Tough Love For Techie Souls

Silicon Valley's latest fad: Rebooting crashed execs

There's no sign in front of 1451 Grant Rd. in Mountain View, Calif., to advertise the Growth & Leadership Center. If there were, this place might attract rubberneckers the same way William H. Gates III's $53 million, football-field-size mansion does. Here, in this gray-glass office building, some of high tech's juiciest and most tantalizing dramas are unfolding--and they have nothing to do with C++ or initial public offerings. Instead, the sultans of Silicon Valley swing into the wooded parking lot in their freshly waxed Mercedes and BMWs to dump secrets of another sort: interpersonal ones that are threatening to implode their careers. "My personal mission is to save careers and lives," says executive coach and GLC founder Jean Hollands. "I help people from getting squeezed up and tooled out."

Hollands--who has become something of the Dr. Soul of Silicon Valley--works with 20 other coaches inside GLC's homey, pastel-walled offices. This is where the big-brain types drop their egos, plop down on sofas, and spill their guts. The objective: to ferret out the bugs in their personalities so they can relaunch new and improved versions of themselves, undergoing--with the help of videocameras and 360 performance reviews--a kind of career rehab.

FLAME MAIL. It's the latest managerial craze in Silicon Valley. As microchip power has doubled every 18 months, workloads and stress levels have ballooned, too. More and more executives are fizzling from the pressure, developing blowout tempers, micromanaging down to the paper clips, and firing off foul-mouthed flame mail. About 60% of GLC's clients are prodigies who were on meteoric tears through their companies before their careers derailed as a result of what Hollands calls "red ink behaviors"--destructive patterns that cost their employers money. Valley luminaries such as Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Netscape pay GLC an average of $12,000 a head for weekly coaching sessions lasting 10 weeks. The hope is that burned-out stars can be rehabilitated--in much the same way the Betty Ford Clinic does for alcoholics or the Pritikin Center does for overeaters.

The remaining 40% of GLC's clients sign up for the program voluntarily to pull themselves out of a career slump or are sent by their companies because they need new leadership skills. Often, these employees "had some kind of weakness that a training class wasn't addressing," says Patricia Goss, former head of executive development and training at Lockheed Martin. She estimates that 75% of the engineers she put through GLC showed better behavior after graduating.

Often, Hollands' work reveals the darker side of Silicon Valley, where technology isn't liberating but alienating and stock options are nothing more than platinum handcuffs. More than one-third of her clients are miserable in their jobs and dream of finding work that has more meaning. One client moaned about her position so much that Hollands helped her to calculate how much money she was making each day until her options vested 18 months later and she could quit her job (she became known around GLC's halls as "the $4,300-a-day girl"). "A lot of folks are in despair," says Hollands. "I help them to reframe their situation so they can see it differently."

WHITE KNUCKLES. Once upon a time, bosses fired problematic employees when they were coming unhinged. But nowhere does the labor shortage pinch tighter than in Silicon Valley, where executives barely have time to keep up with e-mail and sometimes resort to scheduling sex with their spouses through secretaries. Forget about time for hiring and coaching in this white-knuckle world. Besides, companies are realizing that packing off executives to Stanford University might be great for their brains but does little to change their behavior. This at a time when relationships with employees and customers are becoming almost as important as the technology itself.

Rushing in to fill the gap are coaches, who usually have business and psychology degrees, although the field hasn't been immune to the occasional hairdresser trading in his comb for a couch. The industry is in a record boom, with the International Coach Federation's membership jumping 600% since 1997. The need for these workplace Freuds is especially acute in Silicon Valley, where time for learning curves is nonexistent. Coaches are stepping in to do everything from advising the new, 30-year-old CEO that it's time to leave the college-era polyester pants behind and get a Nordstrom shopper to teaching engineers how to make lunch dates and small talk. At Sun, a company-assigned coach is as much a tip-off that you're a hotshot as is a rapid string of promotions or 24-7 access to Scott McNealy.

