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What's stopping you?

In my last post, I mentioned the role of a coach in helping a client establish and achieve more ambitious goals. I had a rather dramatic demonstration of that process during my own tenure as President of Pace.

After a few years as President of Pace, I seemed to be in a box which presented no good alternatives: the university was just emerging from a period of substantial financial losses and was also faced with a compelling need to modernize and rebuild its two main campuses in New York City and Westchester. Everyone thought that the size and scope of the needed modernization project was beyond the financial reach of the institution.

The typical response to a dilemma like this, which I shared at the outset, is to proceed incrementally, avoiding any commitment to major change. My coach brought me to see that my policy of continuous improvement, while an advance over the past, was not truly responding to the deeply-felt needs of the university and its students. He guided me to make a commitment (initially to myself alone) to create two campuses that would be consonant with the aspirations of our students for a 21st Century education.

That commitment brought me out of the box and freed the very talented members of our senior management team to find new ways to create real change. Initially, I did not know whether I could achieve those goals. I did not discuss them with my Board until we had firmed up the proposals and completed the underlying financial analysis to show the way forward. When I made that commitment to myself I was not jumping off into the unknown. I established some strict ground rules: that we would never start a phase of the construction unless all of the funding for that phase was in hand, and that each phase had to stand alone, so that if there were not adequate funds in hand for the next phase the university would not be left with a hole in the ground – real or metaphorical.

The Westchester campus came first, a $120 million project funded by debt at historically low interest rates, savings from refinancing our existing debt at low interest rates, asset sales and modest fund raising. The sale of two other campuses in Westchester helped fund that project and the one in New York City. The new Westchester campus has brought a new sense of vibrancy to student life on that campus.

Construction of the $200 million NYC project began as my ten years as President ended – and it began with a $100 million initial construction “kitty” funded by a new fundraising campaign and asset sales.

For me, this is a dramatic story about the value of coaching. My coach did not tell me how to fund the projects in Westchester and New York City. He helped me free myself from the high walls of the box in which I initially found myself.

There are many other situations in which coaching can make a significant difference. Sometimes a client is not achieving all that he or she can and should as a leader and an executive because of traditional habits of mind that are no longer apt for the challenges they are facing or because of a management style that evolved for entirely different circumstances. I have one client who is a very talented executive. When she took a new job at an organization in which her role as a change agent was much larger and more challenging, she found an entrenched culture that was totally inconsistent with her very direct management style. Over the course of a number of months she came to understand and embrace the adjustments she had to make to be successful in that environment. On the other hand, for some people moving into a new and very different culture can prompt excessive caution about taking risks and holding oneself accountable.

In a world in which the rate of change continues to accelerate, coaching is valuable for those in new positions, those who are facing new challenges, and those who have been in a job for some time and who need to start to grow again in order to take on new responsibilities. Moreover, even for the most successful executives, there are always some issues which they feel they have no one to talk to about. A coach can play an important role in moving those issues to successful resolution.

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I welcome your thoughts, comments and reactions.

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