Flying high

To create a genuine coaching culture, the place to start is at the top.

It’s this premise that forms the foundation of Virgin Holidays’ strategy to make coaching techniques something the firm’s 600 staff come to “live and breathe,” says training manager Carrie Birmingham.

The long-haul tour operator’s coaching evolution is still in its infancy, but its strategy is clear.

Birmingham joined Virgin Holidays 18 months ago when the company had made growing its people a strategic objective in the highly competitive holiday market. “The coaching culture is one way of doing that,” she says.

Birmingham – a qualified coach – has built up the training function team from two to seven, and they have already been using coaching to support face-to-face learning of core business skills such as presentation and customer service with measurable success.

Virgin Holidays’ call centre staff, whose learning was supplemented with coaching, were found to be more successful in dealing with customers, according to an external benchmarking and ‘mystery shopper’ consultancy.

With coaching firmly entrenched in the learning of the organisation, Virgin Holidays now wants to bring it into the general culture of the workplace, says Birmingham.

“The next stage is getting the line managers involved, and I firmly believe that must start at the top.”

Executive one-to-one coaching is at the heart of ‘Flying High’, a new development programme for Virgin Holidays’ 25 most senior managers.

Birmingham and her team are now working individually with the managers to build personal development plans. External coaches are due to start in January for about six months.

“We’re a very time-precious business, very innovative and growing all the time,” she says.

“It’s easy to get into a directive style of management. Coaching is growing the people below the managers and directors. It means having an environment where people feel they’re moving forward as part of the business and personally as well – and having the tools to do that.”

Following the executive coaching phase, the idea is for the senior managers to become coaches themselves.

She feels the transition to a coaching culture cannot be imposed. Rather, with the tools in place, she believes it will develop over time.  “I see coaching happening naturally,” she says. “I don’t see us making a big song and dance about it. It’s something that will evolve.”

Birmingham estimates it will take at least two years for coaching to inform the life and breath of the organisation, and cites time as the biggest challenge in the process.

“We’re asking people to take time out of their already busy schedules to put into coaching,” says Birmingham. “It’s quicker for them to just tell employees what to do. We all know that’s short-termist, but we need to convince them of the benefits, and that takes time.”

One thing Virgin Holidays has working in its favour to that end is board buy-in. “I have a managing director who thinks supporting and developing people should be our number one strategic objective,” explains Birmingham. “And she demonstrates that in her own behaviour.”

The board also sees coaching as something that’s “intrinsically difficult to measure,” says Birmingham. “We have key performance indicators, and traditional HR measures such as retention, but we haven’t specified return on investment from coaching in particular.”

However, Virgin expects the external coaches to provide evidence that coaching is taking effect on the senior managers they are working with.

To gain buy-in from senior managers for coaching, Birmingham advocates selling the benefits to someone in a position of influence with fellow senior managers.

“One of the heads of department did that for me,” she says. “They were new to a role and I  supported them in making the transition, and worked on a personal development plan with them, and they were able to champion it.

“There can be a sense of dubiousness about coaching because there’s a lot of people out there doing it – some well, some badly,” she continues.

“I have been working with heads of department since I started, and got people really ready for this, so their appetites have been whetted. I have got people coming to me asking for coaching.”

Birmingham’s top tips

  • Get buy-in from the top
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Make sure coaching is available to all and adapt it to different areas of the business
  • Identify someone to whom you can demonstrate the benefits of coaching who can champion it on your behalf
  • Always link coaching back into the business.


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