All this is a far cry from 20 years ago when Hollands, a former IBM programmer with an MS in psychology from San Jose State University, begged companies to let her do free brown-bag lunches with employees. Today the bedside phone at her Mountain View ranch home sometimes rings in the middle of the night with an anxiety-ridden client on the line. In the past five years, the 60-year-old's business has doubled, to nearly $5 million in sales. Hollands' office is littered with urgent messages that read, for example: "Microsoft acquiring company--problems arising." They seek out Hollands because of her uncanny ability to drill down to a person's major defect within the first 30 minutes of meeting. She calls this her "confront and support" technique. Weaving people into her warm, maternal web, she then switches gears and goes for the jugular, nailing them on the very behavior they need to change. When they try to squirm out of it, she shouts: "Answer the damn question!"

Two years ago, when Hollands first met Nick Kepler, she called him on his steely, blue-eyed stare, saying: "Hey, you're making me squirm in my chair here--I feel uncomfortable!"

"She was jumping all over me," says Kepler, 36, who left peeved that first day but returned a week later. Now a GLC booster, Kepler displayed some of the classic signs of what Hollands calls a Controller. At Advanced Micro Devices Inc., where Kepler is now director of technology development, he was great at working with his own division but got territorial and defensive when it came to dealing with other groups. He had no idea that his emotionless demeanor was intimidating people and destroying rapport. The coaching helped him realize that if he didn't change and work with other departments, his entire project could tank.

Hollands says she often runs up against four other personality types wreaking havoc in the Valley. The Intimidator stifles creativity in his staff, inhibits communication across departments, scares the hell out of his peers, and sabotages his boss. The Withholder omits essential information, leaving people out of the loop and never building a team. The Stressor prevents action, shifts blame, and wastes time. The Techno-bound focuses solely on technical issues and writes off people problems as illogical and a waste of time.

But some of GLC's clients, such as Raymond Wice, Lucent Technologies Inc.'s director of engineering in San Jose, don't fit the stereotypes. Wice was an introvert who made a beeline for his office every day, hoping no one would talk to him. He ate his daily lunches alone and avoided confrontation like the Melissa virus. "He was on the verge of being overlooked, and now he's running the biggest organization in his department," says GLC coach Ron Steck. Steck worked with Wice on his belief that people are to be mistrusted and relationships are threatening. He gave Wice assignments to take someone to lunch every day and wander into a colleague's office for a chat that was not work-related. "Whenever I have a problem now, I have this support structure with other managers," Wice says.

ICE QUEENS. Although most of GLC's clients are men, 15% are women, and of those, nearly all are what Hollands dubs "Bully Broads." She should know: She's a recovering Bully Broad herself: "an intimidating, aggressive woman who makes for a lot of noise around her." At one recent Bully Broad session, Hollands singled out one in the roomful of petite, blonde Broads and said: "Look at her, she's so adorable. Do you know everyone around her thinks she's one piece of horror?" Seeing others just like themselves, these power women understood how the perception others had of them--ice queens who could snap anybody's head off--was working against them.

The first thing Hollands teaches the Broads is how to be vulnerable, telling them to say to secretaries: "I feel a little inadequate because I haven't been able to motivate you to work with me." They also have to struggle with what they see as a workplace double standard: "I'm supposed to lead a group, but then oh, by the way, I'm supposed to show you I can cry," says Applied Signal Technology Controller Suzann Manteufel. "Man, that's hard."

While a lot of coaching in the industry focuses on how to use a day planner more effectively, GLC's brand goes a little deeper, often delving into clients' relationships with their families for clues to their current behavior. This makes many highly rational clients plead: "Don't shrink me." And not everybody's a convert. Some CEOs think GLC is a bunch of New Age nonsense in expensive packaging. Hollands responds by noting that of her 2,000 clients, 85% are promoted within a year of the training or receive increased responsibility of their own choosing. Nearly all get better performance reviews--results, she figures, any left-brainer would have a hard time arguing with.

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