Coaching comes of age

Sharon Toye argues that coaching is the key to unlocking your organisation’s potential

The news is full of industries facing a once-in-a-generation problem. The financial services industry is tackling radical regulation after the financial turmoil of recent years, for example. The healthcare industry is having to reprioritise safety after scandals such as those at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and the media industry is under intense scrutiny regarding its ethical and moral behaviour.

All these industries once regarded HR and training initiatives such as coaching as soft, fluffy and a nice-to-have but as a non-essential spend. How times have changed. Today, businesses operating in these industries are using coaching to help them achieve critical cultural turnarounds that will safeguard their survival. Whether this is putting customers back at the heart of their operation, returning to a stricter ethical code or simply changing the culture of a business to take advantage of changed economic times, coaching is now seen as a key business driver.

Organisations are as good as the people they attract, grow and retain. Creating a coaching culture goes a long way to keeping and developing talent. If companies choose not to invest in their staff, they are likely to lose their competitive edge as job seekers look elsewhere and demotivated employees leave. This is especially important as the world becomes more complex and uncertain. In order to advance, organisations must build skills and competencies from within if they wish to succeed.

Even organisations that are at the top of their game and who demonstrate a strong financial performance should not take this for granted. There are many examples of organisations that have had a positive balance sheet that has disappeared rapidly. It is the obsession with short-term results that can limit performance. Even when financial performance is strong, companies must continue to invest in the sustainable and long-term health of their business.

In part, the rise of talent analytics has helped drive this increased focus on creating a coaching culture, rather than just investing in one-off training days. Analytics have enabled companies to see the impact of investing in their employees and which training methods create long-term sustainable changes. While one-off training days may seem revolutionary to employees at the time, they actually have a very limited impact. Once employees return to their day jobs, they tend to forget about what they have learnt on these courses and return to business as usual. 

Creating a coaching culture within an organisation is the best way to create a change in behaviour to support business goals. There are three main routes to building a coaching culture: one-to-one coaching, developing leaders as coaches and team coaching.

The first route is one-to-one coaching. To be optimal, coaching of this type needs to be focused and pragmatic and yet robust and psychologically underpinned. There are three major developmental processes that effective coaching programmes integrate and align – discovery, development and deepening.

First, discovering who we are as individuals. Here coaches need to provide rich and straightforward feedback, sustained support and brave challenge. This can involve leaders completing a fundamental review of motives, operating assumptions, abilities, fears and personal aspirations. Building and enhancing genuine self-awareness is the starting point for great coaching relationships.

The second main coaching process is development. Nothing changes unless behaviour changes so in this phase there is a need to work not only with behaviours but also the mindsets and assumptions we operate with that drive our behaviours. If leaders undergo a shift in mindset, this will help them change a raft of behaviours quickly and enable them to embed these changes in the long-term. A leader within a top team, for example, who focuses purely on their day-to-day job and responsibilities within their individual function is far less effective than one who considers their role and responsibilities to be organisation-wide. Investing in a creating a coaching culture can in this way have a dramatic financial and strategic impact on the business as a whole.

The third and final developmental process in coaching is deepening and embedding the change the executive is making by identifying and taking actions in the reality of everyday life. This happens both within and outside of the coaching sessions using a range of techniques. Often ‘fast forward’ rehearsals are employed using specific events where work is done at all three levels of logical, emotional and physical processing.

One of the best ways to ensure that one-to-one coaching helps employees grow and develop is to link coaching objectives with a set of performance outcomes. Explicitly agreeing these upfront with both the person being coached and their line manager helps to ensure that the participants are accountable for a return on this investment. Supporting their progress and integrating their behaviour in line with what the business is trying to achieve translates into quantifiable business benefits. In this way, coaching becomes more than a ‘nice cosy chat’ and becomes a solid and measurable way of developing employees and embedding new behaviours. An excellent way to do this is to involve coaches and managers in the coaching. [pullquote]Although the content of coaching should remain confidential, it is helpful for employees to hear feedback from their manager about their behaviour[/pullquote] and what needs to change and what changes are being observed as the coaching progresses. Setting up regular three-way meetings is a great way to do this and also helps ensure that the coaching objectives do not stall. Just as coaching cannot be completed in a one-off session, successful long-term behavioural changes take time. The more support participants receive from their coaches, managers and colleagues along the way, the more likely it is that these changes will stick.

