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Public and private-sector opinion diverges on the right conditions for cost-effective coaching

Public-sector coaching could be in danger of being left behind, while private corporations develop increasingly robust processes to monitor outcomes, according to a new report from the Institute of Business Consulting (IBC) together with the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). The qualitative survey says organisational buyers lack common standards and diverge in their approach, partly in response to the UK's current economic pressures. As a result, coaching in the public sector may look markedly different in the coming years from coaching in the private sector.

The IBC/EMCC study focused on areas including selection, monitoring and desired outcomes. They discovered diverse perspectives regarding what organisations considered the right conditions for effective and cost-effective coaching. 

The research asked participants about the nature and extent of sponsors’ involvement at all stages of the cycle (sourcing, selecting and matching coaches; involvement in setting coaching objectives and contracting; evaluation; ROI). Coaches routinely saw public-sector sponsors as more ‘light touch’, relying on selection procedures for quality assurance and accountability.

However, private-sector sponsors deem this unsatisfactory and are tightening up considerably. The private sector has become highly value-for-money conscious – robust contracting and close sponsor involvement being the cornerstones of ROI.   Corporate senior managers refer to ‘a new reality’ with emphasis on an unwavering focus on the agreed agenda and outcomes.

‘New reality’ is not a merely a euphemism for expecting coaches to become more directive or didactic to meet the sponsor’s brief. Private-sector sponsors strongly express the need for coaches to demonstrate:-

  • understanding of sponsor’s business sector or organisation   
  • commercial awareness
  • consulting skills: understanding the brief within the corporate context; and clearly stating what would be delivered and how, plus an alignment with the company’s internal procedures.

This vision shifts from earlier days when clients’ ownership of the agenda was regarded as paramount and the organisation took business benefits on trust.  The approach may depend on usage; public-sector coaching is often seen particularly as an asset to support radical structural and other change.

By contrast, most of the corporate respondents placed a high value upon their coaches’ understanding of their business and sector, rather than skill set.

The survey noted terms such as ‘affinity’, and ‘culture fit’ becoming prerequisites for hiring, with evidence being demanded regarding ‘what good leadership looks like in my field’. Previous similar experience has become mandatory in some private businesses backed by references, referral and sector pedigree.

Coaches themselves are demonstrating increasing preoccupation with ROI tools but sponsors are recognising their responsibility to monitor if the investment has been worthwhile. Sponsors also aired some frustration about fully engaging line managers in contracting and evaluation.

These concerns are reflected quantitatively in a very recent LeaderShape survey with Hays Senior Finance indicating that, while multi-millions of pounds are spent on coaching across the UK, nearly one in seven organisations (15%) have no formal measurements in place to assess their programmes.

The coaching community’s professional bodies have been striving towards professionalism, defining and setting standards through qualifications and individual accreditation. By contrast, coaches have concerns about business pressures to throw money at a problem and gain quick wins, rather than act strategically. This is acute, they say, where managers are implementing radical cuts, perhaps for the first time in their careers.

Individual preferences, reflecting organisational culture and structure, are emerging piecemeal, with the key decision-makers forging their own path.  As the number of coaches grows, businesses strongly express the need to see a differentiated offering. Companies say attempts to ensure coaches represent different approaches and specialties are proving onerous; they drily note they still end up with ‘too many white women with a background in HR’.

A further split is seen whereby registers are appearing for the public sector, regarding pooled, reciprocal internal coaching. To improve the standards for internal coaches, post graduate certificates are emerging, such as LeaderShape’s post-graduate certificate in coach-mentoring and facilitation in organizations, accredited by the University of Chester, which covers the spectrum of needs for internal coach training.  Even where internal coaching capability expands, external suppliers are still preferred at the most senior levels, partly for reasons of confidentiality and partly to bring in the greatest expertise.   Kudos is also as a factor.

The IBC/EMCC survey identified an ‘ideal’ style – inherently non-directive, characterised by a high degree of attentiveness and concentration, with vigorous challenge and skilful feedback (as well as strong adherence to set objectives, as previously noted.) Benefits identified included structured reflection, raised self- awareness and confidence, better strategic working and countering loneliness in leadership.  Risks include dependency and anxiety about the sustainability of behaviour change. ‘On boarding’ coaching for newly appointed senior executives was mentioned by a few, mostly private-sector participants, but always in glowing terms regarding settling new talent into senior positions.

Chris Gulliver is director of LeaderShape