maximising the benefit of business coaching

It is a measure of how far coaching has entered the mainstream that it is now a critical element of the part-funded UK government ‘Solutions for Business’ scheme. It is a powerful tool in the change and performance armoury and interesting to see it being endorsed in this way.

Coaching is a big market. One commentator in 2007 quoted PwC as saying that it was worth £100m in the UK and three years on this may well be a conservative estimate. It is no surprise that the economic downturn has helped to sharpen thinking about value.

Are organisations that commission coaches getting the best return? Not necessarily. It depends how coaches are used, how the work is structured and on the way some of the fundamental elements of coaching are being interpreted.

two recent examples

A large regionally based financial institution in the UK employed coaches for all people above a certain grade. It was seen as a positive aspect of the job, almost a ‘perk’, as well as an enlightened investment in the performance and well-being of its people. Employing large numbers of coaches, each with their preferred methods and closely guarding the confidentiality of the coaching relationship, meant it was not surprising it felt out-of-control and unaligned to stakeholders. Could it have achieved more for the business as well as its people had the appointment of coaches been more selective and the work more closely linked to business need?

In another sector, a coach team had been brought in to shift attitudes in an under-performing international finance department. The initiative had a clear focus and the coaches – all with impeccable credentials – had explicit targets. However, the reaction from those going through it – & from observers – was that it was similar to a child’s shape-sorter toy; trying to get round pegs into square holes. It met a lot of resistance which held back the potential benefits. If it had been structured differently and if people being coached had been freer to negotiate where they had to comply and where they were free to exercise discretion, how much more effective could it have been?

what is the business coach role?

It is to help support, challenge & raise performance, for example:

  • For individuals who face specific challenges or who are transitioning up, across or possibly even out of organisations.
  • For leaders & teams, which is a more demanding role for the coach who has to balance team dynamics with individual performance.
  • For organisations that face restructuring, transition, post-merger integration or who need to influence prevailing culture.

As already mentioned, the UK government is part-funding ‘Coaching for High Growth’ as the cost of this type of support can be off-putting for Boards of SMEs. While this scheme involves only one practitioner per company, larger enterprises frequently need the support of groups of coaches.

Coaching at these levels is amongst the most demanding, not just because of the range of skills and abilities needed but also because it demands good management to be effective.

so what is being done to maximise investment in coaching?

Broadly there seems to be a move to greater centralisation & control.

Some larger firms have created their own internal teams, which have great advantages in that members know the business, the process is controlled and it probably represents a lower economic cost. However, as Humphreys, Marsden and Stopford have pointed out, internal coaches can be less effective when it comes to transitional and transformational work. There are risks too, in that internal resource can become stretched and it relies on selecting the right people, those who can work with business & strategic issues as well as human dynamics.

For many who buy external coaching it is becoming a more managed process, with centralised procurement and careful selection into faculties or panels. This allows for quality assurance and echoes the rise in importance of coach qualifications and supervision. A contact commented recently that one large international corporation had ‘cracked’ the problem by convening their faculties every so often to present the latest strategy and to encourage a sense of involvement. This can work well for faculties that include independent coaches and those consisting of coach organisations.

However these methods are probably not sufficient when coaching gets drawn into working with the strategic realities faced by the business.

And there are simpler approaches to maximising the overall benefits of one-off coaching, for example by making it explicitly about performance and including stakeholders in the process alongside the coach and client.

aligned coaching

Centralisation & control increase the likelihood of a good return on the coaching investment, yet there are still things that get in the way.

  • Coaches tend to be independent-minded people who value freedom of action.
  • The primacy of the coach-client relationship is guarded carefully, with justification for without the assurance of confidentiality people would not be prepared to lay themselves open to such important conversations.

However, these could also be what coaches call ‘limiting beliefs’ and there are practical ways to negotiate and work with these values without losing the true benefits.

For example, involving stakeholders and allowing a degree of ‘managed visibility’ both help. In certain situations a more homogenous approach, one that marries business context with human goals and includes feedback loops and dashboards/ monitoring systems, is needed and adds still greater focus to the coaching effort. We have been exploring these ideas with some clients & while it does not necessarily make it more comfortable it does raise alignment and achievement.

How can the ideas be applied?

Taken together they make coaching a more sharply performance-focused activity and come into their own when applied to teams and across businesses where commercial performance and quick results are top priority.

the future

That commentator back in 2007 reckoned that within 10 years there would be complete coaching departments in companies rather than hiring externals, and that is certainly happening in places.

He also described how Chief Learning Officers – who frequently manage coaching investments – will have seats on the Board and how HR Directors might report to them. It would certainly match the increased prominence of development and related activities.

Although there are examples around we would probably not go that far, though there is a definite need for a shake out and to ensure the right coaches and right approaches are used in the right situations.

Coaching is a highly effective resource which can provide a positive return on investment if used well. It can be a vital catalyst and support for change and increased performance.