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Anton Franckeiss

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The coaching dilemma


Dr Anton Franckeiss of ASK looks at how the spending review might affect the coaching profession's ability to make a positive impact in the workplace.
The spending review has happened now, and many public sector organisations (and their private sector suppliers) will be reduced, if not to skeleton services, then certainly to something noticeably closer to the bone. The way that this will be largely achieved, just as in surgery, is by removing flesh. Or, as we refer to it when we're feigning a more gentile demeanour, people: depending on your preferred sources, somewhere between 490,000 of them by 2014-15 (according to the OBR) or 725,000 in a CIPD estimate in a press release on 21 October. Either way, this is going to be more like a gastric band than an aerobics video.
As more organisations are forced to reduce their workforces, coaching is being used more as an alternative way of fostering innovation, productivity and employee engagement. But as coaching becomes widespread (or perhaps, we should say, a bigger proportion of the learning and development mix: the reality may prove to be a bigger slice of a smaller cake), is its benefit being diluted as its pool of professionals adapt their skills to a wider audience that encompasses a broader and more disparate range of needs?
Business leaders (by which we refer also to those managing public sector organisations) now, more than ever, demand a level of expertise and specialist knowledge that many generalist coaches simply don't possess due to the range of areas they work in. Budgets have to be justified, so benefits from coaching need to be more visible than ever.
"Budgets have to be justified, so benefits from coaching need to be more visible than ever."
Coaching has long been widely regarded as unlikely to produce measurable business benefits or clear evidence of a contribution to increased revenues. The industry – and the practice of it - suffers from a perception that the discussions that take place at coaching sessions are too general, non-specific and intangible in terms of how they relate to the objectives and overall strategy of the coachee's business and their specific areas of responsibility and targets. Consequently, coaching tends to be first against the wall when the FD looks at the numbers.
As an industry, even (and that might perhaps, given recent history, be 'especially') in the public sector, coaching can be its own worst enemy: the CSR can hardly have been said to have arrived out of the blue. Accountability for, and relevance of, spending has not been – whatever some of the populist media wish us to believe – an alien concept in the UK. Furthermore, the notions that any form of training and development needs to be relevant and to align the development of the individual with the needs and aims of the business should be ingrained in L&D professionals. Like any other L&D intervention, coaching isn't an act of compassion.
To address its critics – who can safely be described as ready and willing, if not necessarily able – and to deliver on its promise, it is therefore critical to the success of coaching that the agenda is properly and correctly set from the outset. A vital component of this is the notion of what might be called 'triangulation'. The first coaching session should be, at least in part, a 'getting to know you' opportunity for both coach and coachee: it's imperative to ascertain the potential effectiveness of the coaching relationship as quickly as possible, so that a coach who provides a more productive fit can be substituted where necessary.
The overall objectives will already have been set – why else would coaching have been agreed to and budgets signed off? – and the session provides not just a chance to sketch a more detailed plan of action but to conduct a feasibility study: coaching is inherently personal, and the personal relationship must be compatible with the coaching relationship. The business skills and experience of the executive coach, as distinct from their coaching skills and experience, are critical here in establishing their own credibility: hiring a coach whose opinions you can easily dismiss is to miss the point. The colloquial Romanian expression for cheating – stealing your own hat – describes this charmingly, but underestimates the value of the hat.
But the first session should also crucially include the facility for the coachee's line manager to attend and contribute to setting the coaching agenda. The line manager can then be invited back at key points throughout the coaching assignment to touch base with the progress and direction of the coaching, and also to provide an evaluation - from the line manager's perspective - of the progress being made in the coachee's performance as observed 'back at the ranch'.
"The agenda setting phase can - and should - include some clear measures of intended improvements in performance. These outcomes are likely to be of more value where they have percentage or financial targets attached"
The added advantage is that the line manager better understands the benefit of the coaching and, at a basic level, will also more likely understand that their report's absence from the workplace for two hours every three weeks, for example, is advantageous to the business and fully justified. They can witness first hand – and see from the results - that their member of staff is not just taking time off for a cosy fireside chat with someone they get on with. (If they are, they can act swiftly to remedy the situation.)
The agenda setting phase can - and should - include some clear measures of intended improvements in performance. (Our own coaching is frequently supported by online follow-through tools that support, encourage, monitor and maintain the coachee's progress to strengthen both evaluation and the effective transfer and application of new skills and behaviours.) These outcomes are likely to be of more value where they have percentage or financial targets attached, as they will be (correctly) perceived as providing evidence of 'bottom-line' success.
Arguing for your L&D and coaching budgets is going to be a more rigorous activity for the next few years, so let me offer you an analogy from one of the main seats of finance. You're probably familiar with bulls (optimists) and bears (pessimists), but you might have overlooked pigs: high-risk investors looking for quick, big returns who invest without due diligence. Warren Buffet didn't get rich on hunches and a lack of groundwork; coaching that doesn't make sure its clients' needs will be met won't get much of a return on its money either. And there's an old stock market saying: "Bulls make money, bears make money, but pigs just get slaughtered!" There's no reason that coaching should end up categorised in this way - we'll have reason enough for squealing in the months ahead as it is. 
Dr Anton Franckeiss is practice director of ASK


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