One on One Coaching

Bill Werder started having regular meetings with top managers, and now has toughened up

Bill Werder, owner and CEO of Avanti Marble & Granite, arrives in the Owings Mills (Md.) office where he's meeting his coach, Alan Dobzinski. After talking briefly about revenue gains, Werder, 47, tells Dobzinski that he asked two of Avanti's finance executives for more regular updates on the company's financial position and sales outlook.

"First of all, good job," says Dobzinski. "You had to be clear on what you wanted."

"I came right out and said: 'This is what I need and expect,'" Werder responds. "It had nothing to do with my feelings."

Dobzinski, who has been working with Werder on becoming less of a soft touch, notes the progress. "What I'm hearing is that you are getting clearer," he says. "Therefore, everyone else is getting clearer. You had too much compassion. It got in your way. What we are talking about is still holding people accountable with love, but not letting your emotion get in the way."

The conversation may not sound like much, but it is a milestone in the transformation of Bill Werder. He founded his Frederick (Md.) company, which buys marble and granite from overseas suppliers and sells it to makers of countertops and the like, in 1997. Avanti grew fast (it now has 27 employees and $17 million in sales). But Werder found himself spending too much time attending client meetings and putting out fires and not enough building a strong management team. In 2004 a friend referred Werder to Dobzinski. "It was scary," Werder says. "I had to pull my head out of the sand and say, 'Here are the things I need help with.'"

Since then, Werder and Dobzinski have met twice a month, with Werder setting the agenda 24 hours in advance with a memo outlining the issues he wants to discuss. The coach has focused on one major goal: turning Werder into a professional manager.

At one session, for instance, Werder was wrestling with how often he should meet with his seven top employees to help them develop their management skills. "I don't have regularly scheduled meetings [with these employees] because I don't know what to commit to," he told Dobzinski, explaining that he had many other demands on his time.

Dobzinski forced him to prioritize, asking: "What is in the best interest of the company? With whom should you be spending your time?"

Werder chewed it over, deciding that the most impact would come from meetings with the top three executives—his finance manager, purchasing officer, and head of sales. Now he meets with them every two weeks. And he meets with the other four employees once a month. "That's 12 times more time than they've had with me in the past," Werder says.

Although Dobzinski helps Werder make decisions, he never tells him what to do. Simply knowing Dobzinski will ask what he's done since the last session helps Werder stick to the plan. "Not once has Alan made me feel bad for not getting something done," he says. "But I have to look him in the eye, and I don't like not keeping my word."

The sessions sometimes touch on personal life—how to strike a better balance between work and family, say—but only gently. Dobzinski draws strict boundaries. When Werder refers to factors including how his upbringing may have limited him as a leader, Dob-zinski makes a buzzer sound and says, "No therapy."

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