What's the hottest commodity in business today? It just may be business coaches, as entrepreneurs across the country scramble to find personal gurus to help make them better at what they do.
Just as a personal trainer offers a physical fitness routine tailored to help you build a better body, a business coach provides personalized services-from strategic planning, marketing and leadership development to morale-boosting and problem-solving-to help you build a better business.
Sounds like a consultant, you say? Not exactly. While in some cases consultants also work as coaches, the difference lies in the aim and intensity of the service. Coaches offer a one-on-one relationship with entrepreneurs that's far more personal than in other consulting arrangements. They work behind the scenes, with their primary mission to support, develop and empower the entrepreneur-and, eventually, put themselves out of business. While consultants are in the business of selling their expertise, coaches are in the business of bringing out the best in you.
"A coach enables you to become self-sufficient and self-reliant," explains Helen Rothberg, a business professor and coach at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. "I teach my clients how to 'fish for themselves,' so they only need my services for a limited time. My aim is to put control back in the hands of the people who own the business, not in the hands of experts."
"My goal is my own obsolescence-not to make the people I coach dependent on me, but to help them fly on their own," agrees Sheryl Spanier, an executive coach in New York City.
Whether you are an experienced entrepreneur dealing with growth, a downsized executive turning to business ownership for the first time, or a novice in the business world, a coach can help you get up to speed. A good business coach helps accelerate the learning curve, bringing a perspective and overview that would take you years to acquire on your own.
"There are patterns that work in every field of business," says Bob Ritter, a small-business coach and executive director of the Dutchess County Business Development Center in Poughkeepsie, New York. "You're paying the coach for knowledge of what works and what doesn't so you can [learn from] other people's failures."
Along with business knowledge, a coach provides something else that's critically important: moral support. You can't overestimate the value of having a confidant who is knowledgeable, unbiased and unfailingly honest-someone you can ask about anything, no matter how embarrassing. "As a business owner, you're supposed to look like you know what you're doing, so when you need help, you're careful about the questions you ask," says Dave Bouton, owner and president of On the Spot Mobile Oil Change in Wappingers Falls, New York. "But with my coach, no matter how dumb the question, I know I can ask it and he won't give me a funny look."
"We serve as sounding boards and help our clients gain perspective and feel less isolated," says Spanier. "We give them feedback and support, and recommend corrective measures when necessary."
From Soup To Nuts
Business coaches are as varied as the entrepreneurs who use them. Some are paid professionals, others volunteers. Often, coaching relationships develop on an informal basis between one entrepreneur and a more experienced business owner.
The range of services coaches provide is equally wide. A business coach may be a generalist, helping you with all aspects of your business operation, or a specialist who bolsters you in areas where you lack skill or expertise. The important thing is that the coach be accessible, someone you respect, and someone whose track record impresses you.
That's how Bouton feels about his coach, Bob Ritter. "Whenever I have a sales idea or a problem, I run it by him," Bouton says. "He takes the big picture and breaks it down into digestible chunks."
Like many coaches, Ritter can be a specialist as well as a generalist, coaching entrepreneurs who lack skills in direct marketing. "We were working on form letters to send out," says Lloyd Wright, owner of Solid State Cooling Systems in Poughkeepsie, New York, and another of Ritter's clients. "[Bob] was able to make our letter sound 10 times better by coaching us as to what grabs a customer's attention."
When Greg Winden and Ken Smith decided to open a lumber and hardware store in Dillon, Montana, they knew how to build a house from the foundation up, and they could explain it all in plain English to weekend do-it-yourselfers. But the nuts and bolts of operating a store-such as the accounting, inventory and marketing-were a mystery.
"We had learned certain things through the school of hard knocks," says Winden, co-owner of the Beaverhead Home Center. "But there were other things we didn't know about, like finance and promotion." So the partners sought coaching expertise. "We looked for coaches with the skills we needed-people we could connect with and have confidence in."
Enter small-business coaches Mark and Elizabeth Bruskotter, who together built a solid foundation under Winden and Smith's business. "They're not knowledgeable about the financial side of the business," Elizabeth says of her clients. "But they're doing well because they have good instincts-and, we like to think, because they have good coaches."
Finding The Perfect Fit
Where can you find a good coach? To start compiling a list of candidates, ask other business owners for referrals. Read trade publications, check with your local chamber of commerce, and contact your area's Small Business Development Center.
