Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Daniel Koffler, New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching: Navigating Small Business Challenges

In this interview series, host Jesse Samberg sits down with Daniel Koffler, the founder of New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching. Koffler shares his journey of joining his parents’ efforts in building and operating private schools in NYC, focusing on neuro-diverse populations. He discusses the challenges faced in transitioning students to post-secondary life and the importance of developing skills for success. Koffler also reflects on the impact of COVID on his business and the lessons learned in adapting to virtual operations. Join us as we delve into Koffler’s unique business journey and the valuable insights he has gained along the way.

Interviewee Name: Daniel Koffler

Company: New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching

Intervirew Host: Jesse Samberg

The Interview

Let’s get started. First, we’d like to know more about how you started your business journey

Daniel Koffler : My mother (a speech therapist) and father (an insurance salesman with an entrepreneurial bent!) started a school in the mid-80’s in Queens, NY (where they grew up and where I lived until Kindergarten).

The eventual success of that program inspired a 20+ year run of building and operating private schools in/around NYC, focused on populations ranging from early childhood to K12, servicing both mainstream and neuro-diverse populations. I joined the effort in 2005, when there were already a few established programs in our portfolio, but a number of larger ones were in development. It’s certainly a niche-y business, and it’s been quite a ride (we no longer own the majority of these programs, though they do still exist under different management)!

One of the schools was established to support students with a range of learning differences (both in terms of specific diagnosis (or, in some cases, lack thereof) and severity of (mild to significant). The school provides (amongst other accommodations) a higher teacher-student ratio than is found in most/any mainstream environment and related service providers (speech/occupational/mental health support) both pulling out and pushing into the classroom. The program started off focused on elementary-aged populations, but due to popular demand from the community, expanded through middle and high school. The main reason for the expansion was to help families avoid having to make an additional ‘transition’ to another program when they aged out of ours, which can be a complicated and stressful experience for any child, but is amplified (for student as well as parents) when there are learning differences involved.

As our families began to approach the high school years, another transition beckoned — post-secondary life. The overarching concern shared by the parents (and echoed by staff) was that all of the supports these students have come to expect and rely on — and which are at least in part a critical component of the success they had achieved to date — do not transfer/translate to post-secondary (or beyond) life.

In essence, the position we (as a broader society) have taken is that once you graduate from high school, you are not only legally (assuming you are 18 or older) responsible for your behaviors/actions/outcomes, but you are expected to negotiate the (at times, vague) nuances of simply being an adult.

This came into more clear focus when I was introduced to my now long-time partner in (fighting!) crime, who brought an extensive background in both direct classroom instruction and administration at the post-secondary level (with a particular focus on Student Support Services).

With her experience guiding our conversations, she was able to help me understand that while the exposure I had gained supporting individuals in the K12 arena was valid and needed to continue, there’s this meaningful slice of the population who, for a wide range of potential reasons (legitimate learning/mental health challenges, poor training, indifference, “failure to launch”, confusion in a new environment, lack of clear communication by superiors/instructors, traumatic experiences, etc…), simply aren’t imbued with the tools necessary to navigate this murky world of expectations, relationships and achievement (and other critical factors of being a successful and independent member of society) we inhabit. The indicators flash brightly when the realities of college (and the significant differences between their former and current environments) present themselves.

It’s this “tip of the iceberg” situation; with all the (relevant and appropriate) focus on K12, the entire rest of the lifespan is ignored (from a support POV) on the strength of the argument that adulthood is all about trial and error and learning (and ostensibly, growing) from mistakes.

The reality, as always, is a bit more nuanced.

The transition to adulthood is for many people the most significant shift in expectations, required skills and self-advocacy up to that point in time — and from that moment on, the reality of that shift (that life is a constant stream of new (and potentially confusing/usually not well explained) experiences and challenges) becomes THE reality. SOCIETY AT LARGE DOESN’T DO MUCH TO PREPARE US FOR WHAT’S TO COME (and leaves particular groups of people in a significantly disadvantaged position as a result).

Today, our work revolves around helping individuals develop foundational and specific-to-the-individual skills and strategies necessary to navigate the vagaries of life (be they focused on academic, career, or day-to-day success — as they define success), and is delivered via a coaching model (essentially teaching folks HOW to fish, with a hearty dose of accountability), through the lens of executive functioning development. The work is applied to all shapes and sizes of unconventional learners, be they individuals, families, organizations or otherwise. We deliver our supports in-person and virtually, as preferred by our clients.

Reflecting on your business history, what stands out as the single greatest challenge you’ve successfully navigated, and how did you overcome it?

Daniel Koffler : COVID was a doozy! Like everyone else leading an organization at the time, there were a lot of situations to navigate and no blueprint for how to do it. Up to that point, we had primarily operated in-person (both administratively (we all commuted to an office in Manhattan and had meetings with colleagues and external collaborators) and in our work with clients (who would come down to the office and meet with their coach one-on-one, in-person). We had dabbled in doing some virtual work with clients but we always felt the nature of our work benefited from, if not REQUIRED an in-person connection (and being that we are extraordinarily quality focused, we were concerned that we’d lose a very special element if we tried to do this work over a screen).

