CIPD Podcast 80 - Is coaching actually solving problems for organisations?

Date: 02/07/13 Duration: 00:18:15

Coaching has become the generic solution to a plethora of HR development needs but is it always the right approach and are we using it effectively? John McGurk, CIPD Adviser, Learning & Talent, Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership, Henley Business School, Heather Townsend, Director, Excedia Group, and Neil Morrison, Group HR Director, Random House, discuss.


Peter Hawkins: One of my favourite questions when I meet with HR directors is several of them will very proudly say to me, “Look we’ve got external coaches, we’ve got an internal coaching community, we’ve got training for managers with coaching skills and we even do coaching with our customers.” And sometimes I’ll ask them, “Well how many coaching conversations do you have every month?” and they’ll say, “Oh it must be thousands,” and I ask them a very simple question and I say, “So how does your organisation learn from those thousands of coaching conversations?” and very few can answer that question. 

Philippa Lamb: That was Peter Hawkins from Henley Business School and we’ll hear more from him later. And coaching has indeed become the generic solution to a plethora of HR development needs but is it always the right approach and are we using it effectively? John McGurk is the CIPD adviser on learning and talent. 

John McGurk: I use the term coaching as like organisational aspirin because everybody takes it for every solution and it isn’t a solution always. It’s not always the right approach. Coaching isn’t the cure-all for everything in organisations, it’s got to be used mindfully and when people use it mindlessly and just say, “Let’s get coaching in there,” and they don’t really think about what it takes to support it and to build it and to change the behaviours and change the culture then you do get half-baked, woolly coaching. 

PL: The CIPD’s learning and talent development survey tells us that most employers do use coaching and they’re turning to it more and more often. Peter Hawkins again. 

PH: I suppose I've been involved in coaching since it first begun in the late 1970s and in those 30 years we have seen an enormous growth, exponential growth in coaching. Coaching in that time has made a great contribution, particularly in the areas of how do we have more of the development of leaders on the job with real issues than in the classroom but all the research suggests that we are delivering a lot in terms of personal development but very little evidence that we’re delivering the organisational change that’s needed, or the growth in collective leadership that's needed. 

PL: The question is what do we really mean by coaching and how do we make it really effective? Heather Townsend is a director at Excedia Group.

Heather Townsend: The challenge we’ve got is that any expert adviser or mentor has jumped on the coaching bandwagon. So they’re not a coach but it sounds sexy. Let’s put coaching after my title. So I'm a sales coach, I'm a marketing coach, I'm a relationship coach, I'm a stop smoking coach. And actually they’re not, they’re an expert or adviser. So first of all we’ve got to kind of strip back what we mean by a coach. The problem is the whole kind of learning and organisation world just thinks, ‘Everything’s fine we’ll do a bit of e-learning and then coaching on top. Job done! Tick box – move on.’ And that's the problem. 

PL: Coaching needs to be carefully used and it’s not always the right solution in every case. So stripped back what is coaching really good at? 

JM: It’s about awareness and responsibility. The individual comes to an awareness and takes responsibility and the coach helps them to come to that realisation and then helps them to do something about it. 

PL: Coaching using one to one discussions to enhance skills, knowledge and a work performance but according to Neil Morrison, group HR director at Random House, it’s often used at the wrong moment. 

Neil Morrison: Often it gets introduced where there is a problem. So we’ve got a problem so come and solve the problem. And that isn’t for me the ideal use of coaching. I think the ideal use of coaching is when the individual themselves is bringing something and saying, “I've got a decision I've got to make about my career.” Or, “I've got a circumstance where I've gone into a new team and I want to work on how I embed myself there.” And then the coach can be really valuable and really powerful. I think when it’s seen as a sort of remedial intervention then it detracts a little bit from the power.

PL: Contrary to popular belief most coaching is done internally by line managers. In fact less than 15% of all coaching is carried out by external coaches. None the less, embedding a culture of coaching in-house is quite a task. John McGurk. 

JM: The real challenge is the cultural one of getting line managers to start acting in a coach-like way when they manage on a day to day basis. 

PL: And in your experience is that quite a barrier? 

JM: That is a barrier but I think with real effort from the L & TD function it can really happen and there's really good examples of it. The last one I heard of is of Hilton Hotels who have done exactly that. They had no coaching whatsoever in their organisation and they thought that the way to develop managers was to get line manager coaching into the organisation and through a persistent systematic programme which I think has been over about two years they’ve managed to get line managers to act much more in a coaching-focused way in terms of how they do their day to day job and that's really an example that's repeated in various other companies like, for example, Southern Railway which are still using coaching in their maintenance function. They are still using coaching with their marketing teams and their retail sales people. It’s all about trying to embed the idea of having a supportive and challenging conversation rather than a kind of confrontational finger-pointing approach from managers and that's really the cultural shift that's needed. 