The second route to creating a coaching culture is to build the coaching skills of line managers so they can coach the individuals and teams they lead. Investing in employees does not have to be expensive and in fact shouldn’t be. A really cost effective way to invest in talent is to train senior leaders to coach and equip them to train others within their organisation. For example, we recently ran a programme training the top 600 leaders in a company in how to use coaching skills in a way that blended support and challenge to help drive the performance and health of their parts of the organisation. They in turn were supported in training their direct reports. This meant that instead of just 600 leaders being developed 6,000 were! Furthermore, if leaders know that they will have to train others, they pay much more attention to training programmes and their own learning is furthered as they move from learner to teacher. This also fosters great relationships internally as employees and their direct reports get to know each other much better.

An excellent third way to create a coaching culture is to invest in teams rather than individual leaders. Most people work in at least one team in their role but once they join a team, it is often largely up to them to decide how they choose to participate and how much they will contribute to the team. Often, there is little rhyme or reason as to why a team is made up of certain members and even the purpose of the team may be unclear. Teams may not be made up of people with the right skills to solve a problem and all members of the team may have different ideas about what the team is for and what their role is within it.

Just as there can be many common problems within teams, there are many ways that team behaviour can improve drastically. Once individuals understand how to work within a team and how they can make the best contribution to team performance, they will carry this knowledge with them to every role they perform.

The impact of creating highly effective teams cannot be underestimated. Researchers tracked 160 companies over a 10-year period. They found that the quality and effectiveness of the top team accounted for a 43 per cent variation between profitability in different businesses. Improving the performance of teams matters and has a clear and significant impact on the bottom line.

Teams are unique but in our experience, many of them face similar problems. One of the most common issues we come across is what we call the ‘nodding dog syndrome’. Leaders often recognise this immediately. This is a team in which everyone nods in agreement as the direction and actions are decided in a meeting. However, once they leave the meeting, all the team members do something completely alien to what the leader thinks has been agreed. If the team haven’t spent quality time (and many teams don’t) working on gaining clarity and agreement on the mandate and purpose of the team, they will not have clarity on what they collectively mean by ‘empowering’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘customer centric’ etc. it is likely that team members will have different interpretations and will act on those in the parts of the business they lead. It is easy to see how priorities can be conflicting, overlapping and confused as work gets executed throughout the organisation.

High performing teams don’t happen by accident. In fact, it is pretty hard to build a brilliant team. There needs to be work to identify how the team needs to work in practice. They must put into place the right processes, governance, structures, skills, behaviours and communications to ensure successful goal setting and delivery.

Team coaches are invaluable to the development of brilliant teams. Mutual accountability and joint performance is difficult to achieve for a team on its own. There is always the potential for conflict between team and functional business goals, and then there are personal agendas in the mix too. There are no quick fixes. Only a programmatic coaching approach that delivers a range of integrated key interventions will help achieve a real shift in team performance. Over time, the coach transfers the role of team coach to its leader. Teams that want to go from good to great or those that may be leading change that they haven’t led before will all benefit from an outside perspective.

Just as with individual coaching, great team coaching starts by identifying the problems that teams need to overcome and creating development objectives. However, these objectives must also be linked to clear performance goals to ensure that the coaching has a clear purpose and delivers return on investment. Team coaching has the most impact when it translates into tangible goals, such as an increase in numbers of new clients to the company. Once teams set transparent goals for coaching, they become for more accountable for the return on investment and the success or failure of the coaching becomes more apparent.

No matter what the reason is for seeking outside help, one-off interventions for individuals or teams has very little impact on behaviour. Coaches must have regular contact with employees to achieve mind-set and behavioural change. Guiding individuals and teams through change cannot be achieved overnight. Companies that invest in short term piecemeal solutions often end up with short term results.

In these uncertain times, companies want to ensure that all their employees are working at their full potential. It is no surprise that many organisations are implementing a coaching culture in order to do so. Focusing on the health and effectiveness of teams and employees is an excellent way to drive the overall health of the organisation. It is clear that organisations are starting to understand the need to implement coaching as a key business driver and the cultural and financial impact that it can have.

There is scope for organisations to go further. Every company has an independent financial audit and will review these figures regularly and adjust their strategy in line with their financial performance. Despite the growing use of talent analytics, there is no requirement for companies to have an independent or objective view of their internal culture or talent needs.

Talent is not subject to the same rigour even though it has a critical impact on the overall health of the organisation and its performance. Implementing a well structured, relevant and contextually useful coaching culture is the first step to creating a more successful company.


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