Gary Stokes describes one of the most powerful moments in his business coaching career as hearing a client say, “It’s really happening! You’re growing my business!” He says, “I told him, no, you’re growing your business, I’m just helping you to think about it differently.”
Stokes, who owns ActionCoach of Harford County, a business and executive coaching firm, notes that business owners don’t work enough on their own businesses. Unlike large, public corporations that are accountable to their shareholders or a board of directors, small business owners don’t have anyone to whom they are held accountable. Stokes says a business coach can help make you accountable – to yourself and to the coach. “I’m an outside person who is objective and who brings clarity. I provide the big picture view.”
A 25-year corporate employee himself, Stokes says he got the idea to start his ActionCoach business when he realized he was traveling so much that instead of really living in Harford County, he only occupied a room there. “I wanted to become a part of the county,” he explains. “What better way than to work with local people who own small businesses and need the kind of help and experience that I have?”
Stokes started ActionCoach in February 2009, with virtually no local business contacts and a direct mail campaign. “Starting my firm has been my biggest challenge,” Stokes says. “I didn’t have any business relationships in the area, so I had to stay focused and concentrate on making connections.” He says he knew forming relationships would take time, but he was impatient. “I mailed some letters and made follow-up phone calls, and I got my first client!”
Since then, ActionCoach has grown to serve 15-20 different ongoing clients at any given time. Stokes provides group coaching, one-on-one coaching sessions, seminars and workshops. In an individual coaching program, he will normally start with a 90-minute meeting that includes understanding the client’s business and goals. “I want to understand what you want to do differently and what your goals are for yourself and your company. Then, we identify what the gap is between the two,” he says. “We develop a clear picture of how we can bridge that gap and what it will take to get there.” Once a plan is established, Stokes helps clients implement it at the pace they set. “This plan is a structure that I put in place to hold small businesses accountable,” he says. “Clients are accountable for their results.”
Stokes will work with clients for as long as they find it beneficial. He says some clients want a finite program with a clear end, and
when they reach that point, they “graduate” from his program. Others have continued to work with him for several years, making coaching a part of the way they do business. “I tell clients that we will work together as long as there’s value in it for them.” Admittedly, the investment in a business coach is not trivial. “People have a vested interest in succeeding, because they are making a financial commitment. They expect to see results, but they are often surprised at just how quickly the results happen.”
Stokes features a free Business Health Check on his website that asks insightful questions to get entrepreneurs and business owners thinking about their money, time, team and systems. He notes that success depends on how strongly the client wants to make changes.
As any coach would, Stokes celebrates his clients’ victories. “I get a real charge out of people succeeding due to a plan I’ve helped them put in place,” Stokes says. He especially likes when non-profit organizations are successful and grow, calling it “life changing.” He has one long-term, pro-bono coaching client, the local Harford Family House, which he says he has watched grow over the past five years. Stokes is also president of the ARC of Northern Chesapeake and president of the Bel Air Rotary Club.
When he’s not helping business people think differently, he enjoys his own spare time that he has carved out as a result of successful business planning. He is an avid fan of the local sports teams and he enjoys reading, golfing, fly fishing and spending time with his grown children. I95