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Coaching can help individuals best use their talents and abilities to achieve success. Based on his experience as an incubator manager and certified coach, David Terry, executive director of the West Texas A&M University Enterprise Network in Amarillo, Texas, describes how incubator managers can use coaching to help clients develop their businesses and strategize with confidence and independence.

Coaching entrepreneurs can benefit incubator staff and clients

by David Terry

April/May 2012

Why coaching?

     I’ve been in the business of incubation for almost 11 years. In the spring of 2009, I was burning out. Working 60-plus hours per week had become the norm. A typical day would find my team members and me in numerous three-hour strategic meetings with client companies.

     The entire team was in the room because we each had a different perspective, a different expertise that added value to the client relationship – marketing, financial management, overall strategy. In theory, our assistance was very client-focused. In practice, it was exhausting, and we usually left the room with the bulk of the work.

     The reason I started the incubator – to support entrepreneurs with an open-door, client-centered culture – was growing faintly dim in the shadow of my current workload and stress level. I felt like I had to be “the guy.”

     Every day, I went to work feeling like I had to have the answers, take on everyone’s problem and facilitate their relationships. There was no time to spend working to develop the incubator because I was so deeply working in it. I was burning out fast, and I had to find a better way. In that moment of my incubation career, I was looking for the missing link.

     I discovered that establishing myself as a coach and implementing coaching within the fabric of the incubator was that missing link. Coaching helped us to reconnect with clients and engage them at a much deeper level.

     Through coaching, I learned I could be present with clients and create the culture I desired without having to take on all the work. As a result, we created a new revenue stream (through an additional monthly service fee that includes two coaching sessions), our client numbers increased, our level of engagement in all programs improved, and we are working less and enjoying it more.

David Terry
Executive Director
West Texas A&M University Enterprise Network
Amarillo, Texas

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate.” 

A good business coach works much the same way. According to Corporate Coach U International, a coach training program, coaching focuses on developing individuals to contribute their talents and abilities to their maximum potential. Master certified coach Cassandra Christiansen of Bend, Ore., adds that coaching creates an environment where individuals can define their own success and identify their own gifts, strengths and passions. “Coaching is based on each client having all of his own answers for himself,” she says.

Working with a coach helps people to accomplish their goals much faster than they would do alone. To help incubator managers and other entrepreneur support professionals improve their coaching skills, NBIA launched a Coaching Clinic in 2010, adapted from materials designed by Corporate Coach U.

Ron Duggins, director of the Meridian Technology Center in Stillwater, Okla., attended the NBIA Coaching Clinic in Baltimore in June 2011 and has since integrated coaching into his program. One of the things he likes about coaching is that it maintains a client-centered approach to business advising. “The relationship begins with the client and is guided by their desires and their answers to the coaches’ questions,” Duggins says. “In the end, the client determines how they will proceed and how they will be held accountable.”

How coaching differs from consulting or mentoring

Although coaches draw upon their knowledge and experience, coaching differs from consulting and mentoring because coaching places the responsibility for problem-solving directly on the client. “In coaching, the background and experience of the coach is not the beginning point of the relationship, and while potentially valuable, the background and experience of the coach is not a driving factor in assisting the client in moving forward,” Duggins says. 

In contrast, consultants typically are experts hired to solve problems or create solutions, and in mentoring, the client learns directly from a mentor’s past experience. Coaching can combine aspects of each approach, but it requires the client to manage their own problems and envision their solutions. “Coaching can integrate both consulting and mentoring at times, but it is not the focus of the time spent together,” Christiansen says. “In coaching, the client is the expert on his situation. The coach simply helps the client to excel with this awareness.”

Joann MacMaster, director the Arizona Center for Innovation in Tucson, Ariz., who also attended a recent NBIA Coaching Clinic, says one of the biggest differences she sees between coaching, mentoring and consulting relates to how tasks are managed in each role.

“A consultant is a service provider who comes in to conduct a specific task (e.g., to conduct a patent search or file a provisional patent),” she says. “This is typically for a fee, the relationship is selected by the incubator company, and the task is often owned by the consultant and managed by the incubator company.”

In contrast, a mentor is an experienced entrepreneur or content expert who provides advice, direction and/or ongoing support to a client’s leadership team, typically on a volunteer basis (e.g., to help work on an investor presentation). In this case, MacMaster says, the task is likely shared by the incubator company and the mentor and may be facilitated or tracked by the incubator staff and/or mentor.

