HR in practice: Managers become coaches at PC World

PC World wanted to train its managers to become coaches themselves. Its coaching programme was so powerful that it led to a successful restructure and direct bottom line improvement, writes Nick Martindale.

The business

PC World is Britain’s largest specialist chain of computer superstores, with 164 outlets across the UK employing more than 60,000 staff. Creating an atmosphere in which the general managers of those stores can perform to the best of their ability is essential to the company’s success.

The challenge

In the summer of 2005, PC World introduced a new structure for its regional and store management and created the role of store group manager. As well as continuing to run their own store, these 30 individuals would have an operational, developmental and coaching role across a further four or five outlets, with the aim of providing more support to the individual store managers who had previously been the responsibility of an area manager with between 35 and 40 stores.

The company soon discovered that its store managers lacked skills in coaching.

“They needed some high-level coaching skills to enable them to coach for performance and support their peer group in a positive way,” says Tim Gallimore, head of learning and development (retail), at PC World’s parent company Dixons Stores Group International (DSGi).

“Their job wasn’t to go in and control those managers it was to coach and support. There was certainly a need for us to change the mindset of those people.”

The solution

PC World approached HR consultancy Penna to develop a coaching programme for the 30 store group managers, where they could learn through experience.

In summer 2006, the participants – divided into four cohorts, which also included members of the regional HR team – attended an initial two-day ‘leader as coach’ workshop, which was followed by four full-day ‘practise and build’ sessions, where participants could share their experiences since the workshop, collectively decide what their weaknesses were and then focus on those skills with Penna.

“The opportunity to hear from people they respected in their peer group was a hugely powerful part of the programme,” says Gallimore.

The biggest challenge PC World had to overcome was cynicism from some of the participants. “Many were what I would describe as ‘heroes’ in our business,” says Gallimore. “They were really successful managers who had done it their own way. There were some barriers around experience and the way they’d achieved success in the past.”

Keeping people engaged throughout the six-month process and simply finding the time for store group managers to focus on the coaching as well as their day jobs was also an issue. “I had to make sure there was a lot of personal energy and support around the stakeholders to make sure they were positively advocating the programme,” Gallimore adds.

The outcome

PC World as a group performed well in the financial year ending April 2007, hitting its target for the first time in two years. While there were undoubtedly other reasons for this growth, Gallimore believes it can at least in part be attributed to the investment in coaching. “The regional general managers had a real feeling that in that final quarter there was a clear progression of results and that was probably delivered through a high level of engagement of general managers because of this additional support they were getting,” he says. He believes the business has more than made up the estimated £200,000 investment.

The most notable result of the coaching, however, was the decision once more to restructure the organisational set-up. The number of store group managers was reduced from 30 to 15, with each taking responsibility for a cluster of stores (normally 10) but without the responsibility of managing their own store.

“In selecting the right people for those jobs, we used the information that we had built up in the assessment process, so for the first time ever we started to use that behaviour about what makes a good coach within the assessment for a key role in our business,” says Gallimore.

Two new store group managers who had not previously been general managers were put through the ‘leader as coach’ course, while all 15 were offered five one-to-one, two-hour, ‘rapid impact coaching’ sessions on how to put the theory into practice with external coaches.

The new system has now been running for six months and all 15 store group managers – who were initially set 100-day targets – remain with the company.

“We now have 15 store group managers who absolutely understand the value of the programme and the whole concept of coaching and performance,” says Gallimore. “But I don’t think we’ve truly seen the benefit of this yet. I think we will probably see it over the next 12 months as we face our next set of challenges.”

If I could do it again…

The only aspect of the programme Tim Gallimore, head of learning and development (retail), believes he would have done differently was to put the senior operations team – which also eventually went through the process – through the course before the store group managers. “I went for the low hanging fruit in the sense that this was a group of people who were crying out for this,” he says. “But in an ideal world I would probably have got that team through first because that would have given us added support and traction.”

Employee perspective

In 2006, Alan Labrum, store group manager, South West, had been working as a general manager of a PC World outlet for four years. Unlike some general managers, he found the transition to coaching in the new store group manager role a natural progression and felt this was helped by the coaching provided by Penna.

“The programme as a whole reaffirmed my instincts around coaching, and the ‘practise and build’ sessions that provided close feedback helped to refine my basic skills,” he says.

Labrum, 40, admits to having concerns when the subsequent restructure meant the number of store group managers was cut from 30 to 15.

“I knew that without making this move I would need to start looking for an alternative career path,” he says. “I really wanted the opportunity to showcase my potential and felt that I wouldn’t be doing myself justice as a general manager.

Guide to leadership coaching in 4 steps

  1. Organisations implement coaching programmes for various reasons. Clarify what the objectives are beforehand so that these can be reviewed and measured throughout. Ask executives to keep a record of their development at regular intervals so they can see the real business and individual benefits of the process.
  2. Encourage and work with management and senior executives so that they are able to coach and impart their knowledge with other team members. This will help all involved to adopt a coaching culture within the workplace.
  3. Develop a two-pronged approach with defined long and short-term goals that can work alongside each other. This way, leaders will be able to see results relatively quickly, which will inject a positive boost to the programme, while the wider benefits impact over a longer period.
  4. Implementing and running a coaching programme is not enough on its own. Even an effective programme needs to be reviewed and tweaked as time goes on. Ask for and, more importantly, act on executives’ feedback. Find out what they have enjoyed, what is working well and which aspects aren’t working.

Source: Andrew Porter, head of leadership programmes, Penna

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