Is coaching being abused?

As
an increasing number of companies implement coaching, Margaret Kubicek assesses
whether the right approach is being taken

As more and more organisations embrace coaching as a means of boosting
employee performance throughout the line, concern is rising that an
unstructured approach and inadequate training mean many are doing little more
than paying lip service to this innovative HR tool.

A recent survey by The School of Coaching, the consultancy and training arm of
The Work Foundation (the newly renamed Industrial Society) has raised alarm
bells. "What the survey reveals is that most organisations you speak to
will say ‘yes, our managers are coaching’ and ‘yes, we support it’, but in
reality that’s not happening," says Myles Downey, co-owner and director of
studies at The School of Coaching.

Of most concern to Downey were the survey’s findings that, on average, line
managers undergo a mere three days of training to develop their coaching
skills, that too many organisations believe coaching is important for middle
managers but not those at the top, and that coaching is not integrated into
corporate strategy.

The survey also found that formal evaluation of coaching initiatives is
lacking, meaning a majority of organisations rely on little more than anecdotal
evidence to measure effectiveness. The majority of organisations polled said
there was no specific budget set aside for the development of coaching skills
of their line managers.

According to Downey, organisations are paying lip service to coaching ‘in 90
per cent of cases. "The trend of training managers to coach started 10
years ago and that first wave failed because when they became ‘coaches’,
managers became too nice," he says.

"The idea was to listen, to gain consensus, but if strong coaching
isn’t balanced by strong management, you’re losing the game. You have to be
able to hold people to account."

Not just a fad

If coaching is to become not just a fad but a true profession, further
research into methods is essential. Anne Scoular, director of research at The
School of Coaching and joint managing partner of coaching consultancy Meyler
Campbell, has conducted research comparing how individuals perform tasks when
coached, versus when they are trained. She has also looked into possible links
between coaching performance and personality type, finding that introverts
outperformed extroverts, though she warns against inferring too much from this
as it is the first research of its kind in ‘a very complex field’.

She argues that this type of scientific research is necessary so that
coaches may act from a "theoretically valid, empirically based and
rigorously tested body of knowledge".

Formal measurement of effectiveness is also required if coaching is to have
a long-term future. Sheena Mason, director of learning and development at HR
consultancy Chiumento, is in the midst of developing a model to measure
coaching’s return on investment. "At the end of the day we’re a
consultancy, and people are paying a lot of money for coaching. They need
something that says ‘this is a hard and fast fact that there is a benefit, not
just to the individual, but to the company as well’."

Chiumento does a lot of work helping organisations implement a company
coaching culture. Companies are spending anything up to £250,000 a year on the
task, which Mason says takes at least 12 to 18 months of intensive activity
working closely with clients, combining one-to-one executive coaching of top
management with an up-skilling programme for other managers throughout the
organisation.

Chiumento is in the process of developing an online ‘coaching portal’ for
internal coaches in its client companies that will provide access to up-to-date
techniques and case studies. As the portal is developed further, it will
feature a network for corporate coaches to share ‘war stories’ and best
practice, says Mason.

External Coaches

Tesco worked closely with The Ken Blanchard Companies some years ago to
implement a company culture, and now only rarely has the need to call in an
external coach, according to group learning director Kim Birnie.

The company has put in place specific guidelines on the use of external
coaches and goes outside only selectively for the company’s most senior
managers or for those whose role is in transition. Even then, the coaching
stints are brief, averaging six to eight weeks in duration.

Tesco views coaching as a core management skill, and Birnie says every
manager is encouraged to be a coach – from the retailer’s 150 top tier managers
to the more than 20,000 first line managers in store. Coaching is used formally
in the company’s annual review process as well as ‘informally every day’, says
Birnie, and formal mechanisms are in place to monitor effectiveness. A
360-degree feedback process takes place at least every two years, in which line
managers at middle management and above are rated against the organisation’s
leadership competencies. This ‘totally confidential process’ takes input from
questionnaires completed by managers themselves as well as their bosses and
direct reports. The information is collated by an external bureau which then
issues a report.

"We also have an annual employee attitude survey and some questions
relate to how you’re being managed," Birnie adds. "We review that by
function and by team within function. Again, it’s confidential, but it does
indicate areas of weakness and strength."

