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The success of coaching depends on clear objectives and rigorous measurement

Is coaching becoming a panacea for leadership development? The UK's largest organisations, such as the Institute of Directors, the NHS and Disney, are among those promoting coaching programmes for their management teams.

One-to-one coaching is at its best when helping people work through specific, sensitive individual issues in a very safe environment. It is not at its best when the organisations require the input of team members; then it is important that the focus is on the desired strategic outcome (the solution) rather than just the correct delivery of a product (coaching).

In many situations a balanced approach of group facilitation or team coaching (including knowledge transfer and action learning) needs to be combined with one-to- one coaching and interventions such as reflection, meditation, experiential learning and 360° assessments to be effective within the budget.

Major company coaching schemes launched with great fanfare may lack desired objectives, so there can be no measurement against them. Key concerns being reported are:

  • No consistency in the quality of coaches
  • Unclear objectives
  • Lack of rigorous procedures to ensure objectives are being met
  • Coaching managers that are not ready to be coached
  • Lack of support from top management

In the current market increasing reliance is being placed on internally run programmes. But without the necessary training, support and checking systems, companies may not even know about all the coaching that is going on and have no way of measuring if they are spending relatively large sums of money at all wisely.

Where the process works well, companies set a strong framework for interventions and use a range of strategies.  As leadership development experts and business coach-mentors, we at LeaderShape have run peer groups for in-house leadership programmes up to chief executive level over the last decade. We find that personal application of theory, including participative discussion in small groups is by far the most effective.

The European Mentoring and Coaching Council reports coaching is holding up in terms of price, suggesting it is the intervention of choice for many enterprises.  But HR is significantly losing its influence and the input of coachees and their line-managers is also diminishing.  Procurement departments - which may be given little information about the individual and their development needs - now buy 16% of coaching services.  Their only remit is to buy effectively yet they are potentially being asked to make a judgment on such issues as personality fit.

Reflection might be worthwhile.  Just because a coach has plenty of prior experience (the key factor in deciding to appoint) it does not necessarily mean they have the right skills that are appropriate for that client in that situation. This is becoming a ‘who you know' rather than ‘what you know' game.

As discussed earlier, the ability of a business to measure outcomes seems to be less important than ever before.  Something is surely amiss here. In what other field would business spend the money without aims and objective measurements?

At director level and above, 90% of coachees are coached by qualified, usually external consultants; but at senior and middle management level, more than a third are being coached by their own line manager - an individual rarely even supported to carry out the role.

Some solutions may lie in qualifications such as the post graduate certificate in coaching, mentoring and facilitation in organisations developed by LeaderShape and accredited by Chester University, an established leader in business work-based learning qualifications. This aims to ensure monies are more efficiently allocated to fit with objectives and, uniquely in the UK, covers all three major types of intervention. Line managers and HR practitioners are using the qualification to build stronger in-house knowledge and expertise to identify, deliver and evaluate learning, development and training needs. 

Organisations buying coaching learn to:

  • Set desired outcomes before deciding to employ coaching (however well delivered)
  • Adopt a much more holistic approach to talent development and succession planning to identify where coaching can best integrate with other interventions
  • Seek coaches who can access a range of interventions to provide a solution, not just a service
  • Develop an in-house group of trained coach-mentor-facilitators who know when to bring in outside help and how to embed learning into the organisation.

The objective is to attain a superior return on their L&D investment.

Nicki Mehsen is the vice president of HR European shared services at TJX Europe - better known by its shop fronts as TK Maxx.  The company puts a high value on processes and sets a list of behaviours required from employees, scoping these out at different levels. It is obvious to staff how they can progress from one role to the next, by achieving these outcomes. A range of different interventions is then used to support these very transparent organisational expectations.

Mehsen explains: "Our strategy changes at such a pace that we aim to develop talent and specific behavioural outcomes, rather than business objectives.  Coaching is just one tool used in the context of a well-defined process dealing with both ‘fire-fighting' problems and longer-term leadership development.

"An early line of approach might be a ‘buddy' - someone at the same level who has had a series of courses covering basic mentoring skills. We keep it as informal as possible but HR checks both sides are happy to work together and an agreement is drawn up - so aims and outcomes are specifically captured.  Along with notes from both parties, these are kept on file.  

"It is important that anybody internal who is coaching or mentoring has the skills and understanding to do the job properly.  It doesn't matter whether it is HR or line managers involved in these initiatives.  Learning facilitation skills are equally or even more important for group coaching and managing internal learning sets. 

"It seems very valuable to develop training across coaching, mentoring and group facilitation. Any course should have credibility (and be properly accredited).  Then companies who put their staff through can feel confident about the quality and robustness of their internal coaches and mentors. I am a believer in the value of action learning sets and see real value in including this aspect."

PSCAL is an NHS finance and information company.  Director Mike Singer has been involved in a peer-group programme over a number of years run by LeaderShape in partnership with the Institute of Directors.  

He says: "One of the things that quickly surprised me about group coaching is that people from diverse industries do share exactly the same problems.  You get perhaps a dozen different perspectives and experiences, but no one has a vested interest.  That makes for very powerful give-and-take.

"For example, as well as discussions about the latest management trends, processes or techniques, our coaching group focused on emotional intelligence - of which we didn't have a great deal of to start with. Over time we developed the ability to support each other. The group provided a structured way of dealing with several issues perhaps in one session - from staff selection, to dispute resolution, to finance - anything a leader has to face.

"This group work was at its best when interlinked with one-to-one coaching -  usually about a specific issue but not something bite-sized or fixed. Here I would be looking to deal with issues where there might be complex interplay, taking time to realise the right approach.

"The combination of inputs has helped me to take a more strategic view of my business and solve problems by sharing the experiences of others.

"Supply is currently leading demand. The trained and qualified coach may be pitted against the guy with the nice hair cut and tie, and a smart brochure.  He may lose out to the guy who looks slicker and it is increasingly important to know how to quantify requirements and measure results."

John Knights is chairman at LeaderShape