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Can’t afford a ‘CEO whisperer’? Meet the Tinders of executive coaching

Top consultants command premium prices, but these startups now coach the rest of the tech workforce.

Can’t afford a ‘CEO whisperer’? Meet the Tinders of executive coaching

Coaching sessions from the startup service Marlow are largely video-based.

Image courtesy of Marlow

In Silicon Valley, those who didn't know Bill Campbell knew of him. The former Columbia University football coach turned tech executive, who died in 2016, became one of tech's most effective behind-the-scenes players as the go-to executive coach and confidant to luminaries like Steve Jobs, Sundar Pichai, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Sheryl Sandberg.

His services, free as they were, were available only to a precious few — and not to people like Trinha Ton.

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Ton is a human resources specialist for CircleCI, a startup that makes automation tools for clients such as Facebook and Spotify. But like the bold-faced names Campbell once helped, she is getting executive coaching herself — not from one of the fancy consultants following in Campbell's footsteps for tech's elite, but from Marlow, one of a flurry of new startups that target that services at the masses.

She says it's helping her be better at her job. "I had recently received feedback from my manager that one of the areas that I can improve on, is 'influencing others,'" Ton said. "You have these great ideas, there are a lot of opportunities for you to step into these and really take advantage of the situation and work on influencing others with the knowledge you have. But my nature is a lot more passive. … My coach helps me identify throughout the day some opportunities that I might be able to practice strengthening that muscle. Even little, self-defined things like speaking up more."

Like competitors Torch and Sounding Board, Marlow takes a hybrid approach to coaching, marrying technology with the human touch. Instead of in-person meetings, these startups emphasize the convenience of video chats, phone calls and text messaging with certified coaches to keep prices down, so a coach in California won't need to travel to visit a client in New York. Some use matching algorithms to match clients with coaches — all with the goal of offering coaching to a much wider scale for a small fraction of the prices charged by more traditional so-called "CEO whisperers."

"In the past, a privileged few benefitted from the wisdom of experienced mentors like a Bill Campbell," said Karen Jaw-Madson, a management consultant and author of the book "Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experience @ Work." "But cultural shifts and technological advances have created a need and an opportunity for more people to access personal development resources through coaching."

As a result, the number of coaches has exploded to meet demand from recent graduates needing guidance and employees feeling "stuck" professionally to first-time managers, founders and CEOs. That can be a blessing and a curse. With more coaches and styles to easily choose from, it can be difficult for companies and individuals to find the right match for them.

Marlow offers the most inexpensive services, charging individuals $195 a month ($2,340 annually) and companies $275 a month ($3,300 annually) for two 30-minute virtual meetings or conversations with coaches; Sounding Board's services start at $4,800 a year and increase based on factors like the leadership level of the client and additional customizations to their client's coaching program. Torch doesn't list its prices and declined to disclose the information but says its lower-end pricing is cheaper than fees charged by private, more traditional coaches.

Ben Anderson, one of those traditional coaches, charges clients between $30,000 and $100,000. Anderson works with the Handel Group, a high-end corporate consulting and life coaching company founded in 2004, which uses a method taught at Stanford Graduate School of Business, NYU and MIT. He advises many venture capital firms on Menlo Park's Sand Hill Road, as well as their portfolio companies. While he firmly believes in the effectiveness of traditional coaching, he lauds startups, albeit cautiously, for trying to bring these services to more people. He sees the new startup services as a test run to see if coaching can scale with the aid of technology.

"I think it's admirable, and I think we have to do a trial, you know, for humanity, because we can't do one-on-one in-person coaching with everybody, so I think a trial is an absolute must," he said.

···

The way Christine Tao, CEO and co-founder of Sounding Board, describes her four-year-old Foster City-based startup, the services resemble a veritable Tinder for "best-in-class executive coaches." Sounding Board, which focuses on a business-to-business model, counts Mozilla, Zenefits, Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, cloud collaboration service Airtable and mobile gaming publisher Glu as some of its clients, which offer Sounding Board's services as a work benefit.

"Our vision, at least for the company, and why we're able to consistently drive very high-quality coaching at scale, is that the coaches that come onto our platform, through the community as well as to the tools and technology that we provide them, actually get better at coaching if they're on the Sounding Board network," explained Tao, adding that her coaches are algorithmically matched with clients based on a number of factors, including the coach's communication style and the employee's personality — information gathered by having both parties fill out questionnaires.

Coaches from Marlow and Sounding Board are certified through coach training programs approved by the International Coach Federation, or ICF, a nonprofit regarded as the primary credentialing organization for training programs and coaches. The majority of Torch coaches are also ICF-certified, however, all feature extensive operational experience and have previously served as leaders or executives themselves. (Depending on the startup, coaches may also be vetted through interviews, client recommendations, and live coaching demos.) Unsurprisingly, many coaches tend to have a background in counseling, therapy or psychology.

