Dream Job: Venture Coach

Play-by-Play Mentoring in the Workplace

Imagine you're a star soccer player racing down the field - eyes on the goalpost - and suddenly the whistle blows. Your coach pulls you aside and says to you, "Hey, you're a great runner but you aren't giving anyone else a fair shot. Pass the ball a bit." Such advice is sometimes tough to swallow, but ultimately makes for a dynamic game.

In business, the same rules of teamwork apply, and Stever Robbins is right there to guide your game. A top-notch venture coach, Robbins helps people build and develop the skills they need to succeed in their company.

His expertise is with small startups, where workers sometimes need guidance as a company gains its footing. He advises at all job levels from project managers to CEOs.

"We work together on the business, refining strategy, gathering resources, and building the organizational capability to execute that strategy," Robbins said.

He's created overall operational plans, product specifications, back-end business processes, and technology strategy for CEOs and project managers at such high-profile projects as the Quicken Visa card for Intuit, which won the PC Magazine Award for Technical Excellence.

As the organization develops expertise in many of the initial advising topics, the emphasis shifts to coaching.

For instance, Robbins worked one-on-one with a woman who was a project manager, helping her to shift from a first-line manager all the way to a senior executive. Through skill building meetings, he taught her how to build her team beneath her and to take on a new "executive attitude." The company paid for his services.

"Coaching isn't therapy, Robbins said. "Coaching is about setting a future goal and acting to make the goal real. It is about creating and implementing a plan, once the mental paths have been cleared."

Many people confuse a venture coach with a venture capitalist, someone who consults with companies in which he or she has a vested financial interest. Others sometimes think Robbins is just an independent consultant. But Robbins says his role is strikingly different from both.

"Venture capitalists certainly care that their managers succeed, but they spend their time looking for existing, seasoned management, not developing the coaching skill sets to help managers develop," he said.

What makes his job different from a typical consulting advisor, he says, is that he becomes the trusted confidant of his clients. "We can end up talking about fears and insecurities and really address truly underlying causes," he said.

One of his clients, a CEO who had an insatiable need to feel liked, was unable to fire poor performers and was costing his company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Robbins pointed out to him that the root problem was his clients' inability to have the hard conversations that come with being a CEO.

"It would have been be out of line for a typical consultant to do what I did," Robbins said. He started teaching the CEO how to gain leadership through practice scenarios.

As an entrepreneur or employee at nine startups, Robbins has been involved with startup and early-stage companies since 1978. His clients include ZEFER Corp, University Access, Inc., RenalTech, Crimson Solutions, and PRIMESource. He's also listed in Who's Who in America's Entrepreneurs.

He said he decided to become a venture coach after a rather disappointing stint as a manager. The only part of his managerial job he said he really enjoyed was acting as a mentor to his team and helping them to develop their skills.

He also draws on his experience as an investor; he used to meet regularly with entrepreneurs to help them with their issues. "I suddenly realized the one thing I loved was these meetings, so I hired a coach myself, who basically said if this is what you love and if you are good at it, go for it!"

In 1998 he followed his dream, and opened Venture Coach. He works out of his home in Cambridge, Mass. "It's been the best decision of my life," he said.

His clients are all over the country and overseas, which means he works by phone a lot from home. But he rarely gets lonely in his home office, despite his initial apprehension.

"When I am on the phone with my clients it feels as if I am physically present. Most people will open up on the phone about much more personal issues than they would in person," he said. "It's been an unexpected benefit." The downside is that he said he misses visual cues he would normally pick up if he were meeting with his clients in person.

The salary for a venture coach is small when a coach first starts out. Robbins's business pulls in about $80,000 a year, and his salary after overhead costs is about $60,000. He anticipates doubling his salary next year as he continues to expand his practice.

Someone who wants a career as a venture coach should have a knowledge of how business works, even though much of what Robbins does involves personal skills building, he said. A strong psychology background also helps.

Robbins has an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in computer science from MIT. He's also a certified master of neuro-linguistic programming, a branch of psychology that uses hypnosis and teaches people to listen for underlying assumptions during their conversations with others.

If you like mentoring people, and enjoy business and psychology, then you should brush up on your people skills, grab the telephone...and dream on!