Coaching execs to win

Mike Whitehead put himself through college running a birthday cake delivery business and a microwave rental company.

That entrepreneurial spirit, born from a childhood in orphanages and foster homes, moved him a decade ago to launch a management consulting firm called Whitehead Associates.

Whitehead, with eight employees, leads culture development and leadership seminars for companies, as well as coaching sessions for managers and executives. The company started with one client, First Union, and has since served about 200, including such as Harris Teeter and Time Warner Cable.

Whitehead plans to double his business in five years, he said.

Its base is Whitehead Manor, a century-old house near Sardis and Rama roads. On Dec. 1, Whitehead plans to open a new 5,000-square-foot training center, the Center for Intentional Leadership, next door.

Whitehead, 44, spoke with the Observer recently about leadership, the economy and the community. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Why is there a need for this kind of business?

When I started the company, there was a lot of emphasis placed on developing leaders within our city, and at that time, there was also a significant amount of research and literature focused on what's now called emotional intelligence, which emphasizes self-awareness, how a person communicates, behaves and comes across to other people.

I realized a lot of executives were finding they would be more successful if they had higher levels of self-awareness and were able to relate to people better. Our assertion is that the more self-aware people are, the better leaders they are.

Q. What do you do to foster self awareness?

We do individual executive coaching, and we also do leadership retreats. In those retreats, a lot of sharing goes on, with people exploring who they are and how they got to be the way they are. We also try to help them discover some of the false assumptions they've made about leadership.

In the old days, you could tell people what to do and they'd just do it. That just doesn't work anymore, particularly with younger people, so you have to teach people a different style of leading, where you actually ask for input. What we're trying to do is help corporations realize you can be more effective if you try to lead in a more collaborative fashion.

The other part of my business is culture development. We go into companies and assess what the working environment is, and whether it is conducive to achieving the financial objectives they set for themselves. If not, we help them develop the kind of culture or environment they want. We call it creating an intentional culture, versus a default culture.

Q. What are the benefits of this kind of coaching?

By developing your culture, you are creating a sustainable competitive advantage. And once you develop an environment where people want to work, people want to stay there. Attracting and retaining top talent is a huge benefit.

The other is a high degree of performance-based people where you don't spend a lot of time bickering, arguing, complaining and whining. When that takes place, it clearly keeps you from being as productive as you could be.

Q. How much do your services cost?

It usually costs between $100,000 and $300,000 for a year of consulting, and our leadership programs range from $2,500 to $20,000 per person. We're not cheap. But we have an enormous amount of repeat business.

Q. Has the economy forced companies to rethink those costs?

What we're seeing is a strong need for people to reinvent themselves. Folks are sometimes losing their jobs and beginning to question what they want to do with their lives, so they're coming to us. Our business has actually maintained very well in this economy. A lot of organizational-development work that was housed within corporations is now being farmed out to consulting firms, so that has benefitted us.

People might think we're crazy for building a new building in this economy, but I think we're very smart. We think corporate folks are cutting back on out-of-town spending, and they'll want to do their retreats in town, so it's a great time to open a conference center.

Q. What advice do you give clients on navigating the down economy?

People are behaving nervously right now, which, in my opinion, is the wrong way to be behaving. Our best advice for a business is to really focus on what their clients need, and their business will take care of itself. What you have to go do is be of value to people more.

Also, don't buy into the doom and gloom of the public opinion. We are successful because we don't buy that. We don't succumb to the belief that business is going to be terrible next year. Otherwise, we wouldn't be building a brand-new building. I think being contrarian in a downturn is a good thing.

Q. What's the most important lesson you've learned about management?

I've learned that I don't know everything, and if I surround myself with really good people and truly listen to different perspectives, then I'll probably come up with better solutions. Another lesson I've learned is that it's important to take care of yourself. Being healthy mentally, physically and spiritually really helps a person be clearheaded and make the right decisions. I never thought that would be important, but those things really make me a better leader.