CEOs Call in the Coaches as Covid-19 Tests Their Companies
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Business leaders with long-term leadership coaches say tough feedback has prepared them for the challenges of the pandemic.
By Joann S. Lublin (Wall Street Journal)
Executives are turning to their longtime coaches to help them navigate the uncertainty—and unprecedented leadership challenges—presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
Two chief executives of major U.S. companies have used the same coaches since before they reached the corner office and still rely on them during the current chaotic business climate. Mindy Grossman of WW International Inc., formerly known as Weight Watchers, and Mark Vergnano of Chemours Co., a performance-chemicals company spun out of DuPont five years ago, say their coaches’ insight into their leadership behavior and workplace dynamics helped them advance faster and manage more skillfully.
Several executive coaches report they’re busier than ever.
Ms. Grossman first met her coach, David Dotlich, while at Nike Inc. in 2001. She had joined the Oregon-based sneaker maker in an upper management role, tasked with revitalizing its global apparel division. She encountered a culture clash almost immediately. A veteran of the New York fashion industry, Ms. Grossman had a brash, forceful style that didn’t mesh well with more laid-back members of Nike’s all-male senior team.
Inside Nike then, “you didn’t say things with passion,’’ and you didn’t confront people, recalls Dr. Dotlich, a senior client partner at recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International who holds a doctorate in organizational behavior. WW International CEO Mindy Grossman said her coach’s insight into her leadership behavior helped her manage more skillfully. Ms. Grossman’s problems didn’t end with her fellow Nike executives. Subordinates said they felt she ignored them. “I am very passionate and act very quickly,” she says. “I didn’t realize that some of my behaviors were demotivating.”
Dr. Dotlich proposed that she focus on how she affected others and tailor her actions accordingly. Her situation improved once she let team members talk before she did and solicited their frank reaction to her leadership.
Heeding another idea from her coach, Ms. Grossman spent considerable time bonding with Nike executives outside her division and championed their internal priorities. That helped her build alliances across the company and win more marketing resources.
By the time Ms. Grossman left Nike in 2006, the apparel business had grown 44% to $3.9 billion. She got recruited to run a home-shopping network called HSN, becoming a CEO for the first time.
The company went public as the 2008 economic collapse commenced. Its drastically depressed share price so upset Ms. Grossman that she gained 20 pounds, she recollects. Dr. Dotlich suggested she shed the weight by working out more. She says she ignored that piece of advice from her coach.
“Having David’s support for years has really prepared me for all kinds of challenging work situations and most importantly, for the unknown,” says Ms. Grossman, who took command of Weight Watchers in 2017. Mark Vergnano, CEO of Chemours, said his coach taught him to be consistent, clear and confident. ‘Those words have been my mantra as we deal with the global pandemic.’ Longtime coaches “continue to show you where your warts are,” says Mr. Vergnano of Chemours. By the time he assumed the helm of the chemical maker in 2015, he had been working for five years with psychologist Karol Wasylyshyn.
Mr. Vergnano says Dr. Wasylyshyn thoroughly understands him and his stressful, lonely role. He says she also taught him to be consistent, clear and confident. “Those words have been my mantra as we deal with the global pandemic,” he says.
He first turned to Dr. Wasylyshyn in 2010 after DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman put him in charge of six units and three corporate functions. The latter says she hoped coaching would modify his “teddy bear” style.
“He trusted people too much,” Ms. Kullman says. “He wasn’t holding his organization accountable.”
Mr. Vergnano found it hard to push people to improve their performance. “I accepted too many excuses,” he says.
Dr. Wasylyshyn encouraged the DuPont executive to supervise staffers differently, holding him accountable for tough, honest conversations with managers. He practiced giving negative feedback and confirming their concrete goals during occasional role playing with his coach. She also repeatedly urged Mr. Vergnano to replace underperformers sooner. “I was a constant reminder voice in his head,” Dr. Wasylyshyn says. In 2013, DuPont directors agreed to spin off a business known for materials in nonstick frying pans and house paints. They chose Mr. Vergnano to lead the new company partly because coaching had made him tougher and more decisive, according to Ms. Kullman.
When he got the nod, Mr. Vergnano told his coach: “You just created a new CEO.”
He adds, “Karol helped me realize that you can be a nice and tough boss at the same time.”
Chemours made its public-company debut with high debt. Mr. Vergnano pursued an aggressive plan that included slashing dividend payouts and selling some operations. Along the way, he persuaded all but one lieutenant to use executive coaches, too.
Dr. Dotlich and Dr. Wasylyshyn say they have gleaned best practices from years of advising senior executives, and seen dozens become CEOs. Dr. Dotlich, for instance, has been persistent over the years in advising Ms. Grossman to be transparent with employees, explaining the rationale behind hard decisions “even when I don’t have all the answers,” she adds. As the virus spread and WW suspended its 3,000 weight-management studios, Ms. Grossman had to do just that, and within days launched virtual versions of those in-person gatherings.
On May 15, the company announced a phased reopening of select studios and an unspecified number of job cuts world-wide. Like many businesses during the pandemic, WW informed terminated staffers through group calls—and that stirred a dust-up on social media.
The layoffs were done as respectfully as possible, with affected workers offered individual one-on-one time following the group calls, Ms. Grossman says. Nevertheless, “I want to wake up every day and be a better leader,’’ she adds. “We don’t know what we will go through next.’’