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Xmas crackers: Everybody wants to be a coach

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crackersBut do they know where it's at? Andrew Mayo picks up on the coaching beat and says not everything else is obsolete.





The coach is ubiquitous today, core to one of the fastest growing industries in the services sector. What used to be the privilege of a few people at the top is now widely extended in organisations. Today the coach comes with the Blackberry and the docking laptop as the necessary package of anyone who is anyone. Coaching follows most leadership development programmes as a matter of course. And it seems that nearly everyone I come across who is leaving the corporate world is going into coaching, and a range of certification options have sprung up in the last few years.

Do I hear organisations telling me that the quality of their leaders and managers is steadily rising as a result of all this support, or that performance is measurably improving? That might be asking a lot of course at the macro level. In 2003 (28 July) TrainingZone.co.uk printed an article called 'Measuring snowflakes – calculating the RoI from executive coaching'. The methodology was straight out of the book. First set your target business measure improvements (such as productivity, quality, customer satisfaction). Do your coaching and measure what happens and then apply the normal RoI formulae. Fine. But I have to ask, how often does the coaching relationship start with such hard business objectives?

Photo of Andrew Mayo"I have no doubt that many people do improve skills where there is focused effort. But there are certainly other, probably cheaper, ways to do so."

Andrew Mayo, Mayo Learning

They are much more likely to be built around more nebulous desires to improve some areas of soft skills. This is no surprise since most competency frameworks are heavily, sometimes exclusively, populated with such skills and these form the platform for appraisals and 360° feedback – which in turn lead to coaching. I have no doubt that many people do improve such skills where there is focused effort. But there are certainly other, probably cheaper, ways to do so.

Don’t let me give the impression I am against coaching. Far from it. I believe it is a fundamental and very effective form of learning – particularly when it is done 'on the job' or within the real work situation. Coaching can be done by anyone with the right mindset – it is old-fashioned, hierarchical thinking to believe it is a one-way passage from manager to subordinate. It can, in some circumstances be the reverse – and certainly can be from colleagues. The opportunity to learn coaching skills should be widely available.

"Coaching can be done by anyone with the right mindset – it is old-fashioned, hierarchical thinking to believe it is a one way passage from manager to subordinate."
I certainly buy the case for external coaching for very senior people who need to have advice on matters that are difficult to discuss internally. But I suggest that the widespread extension of the practice is a failure of internal processes to meet the continuing needs of skill development. It’s a cop out. Instead of strengthening those processes, and training people in how to be effective 'coachees' – i.e. to look for and use people who can coach them – we find it easier to outsource this vital activity. And though the discussions may start from a goal of some competency improvement, how often do they end up as a form of therapy, helping people navigate politics, difficult relationships, or think through their futures?

The beneficiaries frequently find this very valuable and helpful. They report this back to L&D and thus reinforce the process. My first ever job in the wide world of independency was to have just one coaching session with a finance director. I must add I am trained in this art only by long experience in corporate life, by a measure of common sense, and through having some modest listening skills. I listened to his problems. A year later, I had a letter to say that those two hours had completely changed his life!

"The widespread extension of the practice is a failure of internal processes to meet the continuing needs of skill development. It’s a cop out."
So was that a return on investment? He had left the company and started a new life. I suggest those responsible for commissioning coaching need to be very clear about their reasons for doing so. Is theirs a definable measurable performance change that is being sought, and if so is this the best way to achieve it? Or, merely as a benefit, is the organisation prepared to provide you with an expensive sounding board, isolated from internal baggage? Both are permissible – but have completely different goals – and please be honest about which one it is.

This article was first published in February 2008

Andrew Mayo can be contacted at [email protected]. His consultancy, specialising in organisational and individual effectiveness can be found at www.mayolearning.com. And his training company at www.mayotraining.com

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