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Coaching: Flavour of the Month or Firm Favourite?


Flavour of the month - Ice CreamMyles Downey says that coaching may be on everyone's lips but some extra toppings (ROI anyone?) wouldn't go amiss.

All the evidence suggests that the uptake of coaching, in the UK and Europe at least, continues on an ever-upward path. After more that 20 years plying my trade I think I can say, with some comfort, that coaching is more than the flavour of the month.

With this uptake comes an increase in the professionalism of both providers and buyers, although anecdotal evidence suggests that there is still some way to go towards a clearer understanding of what coaching can deliver to an organisation in terms of business results. Coaching is currently mostly associated with the learning and development agenda – just look at who the buyers are – and not the performance agenda.

There are two quite distinct uses of coaching in the business world: the provision of executive coaching to the chosen few (a good thing) and the development of coaching skills in the leadership and management population. My assertion that buyers often overlook the business results gained from coaching is most true in the executive coaching realm.

Photo of Miles Downey"It is broadly true that UK business is missing out on a significant return for little or no extra effort."

Myles Downey, founder of School of Coaching

The coaching agenda is mainly concerned with becoming a leader, behavioural change or personal development. These are all valid concerns but they start in the wrong place. Coaching is at its most powerful when the agenda starts with "what are you here to achieve?" The development agenda can then work in service of better performance. It also means that the return on investment is evident and therefore measurable.

I am aware that I am making some very sweeping statements and that what I am saying may not be true in every case, but I assert that it is broadly true and that UK business is missing out on a significant return for little or no extra effort. A simple chart that has three columns (learning and development goals, performance goals and success measures) created at the beginning of a coaching relationship and shared with others beyond the coach and player, will significantly enhance the value of the intervention to the organisation. This creates a coaching contract that spells out the performance result aimed for, the personal development needed and the evidence of return on investment.

I am not saying here that coaching should always be about performance – coaching someone to develop towards their next role is a meaningful exercise – but I am saying that coaching for higher performance is all too frequently overlooked.

"The idea that 'I manage in a coaching style' is dangerous as management and coaching are not about style - they are different activities."

In the second domain - training managers and leaders to coach - the issue is similar. Training programmes are designed with only a cursory look at the strategic intent because it seems that it is self-evident that managers and leaders should coach. Indeed, many assume that they were mysteriously blessed with the skills within weeks of their first supervisory role (forgive my cynicism). Training managers to coach to a reasonable level is not very difficult. Getting the managers' to buy-in is much more complex, and ensuring that their behaviour changes as a result is most difficult of all.

There are two particular issues that reduce the impact of coaching skills training and thus limit the gains to the organisation. The first is that in most programmes there is insufficient clarity given about when to coach, when to manage and when to lead. The idea that 'I manage in a coaching style' is dangerous as management and coaching are not about style; they are different activities. Management is about clarifying roles, goals, expectations and holding people to account. Coaching is different because it is concerned with how a task is performed. When you are managing you have the authority, the final say. When coaching, the direct report has the authority – they think through for themselves how they uniquely will deliver their role and meet goals. If this is not understood the direct report is likely to be seriously de-motivated.

"Many assume that they were mysteriously blessed with (coaching) skills within weeks of their first supervisory role."

The second issue is that little focus is given to the application of coaching skills. There is a kind of assumption that, once trained, the manager will go forth and coach. Most of us cannot change our behaviour overnight. If the coaching is aligned with a clear strategic intent, such as performance management or employee engagement, it is much easier to prepare the manager for a specific conversation and they are more likely to remember to give coaching a go.

In both the cases of delivering executive coaching and training managers to coach, improved performance should be the fundamental reason for the coaching intervention. The return on investment is therefore much easier to identify and measure, and coaching as a discipline will continue to thrive.

Myles Downey is the founder of School of Coaching.


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