Business expert turns to coaching

January 09, 1998


Staff Writer

Flipping through a book of 800 numbers, Jean Parker discovered a listing for Steve Lanning, who "coaches" business owners.

Parker, who owns the Australian Store in Inwood, W.Va., picked up the telephone. As a small business owner, hiring a consultant - at the rate of hundreds of dollars an hour - was out of reach.

But Lanning's fees as a business coach range from $150 to $250 per month.

"Just on an off-chance I called," Parker said. "He polishes you off."

Lanning, who co-founded the National Association of Business Coaches in November, said a business coach can be invaluable for small businesses.

But he's not a consultant, he said.

"Coaching uses advice and question sets, making the business owner the hero," Lanning said. "Business coaches always have the business owner as the expert."


In that way, Lanning, a Clear Spring resident, said the technique marks a radical departure from traditional consulting.

A consultant typically brings a specific field of expertise to a company and works closely with the firm to accomplish a defined objective.

A coach, though, does not necessarily have that specific knowledge.

The technique, which involves asking questions and prodding the business owner to plan and set goals, can work on a wide variety of businesses, Lanning said.

It is based on the work of Harold L. Wright, a lawyer and accountant who wrote "How to make 1,000 mistakes in business and still succeed."

Wright, who developed the program about 15 years ago, said coaches work with business owners by asking them a series of questions. Those questions - and the answers - lead to more questions.

The technique is similar to the role a therapist plays and Wright said some of his clients have made the comparison. The chief difference is it is specially tailored to business, he said.

"Some of my clients call me a business shrink," he said.

A convert

To Lanning, 50, who has a 24-year background in consulting. the idea of business coaching seemed silly at first.

"I first turned down my nose at it," he said.

When Wright asked him in 1987 to review his book for an industry newsletter, he said, he thought it might contain information that consultants would find useful.

But Lanning said he gave little thought to the concept again, although Wright continued to send him materials.

Lanning said he finally called Wright about two years ago and told him he was not a prospective business coach.

Wright urged him to re-read the book. When he did - more thoroughly this time - Lanning said he experienced an epiphany.

The concept clicked for him and Lanning said he thought back to his consulting clients.

"I could have done a lot more for them as a coach than as a consultant," he said.

Often a consultant produces far more information than a small business owner needs, Lanning said.

While he still does some traditional consulting, Lanning said he is a full-fledged convert.

"I've been evangelical in getting business owners to see the drop-dead, great bargain that a business coach represents to their business," he said. "It's a tremendous bang for the buck."

Wright said he stumbled upon the coaching technique accidentally.

A friend who owned a small typesetting business asked him for help, but he said he did not want to mess with small companies.

But Wright said he eventually changed his mind and found the techniques that helped her could be applied to virtually any small firm.

"It's about planning and goal-setting, but it's really ironic because it didn't start with a plan," he said.

The program is geared for small businesses. Lanning said companies with fewer than 20 employees and less than $5 million in sales are optimum.

Unlike a consultant, a business coach can spend years with a client, Lanning said.

But it is not for everyone, Wright said. He said the technique cannot turn around failing businesses.

"We're about making a good business better," Wright said.

Homework is a big part of the program.

Wright and Lanning said clients are encouraged to write answers to the questions coaches pose and them develop business plans tailored to their needs.

Wright said his personal goal for his clients is to raise their income to six digits - something about half have achieved.

"I love it when a client comes to me and asks what do rich folks do," he said.

Lanning said there are between 3,000 and 4,000 business coaches in the nation, a figure he expects to increase dramatically over the next century.

"We feel it's high-time to take seriously advising small businesses."

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