“By comparison, a coach is someone who helps the leadership team to overcome obstacles or challenges so that the incubator company itself owns and manages the task,” she says. “This includes helping the company to define those challenges, identify the right solutions for right outcomes, and mark progress and hold accountability.”

For example, suppose a client was buying a bicycle. A consultant would help the client understand the different types of bicycles and their characteristics, and assist in selecting the right model for the client’s needs. A mentor would assist the client based on his or her knowledge of bicycles, what they’ve ridden before and how to go about making the transaction. A coach would encourage the client to ride the bicycle. The coach would ride alongside, offering tips and support, while challenging the client to get the most from the ride. Ultimately, the coach is not responsible for the outcome, but for making sure that the client is clear on the steps and tasks necessary to move forward.

Creating a coaching environment

NBIAA coachable moment occurs when individuals are open to taking in new information that will affect a shift in their knowledge and behavior. This can happen in a scheduled coaching meeting or during a simple conversation at the water cooler. To be effective, a coachable moment requires that a coaching environment be properly established. 

A coaching environment is made up of trust, intention, relationship and words, with trust being the most important element. When trust is present, the client is more likely to be open to accept new information. A coach’s intention is always for the client — his/her goals, objectives and definition of success.

A successful coaching relationship exists when participants have mutual respect for one another and an established reason to work together. The words a coach uses should not be judgmental and should be delivered in a neutral manner, so that they may be fully heard by the client.

It’s the role of the coach to create the coaching environment. Once established, the first step is to establish focus for the conversation, the task at hand and the gap between where the client is and where they want to be. Both parties need to fully understand what is expected at the end of the conversation. To establish the focus, a coach might ask:

  • What would you like to accomplish today?
  • How can we best spend the few minutes together?
  • What’s the best use of our time to help you accomplish your objectives?
  • Then, it’s important to identify the task. For example, a coach may ask:
  • What is the business problem you are trying to solve?
  • How would you recognize success if you achieved it?

Finally, the client needs to identify the gap. A coach may need to help a client understand what’s necessary for the client to move toward his or her goal. He may ask:

  • What will look different when you have succeeded?

Remember, these questions are not for the coach to answer. Instead, a coach’s job is to help clients take ownership of their goals and the actions required to accomplish them, so they can move forward along a path of development toward action.

Having the clients rather than the coaches guide the discussions can help ensure that the entrepreneurs are committed to the process of working on their business. “When the clients are the ones leading and setting the agenda, they tend to be more engaged in the process of making change happen,” Duggins says.

A coach can help the client discover what is possible. Whatever the topic of conversation, the coach asks questions to discover what has worked previously (or what hasn’t worked) and to help the entrepreneurs move on to new ideas. For example, a coach may ask:

  • What needs to happen?
  • How would exploring this option help you reach your goal?
  • What kind of outcomes would then occur?’

It’s important that the coach listen nonjudgmentally to the client’s ideas. Coaching is 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking. Coaches are not responsible for solving the problem; instead their role is to help the client see the consequences of their own suggestions. The coaching environment should be a safe place for discovering possible outcomes.

Helping clients take action

After establishing the focus for the conversation, the next step is planning the action and removing any barriers to success. All great ideas need structure, so developing action plans, identifying and removing barriers, and defining time frames are the next logical steps. A coach may ask:

  • How will these actions contribute to achieving your goal?
  • That seems like a big task. Would it help to break it into smaller pieces?
  • What resources do you need?
  • What else should you consider?
  • What’s stopping you from moving forward?

A coach can also help keep the client focused on each step in the action plan. “Although they may have a big-picture perspective, many times they do not understand the big picture is made up of many little pictures,” says Jeff Reid, incubator director with the WTAMU Enterprise Network. “It may be a lack of understanding of how different business functions are actually intertwined and related to each other. Marketing can drive sales but a product needs to be produced in order to have something to sell.”

The last step in coaching is to review the conversation and commit to action — a conversation the client must lead. By doing this, the client will be much more invested in owning the result. At the end of the conversation, the coach may ask clients to review their action items, identify any missing components and set a date to meet with the coach to review their progress. 

