Getting with the game plan

by 14 Nov 2006

Coaching is a burgeoning practice within many businesses. Craig Donaldson looks at some of the latest developments and examines how HR professionals can ensure their business derives the most benefit from coaching

The growth of coaching in the workplace has been significant over the past few years. With bigger workloads, increased working hours and higher productivity demands, companies are looking to practices such as coaching to help many executives and other employees improve performance in the workplace.

However, the practice of coaching is still relatively young, and as such, companies need to take a measured approach. A recent UK report found that very few organisations are using coaching supervision to support their coaches and to get the best value from their coaching services. Less than half (44 per cent) of coaches surveyed receive regular supervision, and less than a quarter (23 per cent) of organisations that use coaching provide coaching supervision.

Anthony Grant, director of the coaching psychology unit at the University of Sydney’s school of psychology, believes many HR professionals have been oversold coaching in recent times, but a measure of realism is now creeping in.

A lot of HR professionals have been sold on mass rollouts of coaching, on the understanding that managers will become great coaches and leaders themselves. “A number of mass market coaching providers have over promised on what they can deliver. As a result, some HR professionals have been burnt, especially in the financial sector,” he says.

While it would be nice for every manager to have coaching skills as part of their leadership repertoire, Grant says it’s important to realise that not every manager needs great communication skills, particularly in some industries. “Sending managers on a two-day course is not going to turn them into super dynamic coaches. There’s a measure of realism needed, and organisations are increasingly seeing coaching as part of what managers should do. But they’re seeing coaching within a broader framework of good communication skills and good leadership skills.”

Dealing with change

One of the major obstacles to successful coaching within organisations is resistance from managers and executives, who are most often in need of coaching themselves. The nature of coaching itself challenges people’s sense of self and their sense of leadership, according to Grant, which is inherently threatening to some.

As such, it’s important to be objective about coaching when framing discussions about coaching with managers and executives. “The case has got to be presented in a way that really doesn’t challenge their idea of themselves as a leader. If you’ve got someone who’s really cynical and really stuck, trying to get them to create change is probably not going to work. In that case, you probably need to resort to another position of talking about other people. For example, if other people changed the company, would it be enhanced?”

Measuring ROI

Organisations that are looking for a simplistic sort of return on investment are deluding themselves, Grant adds. Rather, coaching is part of a broader culture shift within organisations whereby coaching programs are tailored to the internal language, values and culture of a company. “A HR professional in a financial institution was telling me that they had spent quite a lot of money on coaching. While he was a big advocate of coaching, he felt that rolling out coaching programs without taking the time to do a proper needs assessment and evaluation was not really productive,” Grant says.

Organisations should ensure coaching is spaced out over time, ensure buy-in from all parties, conduct a proper needs assessment, embed learning and provide participants with opportunities to practise their skills in the workplace, he says. “Beware of the hype – don’t oversell it internally, have key high-profile sponsors and make sure it’s internally branded. Make sure the [coaching provider] has credibility. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When people come in with almost missionary-like zeal, they’re the ones to avoid.”

There are a number of studies that show coaching return on investment is substantial, according to Grant; however, he takes these with a grain of salt. To calculate a return investment is incredibly difficult on something as nebulous as coaching. “Putting a dollar figure on it is probably not appropriate if you’re looking at things like cultural fit and cultural change, engagement, wellbeing and changes in leadership style. Coaching will just be part of many things that add up to make a difference.”

Where you can calculate return, he says, is in rolling out coaching for a strong skills-based process or project orientated initiative. “So if you had a group of people being coached for a specific project and you had a control group, then there’s a good chance you could calculate the return on investment of the coach’s impact. Where coaching is targeted in a very specific way on very specific outcomes, there is a higher degree of certainty in drawing causal outcomes.”

Laying down the coaching law

Blake Dawson Waldron took a low-key approach when it introduced coaching across the firm. Kate Wisdom, the firm’s national learning and development manager, says coaching was offered across all levels of the firm. “What we decided to do was to come in, in a very organic, very low key way. There was a genuine interest in coaching skills, so we started the first program with people who really wanted to attend. It wasn’t compulsory – we wanted to support those people who wanted to develop their skills. And because we’ve kept it pretty low key we haven’t really encountered much difficulty frankly,” she says.

Wisdom acknowledges that coaching is not something you can force on people. Furthermore, working with partners is something that needs to be approached with discretion, she adds. “When you are working with partners you need to be pretty efficient and pretty to the point in coaching. They are very, very busy and they’re very smart. They have only a limited amount of time for training and personal development, so while there’s a strong interest in personal development, it’s a matter, really, of finding the time for it, more than anything else.”

In addition to offering coaching across the entire firm, it introduced a coaching skills program for partners, with up to 60 per cent of partners attending around 12 programs over a couple of years. In this process, Wisdom recognised that a number of partners wanted further development opportunities, and as a result, introduced a limited amount of executive coaching. “Executive coaching as it’s offered in the marketplace isn’t exactly what our people want, so we use it very sparingly. And we prefer to work with people who are qualified psychologists because the coaching industry is not particularly well regulated,” she says.

As a result of its coaching program, Wisdom says mentoring across the firm has improved through better coaching conversations. During their legal training, lawyers are not traditionally skilled up in this area, she explains. “The interesting thing that partners have noted is the kind of mind shift they need to make in moving into a coaching conversation, because their normal work is providing expert advice and solutions to clients,” she says. “I also think partners appreciate the way coaching emphasises solutions. Lawyers are very solution oriented, and helping them move from problem to solution in a very short conversation is very useful for them.”

The firm has not tried to measure any hard return on investment for a couple of reasons, according to Wisdom. Coaching contributes in many different ways to both the culture of the firm and the performance and service to clients, she says. However, it’s hard to quantify that a certain amount of coaching has produced a certain amount of results. “We rely on other ways of looking at personal change, but in terms of measuring a dollar return, we just don’t think it’s possible. We’re not that interested in it. Having it become embedded in our culture is really the biggest outcome.”