By Verne Harnish
Jill Belconis didn’t start her career intending to become a coach. She is a 30-year veteran of the mortgage banking business. Most recently, she worked as CEO of Shelter Mortgage, a mortgage banking company that scaled to 500 employees in 35 states. She worked for Shelter Mortgage from 1984 to 2014. Along the way, Belconis, a member of the Chicago chapter of YPO since 1997, became the first woman to serve as YPO’s international chair.
After steering Shelter Mortgage Co. through the Great Recession, Belconis led the sale of the company to a private equity firm. She stayed on at Shelter Mortgage for a year to help with the transition.
When Belconis left Shelter Mortgage, she didn’t have much time to think about her next act. Contacts in her large professional network started flocking, in search of business advice. “They asked if I could come to take a look or help them scale their companies,” she says. In response to the demand, Belconis started a private coaching practice in 2015. By 2017, she became a Scaling Up Certified Coach. She had become familiar with the Scaling Up methodology after we met at a YPO event where I was presenting on the Scaling Up platform.
“One thing that attracted me was the fact it wasn’t prescriptive,” says Belconis. “I was able to supplement it with my skills as CEO. What a great combination to take what I knew from my practical experiences and combine it with all of the Scaling Up tools.
When Belconis meets with new clients, she’s found their challenges tend to be similar, despite their varied fields.
“It doesn’t matter what the industry is—everyone has the same issues,” says Belconis. “It comes down to having the right people in the right positions, having A players, getting everyone aligned, having the right strategy and executing on a plan.”
Belconis enjoys helping to diagnose exactly what’s wrong—and asking the kind of questions that allow them to discover the right solutions.
“I’m like a doctor,” she says. “I come in and assess where they are. They’re all at different points, so I customize my approach for every client. My big focus is to get an impact for them very quickly.”
Spreading the word
To grow her practice, Belconis began putting out a monthly newsletter. She focused on writing short, useful articles that crossed every industry and had a very strong takeaway. One recent topic was straddling the line between optimism and realism.
“People began reaching out and referring me,” she says. “The practice grew very quickly.”
One thing potential clients liked was the fact that Belconis had been a CEO and had walked in their shoes. “I’ve scaled a business,” she says. “I’m not just teaching the academic part of it. I can go to where they are.
Currently, Belconis works with 10 clients, mostly in the Chicagoland area. One client is Home Run Inn, a pizzeria chain and frozen pizza business where CEO Dan Costello took the helm after the family-owned firm’s former CEO and his uncle John Perrino passed away from a heart attack suddenly.
Belconis finds that keeping her coaching practice to its current size allows her to give each company her full attention—and also to lead a balanced life outside of work. She now has two grandchildren. “I get so much joy from seeing them,” she says.
Making the first meeting count
As a former CEO, Belconis knows how much pressure leaders face. She plans her initial meetings in a way that allows them to start generating results immediately.
Given how crucial People are to the success of a company, she will typically do an immediate assessment of the leadership team. “I can, in our first meeting, identify the leaders who may need some help and the superstars they didn’t realize they had,” she says. In this way, she can act as a second set of eyes for the CEO. “I’m brutally honest with them, but in a kind way, always,” she says.
She will also help the leadership team identify a focus for the current quarter. For one client in the consumer packaged goods industry, for instance, the CEO reported that employees were lacking alignment. She quickly determined during the initial meeting that this was because the company was not living its Core Values. As a result, everyone was marching in a different direction.
“We were able, in a very short time, to shore up their Core Values, clarify everyone’s roles and identify the most important things for them to focus on,” she says.
Often, Belconis finds that coming in as a third party helps her bring objectivity to her clients’ decision-making process.
“I end up being a trusted advisor for the CEO,” she says. “I’m part of the leadership team. I’m involved in high-level strategic decisions.”
Ultimately, her goal is to help leaders get to the point where they are asking the right questions—and come up with their own answers. “When they come up with the answers, it’s much more powerful,” she says.