PL: The Random House Group is one of the largest publishing companies in the UK. When Neil Morrison arrived there in 2008 he set to work on weaving coaching into the very fibre of the organisation. 

NM: So initially it was a response to coming into an organisation and seeing a huge amount of external coaches making a lot of money in our organisation. So the first thing we did was to train a number of senior individuals as coaches internally. So they went on a programme that allowed them to use their skills internally to help transform both their teams on an informal basis but also other teams on a more formal basis and it was a kind of double win because those individuals came away feeling engaged, feeling invested in, feeling valued but they were also able to support the individual. So, for example, we’re now using it as part of our leadership programme. Every single person on there has an internal coach, so that could be a member of the board or a member of the executive team in general working with those young, well I say young, less experienced leaders, to help develop them alongside formal development interventions.
PL: Random House is at the forefront of a seismic change in the publishing marketplace. Their burning question is how to continue to innovate and to drive efficiency against a backdrop of what is still at heart a very traditional business. 

NM: Our industry is one that's going through a large amount of transition so it’s not something that has a start, a middle and an end. It’s around a continuous approach programme of being able to keep people confident in dealing with the challenges that they face in their areas and I think what coaches have done in that space is to be able to support people with their thinking, with the challenges, with their fears even. 

PL: So it’s an ongoing readiness process. 

NM: Absolutely, 2008 when I joined the organisation the Kindle didn’t exist, iPad didn’t exist and people were talking about e-books as the big fear. That's now part of the way that we do business and maybe now there are issues where people are looking at how we communicate with consumers and how we talk directly with consumers. So it’s a different group of people that are going through a transition and the internal coaching capability allows us to deploy people to support those departments as they go through that rather than a kind of formal programme. 

PL: At Random House they have a pool of internal coaches and coaching is part and parcel of their leadership programme too. Elsewhere coaching is often seen as the short term solution detached from business goals but the companies that run successful coaching programmes integrate them with their business strategy and see coaching as an ongoing process. John McGurk again. 

JM: I think the organisations that really engage with coaching and start to think about what the consequences are for having systematic, constructive coaching engagements and linking them to all other programmes, learning programmes, talent, leadership, development, those who do that actually get a real benefit. One of the best examples I can think of, of doing that, is the jewellery company Signet which basically owns H. Samuel and they, like all other jewellers in the high street, have gone through a massive problem in terms of retail sales falling off the cliff with the recession. What they did was they developed a coaching approach because they had a really active learning and development leader who understood that one way that they would triumph in this very difficult market was to have people thinking constantly about customer service in a mindful way. One of the best benefits of coaching is it helps people to reflect and think about how they do things and then to improve and it helps them to do that without the whip of disciplinary action. Now this is an organisation which is very sales driven, where the sales director actually sponsored the coaching programme and in that organisation the improvement in sales was incredible. I think they improved their sales by about 8% in a time when everybody else’s sales were falling about 10% to 15%. So that's a direct indication of what can happen when you do it properly. 

PL: Which brings us to one of the biggest challenges facing coaching – metrics. The lack of hard evidence about the benefits is undermining its reputation. So how should we measure? 

HT: With difficulty. I think you'll probably find that's one of the biggest stumbling blocks the learning and development community has. It’s how do you actually measure all of that. The reason why most people can't measure it is they haven’t answered the first question which is why are we doing this? And it’s not because so and so needs to go on a course, so and so needs some coaching, it’s organisationally what is the need? What is the impact or what do we need to change to be seen as being a success? And then you can start to put measures around that. If you can't put measures around that you cannot determine the ROI and I would almost say as learning practitioners before we get asked to do activity we need to challenge our clients, whether internal or external, on what are we trying to impact? What are we trying to do differently? And then you can put some, what I call, indicators in to actually see whether you've got success. 

PL: Heather Townsend. According to John McGurk looking for hard metrics is a losing game. 

JM: The problem with all the learning and development evaluation is that everybody is obsessed with doing things like Kirkpatrick or ROI and without getting into that, that's a whole conference isn’t it? And its shortcomings but for coaching I think the best approach is to look at what we call return on expectations. What did you expect to improve by someone being coached or mentored? 

PL: So that's the start of the process isn’t it?

JM: Absolutely. 

