These days, it is almost universally accepted that coaching is a necessary part of any manager’s skill set. But only a few years ago, coaching was purely a one-to-one executive activity, the exclusive preserve of top-flight senior managers.
Now the term refers to both a learning methodology – another way of delivering development alongside training courses, e-learning and so forth – and, increasingly, a non-directive style of management. This style aims to improve job performance by encouraging and facilitating staff to become more analytical and self-aware and to develop critical thinking skills for themselves.
While coaching may be working its way down the line and into organisational parlance, to what extent do managers – the bedrocks of this supposed culture – really understand what the term means for them and their organisation? Moreover, are they receiving the necessary development to become genuine practitioners?
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Training and Development Report published earlier this year revealed the increasing popularity of coaching – its usage is increasing faster than any other form of training provision – and line managers are reported to be the most likely individuals delivering it, with only 5 per cent of respondents saying line managers never used coaching.
At the same time, there is considerable uncertainty as to what coaching actually is. Four-fifths of respondents felt there was a great deal of confusion over what the term coaching means, a fact not helped by the lack of agreed standards, ethics and qualifications in the coaching industry. This confusion and popularity surrounding coaching is a potentially dangerous mix, says the CIPD, which has recently published a guide on how to manage coaching for maximum business impact.
If line managers are the key deliverers, what are organisations doing to ensure they have the skills they need to be good coaches? Not enough, according to the CIPD.
Learning, training and development adviser Jessica Jarvis says: “Even when training was done, it was part of a wider management training intervention, it wasn’t a coaching skills course. That was the initial concern raised by the report, particularly when you have so many HR people saying coaching can deliver tangible benefits to individuals and organisations.”
Training needs to be specific about what makes effective coaching, the key skills managers need to develop, and which coaching models should be looked at so that team members will understand the concept as well.
“The most important bit will be getting the line manager to do some role play,” Jarvis says. “Practising their coaching skills and techniques will be critical to making sure it actually happens.”
An increasing number of employers are attempting to create a coaching culture as part of their strategy to enact organisational change. Ina Smith, director of consulting at Ashridge, says: “If you can embed coaching as part of a range of things happening, say a merger or acquisition or a big reorganisation, what you’re doing is not just coaching individuals to be the best they can be, you’re helping the organisation change in terms of its strategic direction.”
The most common approach is for external consultants to give executive coaching to senior managers and then work with the learning and development team to support them in training managers down the line.
John Ashford, course director for the Leadership Trust, says: “Executive coaching is driving the notion of a coaching organisation. The top people have external coaches steering and guiding them on how this is going to work. They, in turn, do that for the next level down, and so it cascades through the organisation.”
As coaching has evolved, it has also diversified. For instance, group coaching has come into practice as a more cost-effective means of bringing the principles of one-to-one activity to groups or teams.
There is an array of niche coaching on offer, as outlined in the CIPD guide: performance coaching, often drawing on models from business and sports psychology to increase productivity and effectiveness; skills coaching, to provide a flexible, just-in-time approach to an individual’s skills development; and career coaching, for increased clarity and forward action regarding an individual’s career.
So, considering this variety, plus the fact that coaching applies to both a management style and a development methodology – not to mention the all-too-common blurring of coaching and mentoring – it’s no surprise a whopping 81 per cent of respondents to the CIPD report said there was confusion about what coaching means.
It is easy to get hung up on definitions, but Jarvis and other experienced practitioners maintain that as long as the organisation and its people have a clear understanding of what coaching means for them, the label for what they’re doing is, in a sense, irrelevant.
At KPMG, for example, coaching is an umbrella term encompassing mentoring – the sharing of knowledge and experience – and counselling, the provision of more expert skills to “deep-seated issues”. Coaching also means empowering individuals to develop their own approach to a particular issue.
Coaching director John Bailey says: “We wouldn’t expect anyone to go into a conversation saying, ‘I’m only a mentor’. “The important thing is to not get bogged down in definitions, just know what you’re there to do.”
Whatever form coaching may take, if it is to be successful organisations must ensure the coach is suitable to the needs of both the individual and the business. Clear expectations should be set to ensure effective monitoring and evaluation.
Simon Wilde, director of Capita People Development, says precise assessment is important to ensure coaching responds to any changes in the organisation. “You need a number of sources to get feedback from, and you have to model that on the organisation and how it is structured.