Linking into existing organisational measures is an easy first step
companies can take to monitor coaching’s effectiveness, says Alison Carter,
principle research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies.

Warnings

Taking feedback from all individuals in the coaching chain is also
important, but she warns against getting an "overly rosy picture" by
relying too heavily on any one perspective – citing one company’s experience of
encountering more enthusiasm among those being coached than any other group
impacted by the initiative.

Carter’s latest research into coaching in top companies and large public
sector organisations is due to be published in the summer. Initial findings
indicate that demand for external coaches will continue to rise over the next
few years, as will the trend for in-company coaching initiatives. "Despite
the rhetoric of managers as coaches, what’s still popular at the moment is the
idea of external coaches," she says.

But she is beginning to pick up on strong concern among senior managers
about the practicality of funding coaching initiatives down the line and,
moreover, worries over a shortage of high-calibre coaches. She recently met
with management developers from 30 large companies who felt "they were
nearing the limit of good people, and lots of not-so-good people were jumping
on the bandwagon".

Carter believes we are still years away from a true state of
managers-as-coaches, and to help ensure that vision becomes a reality, she –
like Downey, Scoular and many other coaching practitioners and advocates –
feels the time has come to establish a professional association to set
standards, guidelines and regulations, and perhaps even professional
qualifications.

"You’re tinkering with people’s heads here. There is the potential for
harm in coaching relationships," says Carter, citing damage to a coachee’s
confidence as one counterproductive outcome that could arise from an improperly
trained coach. "Other areas of worry include coaches using tools and
techniques they are not actually qualified to use, such as personality
testing."

Defining coaching

Scoular wants to see large coaching companies, schools and coaching
consultants set up an interim working party within the next year to look at
establishing a professional association.

One thing she believes an association would do is to define coaching, which
is commonly confused with mentoring.

Coaching is about facilitating the coachee in enhancing their work
performance and personal growth. It is about listening, asking the right
questions, but never outright advising. In contrast, a mentor is assumed to be,
if not older, at least wiser and more experienced, and they are expected to
impart that wisdom directly to their ‘younger’ colleague.

Mentoring has a critical role in organisations today and has been
particularly important in the progression of women and other minority groups in
the workplace, says Scoular, but it is something altogether different from
coaching.

"If you confuse the two things then you lose them both – organisations
need both coaching and mentoring."

But for some, the distinction is academic. "Mentors and coaches are different
I know, but I don’t think the differences in skills used by each are that
great," says Bill Lucas, chief executive of the Campaign for Learning and
author of Power up your mind.

"The activities that take place in those relationships are more similar
than they are different."

Top tips for making a success of coaching

The coach/manager should:

– Make a new, clear contract with your direct reports that includes an
understanding of coaching and feedback

– Ensure that your direct reports have very clear performance and learning
goals that they buy into.  This provides
the material for coaching

– Use every opportunity to coach. Don’t just reserve it for formal
situations like appraisals

– Get it wrong but at least give it a go. There is only one mistake you can
make in coaching – to irreparably damage the relationship

– Remember that coaching is about performance and learning. It’s not a ‘nice
to do’, it’s a ‘must do’

The coachee/direct report should:

– Speak the truth. Coaching fails if it is not real and worthwhile

– Give the manager feedback on their coaching. There is no better way for
them to improve

– Make sure that you understand the underpinning models and theories

– Remember that you have rights too. If you are uncomfortable being coached
on matters that do not immediately relate to performance then discuss this with
your manager

– If your manager won’t coach you then find someone who will

The organisation should:

– Ensure participants are invited – not required – to attend

– Start by working with self-contained units such as departments. It’s
easier to create a new ‘culture’ and the results are more evident

– Do it properly – a minimum of five days’ training over three to four
months

– Actively engage leadership (e.g. head of department)

– Ensure there is an in-depth understanding of the three core
line-management proficiencies (leadership, management and coaching) and of the
relationships between them

Source: Myles Downey, co-owner and director of studies, The School of
Coaching. Contact: 020 7479 2203, www.theschoolofcoaching.com

This
article first appeared in the May 2002 edition of Training Magazine.  To subscribe click here

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