For better or worse, we didn’t have the option to rest on our laurels and believe the story we had been telling ourselves–we either established a comprehensive way of working with clients (and amongst ourselves/administering the business on a day-to-day basis). I am not even sure if we were using (Microsoft) Teams at that point (if we were, it was very early stage).

A few things ended up happening:

1. We proved to ourselves that we can maintain an extremely high-touch and successful delivery model of our supports without being physically together.
2. We tapped into various technological and managerial operating systems that allowed us to greatly expand our potential pool of clients and staff, while bringing a degree of organization and structure to the WAY we work.
3. We were able to significantly reduce overhead and establish a degree of flexibility for our team that allows people to experience a degree of work-life balance that hadn’t been accessible previously

Through all of the above, we maintained an uncompromising focus on accountability to our clients and the outcomes we work to help them achieve. We also took the opportunity to revisit/revamp our core values and really define who we are as an organization and who we want to be working with (in term of clients, staff, and external collaborators). While everything laid out here was critical to our success not just in navigating the pandemic but coming out the other side stronger and with much more opportunity, this last bit may actually be the most important lasting change.

Businesses often face ongoing challenges. What does your business consistently grapple with, and how do you tackle these challenges head-on?

Daniel Koffler : Our staff is made up of numerous full-time employees, and many more part-time employees. It’s done this way by design–the specializations we need to address the wide-ranging needs of our client base requires that we have a wide range of coaches with varied backgrounds and experiences that will best suit the different goals our clients are looking to accomplish.

With that comes potential challenges related to supervision, commitment, and even culture.

We onboard/orient EVERYONE who joins our team, as well as provide on-going supervision and professional development opportunities. Many take advantage of, and contribute to/participate in these activities–and the pool of future leaders in our organization is largely made up of these individuals.

There’s a not fully defined line (in terms of how many hours someone is working with us) that can make it difficult for them to fully commit (they may have another job or other responsibilities that they need to prioritize from a financial POV, even if they really enjoy the work with us and are good at it.

That line (trying to ensure we have enough work for a key associate so that they can have a successful future with us, while ensuring that we don’t overload our overhead before we have enough work to to keep everyone busy enough to FULLY commit) can create challenges for all parties.

There’s no real straightforward answer on HOW we deal with it. Of course the ideal is to increase the top line/funnel so that we have a real need for additional hands–and we for sure work on pulling those levers and tweaking those knobs all the time (it’s a, if not THE key area of focus for our sales/marketing team). The realities of the relative seasonaility

We try to focus on how we can GROW our way to a better position, i.e. reducing seasonality in our work (so there’s less down time at different times of the year/more consistency for our staff across a wider range of clients, aka breadth) and expanding our funnel to simply create more opportunities across the wider range of clients we’re looking to attract (aka depth).

That said, we still have to make difficult decisions that can lead to a very capable person leaving the organization, or elevating someone before we’re truly ready to (in an effort to avoid losing quality staff).

Can you share with us the most unforgettable story involving a customer or client? What made it memorable, and what lessons did you draw from the experience?

Daniel Koffler : We had a client (pre-COVID), he was a senior in high school. Really nice, good kid, but a bit quirky.

He used to hang around the office before and after his coaching sessions, and occasionally he’d pop his head into my office just to talk (in many cases, not reading the cues (like me being on the phone or being in the middle of a particular piece of work) that others would have understood to mean ‘this isn’t a great time’…this was a component of his quirkiness). At the time we were still pretty small, and I knew most of the clients, so it wasn’t THAT unusual–and I enjoyed the closeness to the work (despite the distraction).

One day, he wandered in and said something to the effect of “I just want you to know that the work you guys do here is so important, and has made such a difference–maybe THE difference–in my life, in terms of my confidence, my ability to problem solve (or seek help if needed, and not be embarrassed to do so), and especially my outcomes”.

I remember thinking (and still do think!) if he hadn’t said it to me directly I would think this is so grandiose, almost contrived. I think what we do is super important and can make a huge difference, but rarely do I get that type of direct feedback (I am very proud to acknowledge that it has happened a few times since then).

(he went on to be valedictorian of his class, and he didn’t even tell us–we heard from his parents!)

Looking ahead, what are your current plans for your business when you retire?

Daniel Koffler : I’ve got a ways to go for that. But, I’m trying to put systems in place so that while I may WANT to play an active role in our future, I won’t NEED to do so to ensure that future.

Navigating the small business landscape can be both challenging and rewarding. Can you share a bit about the specific hurdles you’ve encountered in areas like sales, marketing, and adapting to changing customer trends?

Daniel Koffler : Nothing necessarily super profound. It’s a lot of the same things we’ve always done. We just keep our ear to the street, and LISTEN CAREFULLY to our staff, our referral sources, and our clients. We actively seek out this feedback with regularity, and make sure to incorporate it into our planning on a quarterly/annual/beyond basis, as well as implementing ‘tweaks’ as needed in the moment.

I think the more important thing is not to be afraid to make adjustments, and to make sure you have a direct line to the people who’s opinion matters most (the customers!!)

Leaders Perception magazine would like to thank Daniel Koffler and “New Frontiers Executive Function Coaching” for the time dedicated to completing this interview and sharing their valuable insights with our readers!

Interested in connecting with the host of this interview series? Feel free to reach out to Jesse Samberg on LinkedIn: Jesse Samberg’s LinkedIn Profile

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