Some form of ongoing assessment, as well as an annual assessment of how it’s going, can be built into existing mechanisms.”
Equally, those most experienced at using coaching as a management style take pains to emphasise that, however popular it may be, it is no panacea.
Gillian Ince, learning and resourcing manager for Claire’s Accessories, says: “We do a lot around situational leadership to the effect that coaching is a big part, but not one-size-fits-all.
“There are times when you can’t coach someone – you have to be directive. A good manager needs to be able to coach, to be directive, to support and to delegate,” she says.
Crossing the coaching/mentoring divide
Coaching and mentoring are two distinct learning methodologies, but they are often mentioned in the same breath or even used interchangeably.
“My life is dedicated to stopping that happen,” says Anne Scoular, co-founder and director of the coaching consultancy Meyler Campbell. Although it is a comment she makes with a laugh, she is serious when she says that, in areas like science and medicine, “accuracy of terms is important”. In other words, why should coaching settle for less?
“The real value of mentoring is the unwritten, the stuff that’s not in the manuals,” says Scoular. “It’s putting information in. At its crudest, mentoring or training is telling, and coaching is drawing out the capacity that people have within. Coaching is asking. People need both.”
Simon Wilde, director of Capita People Development, agrees, viewing the two methodologies and training programmes as a “stepped process”. He sees coaching as a day-to-day activity in which people are learning as they go along and managers aim to get the most out of the members of their team.
Tool to boost self-development
Claire’s Accessories is training its managers as coaches as part of an overall strategy to transfer ownership for individual development from the training department to the actual workplace.
Training and resourcing manager Gillian Ince says: “It was very much about our district managers supporting the store managers by using coaching as a process. A lot of it was about telephone coaching, because they only get to a store maybe once every couple of weeks.”
An external consultant delivered tailored, two-day, coaching skills workshops for the company’s 47 district managers, each of whom looks after about 10 stores, earlier this year.
“They’re given the theory and practicalities around doing it, the end goal being that people will start to self-develop, to push themselves,” Ince says. “It’s changing that culture of expecting an HR or training team to develop people. It stays at home.”
Meanwhile, the company has revamped its induction for new store managers with a coaching focus. New store managers previously spent their first working week at head office in “a training-room environment” followed by a week in a store. Now they are coached, in a store, for two weeks by a store manager trainer, Ince explains.
“After two weeks they go to their own store,” Ince says. “This is where they expect the district manager to come in and not just support, but coach them in additional areas.”
Supporting the coaching push are resource materials such as coaching cards for district managers and resource booklets for store managers. “We also produced personal development plan booklets with 10 skills and behaviours, to promote self-development using a coaching methodology,” Ince says. “Ongoing support is critical for a genuine coaching culture to exist.”
CASE STUDY: KPMG – Embedded strategy
KPMG uses some external coaches for its senior management, but the professional services firm’s overall strategy, launched two years ago, is to continue to develop its own coaching capability.
Director of coaching John Bailey says: “We know coaching takes place, but we realise it’s more important than ever and we need to be far better at doing it across the firm. The key thing is to identify genuine opportunities where coaching can be of value and work with the business to embed it into internal processes and existing activities rather than making it a separate initiative.”
KPMG’s strategy has been to give 350 of its most senior leaders an additional role on top of their day-to-day job – that of people-management leaders responsible and accountable for people management within their teams.
“They’re in all parts of the business – internally and externally facing roles – and typically from senior manager level up to partner,” says Bailey. “What we’re saying is that we value this role as much as all the other things we expect you to do.
“A key element is to be a coach and enable people to access coaching in all its forms. They’ll be leading their team on people management – in some cases individuals who have people-management responsibilities.”
It is a cascading effect, and the strategy includes ongoing guidance and support for the people-management leaders, such as workshops on performance management and the skills required, and live, dial-in, question-and-answer sessions on all aspects of people management.
KPMG’s in-house HR consultants are taking on the “coaching of the coaches”, Bailey says. But interestingly, the word coach rarely appears explicitly in relation to the people-management leaders.
“We just talk about ways of doing the job, a style of doing things. It’s someone who is facilitative, encouraging, challenging, asks questions to help people learn and gives positive feedback and guidance on areas for improvement,” Bailey says.