PL: You absolutely have to know that before you go anywhere. 

JM: Absolutely and when coaching’s properly organised and you know if you've got a coach who doesn’t do this that they’re not a proper business coach, if they don’t contract with line managers and talk about what’s the expected outcome, if they don’t talk to stakeholders, if they don’t talk to the organisation about what’s expected of the individual and they just get into a sort of secret conversation with the individual and use confidentiality as a comfort blanket to do nothing that's actually got any meaning for the organisation then they are not a proper coach. 

PL: At Random House coaching is part of an ongoing effort to embed agility and readiness so the type of goals that are set and the process for setting them is flexible. 

NM: It’s part of the formal programme such as our leadership programme, the goals are set by the employee themselves and then agreed with the coach and the line manager but it could also be something where we know that a department is going through a particular change and the line manager would be more directive in terms of the goals that they would suggest to the individual. But yes I mean in those circumstances they’re probably not the smartest objectives in the typical sense but I'm kind of okay with that I think as long as everyone has a shared understanding of what’s trying to be achieved then that's okay and that will transition over time.

PL: Now it’s interesting you put it that way because obviously we’ve had conversations with various people around this, some of them have talked about return on investment, John McGurk talked about return on expectations, which struck me as quite an interesting and useful way of expressing it, that sounds like what you’re talking about. 

NM: Certainly and I mean I would never set out to try and measure return on investment on coaching. 

PL: Not possible or not desirable? 

NM: I don't think it’s possible and actually I think you could spend a lot of time trying to chase down a number when actually the return on investment is over decades with that individual’s performance. An early example in 2010 when we set up the coaching programme, we had an editor who was going in to pitch for a particular book with a celebrity and just two hours before, they went to see their coach in tears unable to stand up, feeling unconfident about the whole process. They went in, they pitched, they won the book. And they came out and said, “If it wasn't for my coach I wouldn’t have been able to do that.” Now you could try and quantify and say, well that book generated X amount of money, but actually it wasn't about that, it was about the person feeling confident and therefore being able to transfer that into the organisation as they go forward rather than that one piece. I think it is about organisational capability rather than just individual capability and when you get those anecdotes those are the strongest evidence for a board that you could want when people within the organisation are saying, “This was really valuable to me,” as opposed to L & D or HR people saying this was really valuable to the organisation. 

PL: There are common pitfalls though and Peter Hawkins has seen organisations that have got coaching very wrong. 

PH: Well at its worst I went into the retailer which discovered that they were spending well over £1m on coaching. There was no coordination of that, there was no sense of…it was all in different people’s budgets. 

PL: No measurement of outcomes? 

PH: No measurement of outcomes. 

PL: So you can spend a lot of money on this and not know what you’re getting. 

PH: Absolutely. Or have any mechanism for even knowing where it’s happening and basically people were contacting who they knew and somebody they met at the golf club. What I would say is I think the UK on the whole are ahead of a lot of other countries in not only developing effective coaching strategies and effective coaching cultures but also, for instance, I've done a lot of work around coaching supervision. I don't think any organisation should be employing external coaches that are not supervised. 

JM: Coaching, like any other intervention which doesn’t really have a regulated professional closed set of skills, means that anybody can really call themselves a coach. A lot of organisations have taken our advice when we developed our Coaching And Buying Coaching Services report, not the most sort of “off the tip of the tongue” title but it says exactly what it does which is, if you need to buy coaching then here’s how you should do it, you should look at tendering properly, you should look at assessing people’s skills on the job, you should see how they would scenario plan different situations, how they would work with different cohorts. But we have to make sure we have quality control and ensure that HR or L & D in particular has the skills to do that. 

PL: John McGurk. Coaching can be woolly and generic and it’s often misunderstood or implemented poorly. When it’s used effectively though, it can be highly sophisticated and hugely beneficial. Peter Hawkins. 

PH: I think one of the big shake ups we need in the whole coaching industry for it to have a successful next 30 years is what I term the new paradigm of coaching. That is, rather than see the individual sitting opposite you as your client and facing them as your client, asking them what they want from coaching, you have to start somewhere else. You have to start to see them as your partner and go shoulder to shoulder with them as a partner, not as a client and as a partner. The two of you are both facing what is it that tomorrow’s world needs them to step up to that they’re struggling to step up to? Then we have a joint enterprise and coaching becomes a collaborative partnership endeavour, not how do I help you with what you think you need to learn? 

Next month fascinating CIPD research into what financial sector workers in the city really think about reward and risk taking in their own organisations. Join me then.


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