Aaron Sage, chief operating officer for Sage Oil Vac, a graduate of the West Texas A&M University Enterprise Network in Amarillo, Texas, says having someone to whom to be accountable is the main benefit of having a coach. “As an entrepreneur, it is imperative that you not get caught up in unimportant business issues,” he says. “A coach will ask you how you are working on improving your business instead of spending time on non-value-added items. Additionally, as entrepreneurs, we might gravitate toward the items we enjoy doing and possibly neglect an important part of the business.”

Coaching also helps clients develop strong entrepreneurial skills, not just strong businesses, according to Sabrina Smith, owner of The Fitness Lounge in Amarillo, Texas. “My business coach helps me stay focused on goals that we set together,” she says. “He holds me responsible for those goals and makes sure I stay accountable for them. As a result, I am able to make better decisions about my business, I am more goal-driven, I think more like a business owner, and I now have the backbone to say ‘no’ when I feel that something isn’t beneficial. He gives me the space to think and create.”

How incubator managers integrate coaching

West Texas A&M University Enterprise Network has fully implemented the coach approach in every aspect of client engagement. The incubator has three credentialed coaches on staff, and clients are assigned a lead coach who meets with them at least twice a month for a one-hour coaching meeting. Clients complete a benchmark assessment tool every quarter that measures their progress, but clients, in partnership with their coach, select the top needs and goals within each 90-day period.

Other incubator managers have also adopted the coach approach in their programs. Duggins says he just started to introduce coaching at the Meridian Technology Center, but it provides a new way to help clients become more dependent on their own skills rather than encourage them to rely on the specific background and knowledge of the incubator staff. “Although this is a new approach for our incubator, this lends itself to building skills centered on sustainability and therefore improves the incubator company’s chance for long-term success,” he says.

MacMaster, a former entrepreneur and incubator client herself, says coaching has helped her to serve incubator clients more effectively because it helps her to keep the role as incubator manager separate from that of entrepreneur. “Coaching and my training through the NBIA Coaching Clinic helped me to shift my mindset from entrepreneur or mentor (involved in the operations and tasks of our incubator companies) to coach (focused on helping the entrepreneur to become empowered and able to independently problem-solve and hold accountable).”

She has established regular meetings with Arizona Center for Innovation clients to facilitate coaching discussions, shifting the burden of tasks from incubator staff back to the client. “This not only provides me with the time I need to work on the business of our incubator, but it provides the entrepreneur with a problem-solving skillset that will hopefully be sustainable long after they graduate from the incubator,” MacMaster says. “As a result, we’ve received positive feedback from our clients about the renewed attention and support they feel they are getting, and we see them more engaged with the incubator and with their company.”

Adopting a coach approach throughout the organization does more than just benefit clients, however. “In my experience, bringing coaching to any organization empowers, engages and energizes the employees,” Christiansen says. “It creates an environment where each person is able to define their own individual success — identifying their gifts, strengths and passions — and apply them to the overall mission of the organization.” 

Featured Sources

Cassandra Christiansen, master certified coach, Bend, Ore.

Ron Duggins, director, Meridian Technology Center, Stillwater, Okla.

Joann MacMaster, director, Arizona Center for Innovation, Tucson, Ariz.

Jeff Reid, incubator director, West Texas A&M University Enterprise Network, Amarillo, Texas

Aaron Sage, chief operating officer, Sage Oil Vac, a graduate of the West Texas A&M University Enterprise Network, Amarillo, Texas

Sabrina Smith, owner, The Fitness Lounge, Amarillo, Texas

Coaching resources

NBIA Coaching Clinic®
Adapted from material from Corporate Coach U and presented by incubation professional David Terry, this in-depth training gives entrepreneur support professionals an opportunity to practice coaching techniques and work through real-life scenarios.

The 28 Laws of Attraction: Stop Chasing Success and Let it Chase You (2007)
Written by Thomas Leonard, often referred to as the father of personal coaching, this book is designed to help readers identify their strengths and determine their own definition for personal and business success.

International Coach Federation
The International Coach Federation is a global membership organization for more than 21,000 executive coaches, leadership coaches, life coaches and others.

Corporate Coach U
Corporate Coach U is the leading global provider of coach training programs.

Academy of Executive Coaching
This site offers a podcast on finding a coach to meet your needs and a video on why you need an executive coach.

Keywords: coaching clients, client services – general, consultant, incubator management – general, mentoring program

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