Angelo Ferro, co-founder of the early-stage mobile data startup Baotris, started using Sounding Board's coaching services in October 2016 through his then employer Unity Technologies. At the time, Ferro, a self-described Type A personality, served as global director of business development, a job that included managing several employees and selling Unity's products. But Ferro struggled occasionally with feelings of insecurity about hitting his team's performance goals and delegating certain duties to employees who directly reported to him. Through monthly hourlong phone calls, Mimi Watson, a leadership coach based in San Anselmo, instilled a confidence in him about his abilities and taught him that the only way to help employees beneath him develop their own skills and experience was if Ferro learned to let go and delegate certain duties or projects he might otherwise tackle himself.

Ferro found Sounding Board and Watson's coaching so effective that he and his co-founders brought their services over when they started Baotris, even though they had only four employees.

"One thing Mimi's really helped me with is helping me try to develop a mindset, especially in the startup phase: It's not about getting my whole checklist done," Ferro said. "It's less about perfection, and more about, 'We're making progress.' I am the kind of person who is a perfectionist and who will say, 'OK, here's a list of things I need to do, so let me just go do it.' But it's just not sustainable as a startup. She will help me think, 'Well, we're moving things forward. That's good enough.'"

Another company, Pivotal Software, which was acquired by VMWare earlier this year for $2.7 billion, also used Sounding Board to coach at least 130 of its employees, from midlevel managers to vice presidents, through six-month programs. According to Eileen Markatos, a senior director of people operations at Pivotal, the company paired coaches with key employees when there appeared to be a skillset gap, or there was a gap in the person's focus at work or level of engagement. Through coaching — and periodic "360" evaluations from people around the employee — Markatos says the company saw a significant improvement in workers and their ability to better manage teams and more effectively hit hiring and revenue goals.

Another coaching services startup, Torch, is an evolution of CEO and co-founder Cameron Yarbrough's previous couples therapy practice. Eventually, Yarbrough moved away from couples therapy and focused specifically on co-founders, helping them air out their issues and work better together. That work grew into Torch, which uses a matching algorithm to pair coaches and clients. The matching process involves both parties taking a personality exam, asking the client about their personality preferences and matching those preferences with a coach who exhibits those attributes.

Torch clients include Initialized Capital managing partners Alexis Ohanian Sr. and Garry Tan, Twitch co-founder Justin Kan, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, and Science Exchange CEO and founder Elizabeth Iorns. (Ohanian and Tan both also became early Torch investors.)

Tan says Torch's coaching enabled him to successfully have what had previously been difficult workplace discussions, including conversations around performance and compensation. Being able to consistently practice those conversations before he actually had them made those discussions run a lot smoother.

"Those are crucial conversations, because if you don't set them up correctly, you're just not prepared," Tan said. "Often, those are the points where people may get upset, or they don't feel valued, and these are all things that matter. It might only be a 20- to 30-minute conversation, but that might color a whole quarter."

···

If traditional coaches who easily charge six times as much as coaching startups are concerned about their jobs being upended or displaced, they certainly don't show it.

Rich Hagberg, an executive coach and trained psychologist based out of Whidbey, Wash., has worked with thousands of executives from over 100 tech companies, including eBay, Microsoft, Pinterest, Salesforce and Twitter, he says. He typically charges his 25 to 30 clients — a mix of individuals and companies — $30,000 or more a year, with startups who have 50 employees or fewer receiving a $5,000 "discount."

That's a figure Dropbox CEO Drew Houston affirmed recently was well worth it for him when he worked with Hagberg years ago in Dropbox's pre-IPO days.

"Working with Rich is like shining a very powerful mirror that you shine on yourself," Houston said. Hagberg didn't shy away from telling him his positives and negatives as a leader, he said: "He went through my strengths: 'You're really creative, like new ideas, really flexible, you're comfortable in chaos, you like building great relationships with people, and you really care about people. But you're bored by routine. You're unreliable. You drop balls. You don't like planning. You don't create processes and systems for other people, and you're conflict avoidant.' But what you learn [working with Rich] is that each of those strengths are a sort of weakness, that each are two halves of the same coin, that your weaknesses are actually a function of your strengths."

While the coaching startups rely largely on algorithms and simple questionnaires to match coaches with people, Hagberg puts clients through a battery of mostly analog tests and screening processes he designed himself. His version of a "360" includes soliciting feedback from up to 20 people who work with the client.

But not everyone in tech who needs or wants executive coaching can afford that kind of service. Replacing CEO whisperers like Hagberg — and the late Campbell — isn't really the goal.

"We set out to serve people who normally would not get access to these resources: the types of people in the company that normally wouldn't get access to an executive coach, because they're either expensive, or it's not really designed for a more simple schedule," said Marlow CEO Mary Fox.

The goal is to scale coaches for the rest of tech. So far, the clients of these services say it's working.

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