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Coaching: the latest L&D favourite

Research has found that L&D professionals are embracing coaching as their preferred business tool.

With the rise of online and m-learning (that’s mobile), you might expect the most popular L&D tool for 2014 to be some amazing, intuitive new piece of technology. But businesses are getting back to basics; focusing on good old face-to-face interaction. As a result, coaching is enjoying a bit of a moment.

Individual and team coaching

According to Henley Business School’s fifth annual Corporate Learning Priorities Survey, individual and team coaching are the top two L&D tools for 2014, while the CIPD’s 2014 annual Learning and Development Survey found 76% of organisations currently offer coaching or mentoring in some form and, of those that don’t, 12% intend to introduce it in the next year.

“It can be a really important method of making sure employees are reaching their full potential and getting the opportunity to discuss issues that might be affecting them,” says Ruth Stuart, learning and development research adviser at the CIPD. Coaching can be done either through formal sessions, perhaps as one-to-one meetings, or informally between staff on the shop floor, she suggests.

A notable recent trend is growth in the use of internal coaching, either through developing coaching skills in certain individuals – who can then pass these on to line managers – or people who have a full- or part-time role as a coach. “With the growth of internal coaching communities, we’ve seen a decrease in the number of people who are being referred to external coaching, but a growth in the amount of overall coaching activity,” says Peter Hawkins, professor of leadership at Henley Business School.

Gillian Pillans is author of the report Coaching – Business Essential or Management Fad, produced by the Corporate Research Forum (CRF). She has also seen a trend towards the use of internal coaches, but points out that 57% of organisations still use external coaches for most or all mentoring. “There are pluses and minuses to that,” she says. “It can be more cost-effective to use an internal coach, and you have someone who’s up to speed on the culture and business issues of the organisation. There’s also more flexibility. But a typical coaching meeting with an external coach will be anything between 60 and 120 minutes, whereas with internal coaches it tends to be an hour or less.”

Outside help

Jaguar Land Rover has recently overhauled its coaching set-up as part of a wider refresh of its training arrangements. External providers have been used to develop coaching programmes for all employees around optimising performance. “When people get assigned an external coach they have public and private objectives, but at least one of them has to be measurable,” says Beth Evans, head of learning and development at Jaguar Land Rover. “That might be around reducing cost, increasing revenue or coming up with a really brilliant bit of innovation.”

Working with both Lane4 and Blue Beetle Training and drawing on scenarios using live actors, the business has also looked to develop coaching skills for managers, with the aim of ultimately building up more of its own in-house capability. “Eventually we want to be more sustainable about coaching our own people,” says Evans.

How coaching is being used within organisations has also changed over the past few years, with CRF’s research showing a greater use of it for senior positions, and a steady decline since 2008 in cases where it is offered for all levels of employee.

The most common reasons for instigating a coaching initiative are to assist with the transition to a more senior role, cited in 67.5% of cases, in response to an ad hoc request from an individual or line manager (67.9%) and as part of an executive development programme (56.1%). The CIPD’s research, meanwhile, suggests coaching is particularly effective around talent management initiatives, where 46% of L&D professionals placed it in their top three tools, higher than any other activity.

“Organisations are talking much more about blended learning,” says Pillans. “They might have an executive development course, but increasingly that has been accompanied by on-the-job coaching, to help embed the learning that people have in offline courses.”

This is an approach adopted by professional services firm Deloitte, which draws on coaching to help develop leadership skills for high-potential individuals. “We have over 14,000 people, so to offer coaching to all of those individuals would not be practical,” says Stevan Rolls, UK head of HR. “It tends to kick in around senior manager level, and to be related to specific programmes that people would go on, such as leadership or commercial development.”

He’s keen to stress, however, that its use is not remedial. “It might just be at the point where somebody is going to be expanding their responsibilities or taking on a bigger team,” he says. Most of the coaching is done internally by those in more senior positions, although the firm often brings in external coaches for executive development.

Informal and extensive

Yet there are examples of coaching being used throughout an employee base. Restaurant chain KFC, for instance, has equipped all its restaurant managers to be able to deliver informal coaching to staff.

“One example of something they could be coached by the restaurant manager would be in customer service,” says Karen Ancira, organisational development director for KFC UK & Ireland. The business even intends to change the job title of restaurant managers to “restaurant coaches” – a change it has already made with its area managers – to reflect the importance of coaching to the organisation, adds Ancira.

However, there are challenges for organisations wanting to go down the coaching route. One, suggests Henley’s Hawkins, is to ensure coaching becomes part of the everyday way in which individuals – and teams – operate. “There’s lots of evidence that coaching delivers a great deal in the areas of personal development and relationship skills, but much less around how it has been used to deliver organisational change and business improvement,” he says. Coaches need to move towards seeing the wider organisational goals, particularly when they come from outside the business, he adds.

Pillans highlights a particular concern around how the impact of coaching is measured. “We found a lack of systematic approaches to evaluation,” she says. “Some businesses are measuring the impact of coaching after the event but to really evaluate the effectiveness properly, you have to start before the coaching assignment begins.” This involves creating a baseline to measure the current levels of skills or attributes being coached, she says, and then doing this again afterwards.

HR and L&D professionals also need to be aware of the need to ensure those tasked with coaching others have the necessary skills and support in place ahead of undertaking any assignments. “Don’t assume one day that you can start delivering coaching and then start doing it straight away,” warns CIPD’s Stuart. “It can seem like quite an easy thing to do because it’s essentially having conversations with somebody but it’s much more complicated in reality, and the skills you need to be an effective coach take time to build and shouldn’t be underestimated. You need to put in quite a lot of effort to get it right.”

Organisational coaching

The nature of organisational coaching is also likely to evolve over the coming years, says Hawkins, particularly with the development of team coaching as businesses look to build effective leadership teams rather than individuals. “Leadership doesn’t just reside in individuals; it resides in relationships and connections,” he says.

“We need people who can understand individual dynamics, interpersonal dynamics, team dynamics, group dynamics and wider system dynamics, as well as wider business issues,” he adds. “At the top end of organisations, we’re likely to see the demand for systemic team coaching outpacing supply, while in external individual coaching supply will outpace demand.”

Where an effective coaching culture exists and is linked in with overall business ambitions, it has the potential to help organisations remain fit for purpose. They can develop and retain the talent they require; something Evans hopes will be the case at Jaguar Land Rover.

“We’re trying to do a big cultural transformation,” she says. “It’s a cliché to say that people are your most valuable asset, but they absolutely are for us because it’s expensive to recruit new ones. We have increasing skill shortages so it’s in our interests to grow our own talent. Coaching is a key part of that.”