Needed: a friend - MoneySense

Needed: a friend

Even the rich can benefit from someone to confide in.


So who do you confide in? If you’re a millionaire, the answer may be nobody. Especially if you’re a corporate executive, revealing too much to the people around you can be dangerous.

Colleagues may feel like friends when you’re burning the midnight oil to finish a project, but you should never forget that you’re among your fiercest competitors, says Jamie Gruman, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “The higher up [the corporate ladder] you go, the more strategic you have to be,” he says. “The more you know, the less you can talk about what’s going on. In large organizations, you’re jockeying for position, so you don’t want to give away the tactics you’re working on.”

Don’t expect your spouse to understand your plight. He or she may enjoy the lifestyle attached to your paycheque, but probably not the hours you’re putting in to earn it. Toronto management consultant Michael Stern tells of a client whose job required him to be reachable via BlackBerry 24/7. Before long, his wife grew tired of the constant interruptions to what little home life they had. But instead of offering a hug, Stern says, she simply decreed “the BlackBerry must be off at mealtimes and during intimate moments.”

So who can you talk to? If you’re lucky, you have a friend who is just as overachieving as you are, and who can understand your special issues. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the perfect example: not only are they business associates, they’re also buddies who collaborate on everything from charitable giving to bridge playing.

Most millionaires aren’t so lucky and, as a result, many are now quite happy to pay for an understanding ear. An increasing number of these high-powered executives and entrepreneurs are turning to the services of coaches to help them through the rough patches. In fact, says Stern, who’s been in the executive search business for 20 years, coaching now eclipses everything else that his firm offers. The Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont., recently added coaching to its menu of executive development programs, with 25 staff to help outwardly successful people figure out why they feel unfulfilled.

“People look for coaching because they can have a frank conversation,” says Barbara Dickson, the program’s director.

There can be a lot to talk about. Gruman, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology, says that among overachievers “imposter syndrome is common” — the feeling that no matter how stratospheric your net worth or enviable your career, you merely lucked into your riches and don’t truly deserve them.

More often, though, that niggling sense of dissatisfaction may be the fault of the very character traits that launched your success in the first place. Wonder why you’re on the brink of yet another divorce? “The type of person who rises to the top is a hard-driving, hard-playing, A-type personality,” Gruman says. “That type of person tends not to be satisfied with the status quo. Those are the same attributes that lead them to engage in wife turnover.”

OK, you’re thinking, so that does sound a little bit like me. But if I’m such a bastard, how come no one’s ever called me on it before? Gruman has an explanation for that, too. Rich, successful people hang out with other rich, successful people who act and live pretty much the same way you do.

Which is why, for those in search of a reality check, the services of a disinterested outsider, like an executive coach, makes a whole lot of sense. Admitting to insecurities or asking for help isn’t an option at work or at home, where there’s pressure to keep up with the Joneses. But with a coach, who is outside your sphere and has nothing to gain from seeing you stumble, you can let your guard down. “It’s a relief,” says Gruman.

Most firms will offer you a choice of coaches so that you can choose the one whose background and approach fit what you’re looking for. If you want to bounce business ideas off your coach, you’ll want someone with a business background. For “soft” issues, someone with a background in psychology or counselling, like Toronto executive coach Katherine Vanderberg, might be right for you.

Vanderberg, a partner at the firm Feldman Daxon, recalls working with a vice-president of operations who bemoaned the all-consuming nature of his career. “He was trying to do it all — he was trying to be a VP but also trying to stay hands-on.” Through discussions with the VP, and so-called “360-degree interviews” with a number of other people in his company, she determined that the executive’s long office hours were a way of compensating for his lack of a personal life. “We recognized that as a problem and then put an action plan together to help him get more balance.” Similarly, Stern helped a client who realized he was missing out on his children’s upbringing. Together, they determined “one of his objectives was to attend 75% of his kid’s hockey games.”

The cost of coaching can vary. Queen’s University Executive Coaching Service runs about $4,500 over six months, which includes two hours a month of one-on-one conversation with the coach of your choice, plus as many follow-up emails as you need. At Feldman Daxon, the price tag is steeper — $10,000 to $20,000 — but includes a little more face time: meetings up to 90 minutes twice a month, then phone calls every other week to check in on your progress.

Some execs, like Barbara Judt, stumble upon the personal benefits of these services after being sent to one on the corporate tab for “professional development” purposes. The Winnipeg grain industry executive, who’s been taking time off since receiving her severance package, liked the result so much that she sought out a coach on her own dime to help her change directions in her career. “I knew coaching would help me accelerate my transition and help me sharpen my focus better than me trying to figure it out on my own,” she says. Vanderberg notes that many of the clients she’s helped to achieve specific goals continue to check in with her about smaller stuff months and even years after the fact.

If you’re new to the concept of coaching, a quick Internet search using the keywords “executive coach (your city)” will probably turn up at least a dozen options. Keep in mind that a coach is not a mental health professional, so if your problems run deeper — your decision-making skills are cloudy, or you turn to alcohol or drugs to cope — Gruman suggests that it may be time to ask your MD for a referral to a licensed therapist or counsellor.

Trouble is, you may not twig to the fact that you need help until you’re way, way down the rabbit hole. As Stern notes, “It’s difficult without outside intervention for someone to sit up and say, ‘I’m off the track.’” This is where a coach can come in handy. Jeff Morris, a lawyer and head of Jeff Morris Coaching in Toronto says holding his clients accountable is a big part of why coaching works. “One of my favorite questions to ask is ‘What’s the next step?’ ”

On occasion, Morris has sent clients troubled by addiction or marital breakdowns to see an appropriate mental health professional, but he believes that coaches can help most people stay on target with their goals. “Coaching offers objective feedback,” he continues. “It’s not like [confiding in] friends and family, who have different agendas. The coach’s only agenda is to help the client reach his goals.”