These sources should provide you with a list of several names. But narrowing down that list requires some careful research. To get the most from your coach, Bouton suggests, "Look for a coach who has been in business-not necessarily your business, but someone who is savvy to the ins and outs [of entrepreneurship]."
Make an appointment to meet with each candidate. Talk with them at length about how they've helped other businesses, and check their references. The single most important step, however, is making sure the coach understands you and your mind-set.
When you're offered free coaching, you may be tempted to throw caution to the wind, but Ritter warns against it. "Check them out the same way you would a coach you are paying," he says. "[What are] their credentials? Relying on information just because it's free could be a fatal error."
Yes, there is plenty of excellent free coaching out there. But sometimes, the right coach carries a price tag-and it may be worth every penny.
"It's a mistake to consider coaching an expense," insists Ritter. "It's an investment. Coaches don't cost you money-they save you a fortune." Good coaches spend their downtime studying their profession, their art and the industries they specialize in. "You're not just buying one or two hours of someone's time; you're buying years of experience."
Just ask Colleen Hancock, whose Ventura, California, clothing boutique, Heads Above the Rest, caters to tall women. Although Hancock praises the free coaching she gets from the Small Business Administration's Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) program, she also has a second coach, a marketing specialist, whose services she pays for. "It's definitely worth it," she says. "Each time I meet with [my coaches], I realize how much money they're making for me."
Besides, there are several compensation strategies you can use to buy quality coaching . . . while still holding on to your cash.
"The best way to pay for a coach is in stock options, and the options should be awarded annually," says Bill Otterson, a former computer company CEO and now director of Connect, the University of California, San Diego, Program in Technology and Entrepreneurship. "That way, if things don't work out, either side can walk away."
Or consider the route taken by Larry Legg, co-owner of LKL Innovations in Mentor, Ohio. The developer of an all-purpose gadget called the Micro Technician, Legg is an inventor, not a marketer, so he sought coaching to help him set a reasonable price for his product. The Great Lakes Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) in Cleveland, part of a network of private, nonprofit coaching centers throughout the United States, provided the perfect coach. And instead of paying upfront for the services, Legg worked out a deal in which the coach receives a percentage of the device's sales. (For more information about MEPs, see "Partners in Profit" on page 145.)
Can you make it without coaching? Maybe. But these days, entrepreneurs who fail to recognize the value of coaching are not working smart. Remember, however, that a coach is only as good as the team.
"The coach can only help you see your strengths and weaknesses," Ritter says. You're the one who has to make the changes.
The Small Business Administration's Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), located nationwide, offer assistance including counseling, but the primary SBA source of one-on-one counseling is the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE).
SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneurial education and the formation, growth and success of small businesses nationwide. Almost 13,000 volunteers provide individual coaching for small businesses. In 1995, the nearly 400 SCORE chapters across the country provided coaching for more than 268,000 entrepreneurs.
Colleen Hancock, owner of Heads Above the Rest, a Ventura, California, clothing boutique for tall women, is using a SCORE coach to help her decide whether to open a second location. "SCORE is a great resource," says Hancock. "The fact that it's free is just a bonus-it's the quality of the coaching that counts. And with so many [executives] taking early retirement now, there are even more excellent coaches available."
For information on either SBDCs or SCORE, contact your local SBA district office, or call (800) U-ASK-SBA.
Partners In Profit
Small manufacturers looking for coaching have a friend in the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a network of private, nonprofit business assistance centers throughout the United States. Funded through fees, private grants and state and federal dollars, MEP centers offer coaching to small manufacturers producing anything from ice cream to rocket engines.
Field engineers will come to your site and put your business through a fairly comprehensive diagnostic check, either for free or at a very modest cost. "We provide a diagnosis, see where you're strong and weak, then reach a consensus with you on what needs to be done," says Douglas Koop, MEP director for New York State's Hudson Valley. "And it's not just wizardry on machines-we look at the whole business, suggest training where it's necessary and also recommend consulting services."
George Thomas, president of industrial manufacturer Contemporary Control Systems in Downers Grove, Illinois, found coaching through the Chicago Manufacturing Center, the MEP in Chicago. "They did a bench mark study-kind of like a tuneup-for $300," he says. "At that price, if you get one idea, it's worth it." After brainstorming with his coaches, Thomas decided he could use some follow-up consulting services. No problem: The MEP identified consultants for him and even hired them-at 25 percent to 40 percent below their regular rate.
For more information about MEP, call (800) MEP-4MFG.
Robert J. Grossman is a freelance writer in Hopewell Junction, New York.