Also, don’t limit your search to coaches in the area. Sessions usually are conducted over the phone.
Many coaches offer a free consultation. Before you make your final choice, schedule an initial session to see whether you like the person’s style. Then, your coach will likely ask for a three-month-commitment. That should be enough time for you either to get something out of the sessions or realize the coach -- or coaching, in general -- just isn’t for you.
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