As a result of QED’s huge success in training large numbers of public sector staff at Kent County Council and Kent Fire and Rescue Services in coaching and mentoring, I was thrilled to be contacted by ILM and asked for my views on the benefits of coaching in the workplace.
The article was published in the July issue of the ILM “Edge” Magazine.
Coaching used to be the preserve of high-flying executives who were being groomed for life in the boardroom. But, says Sue Weekes, more and more organisations are integrating coaching into the everyday activities of all their line managers – and reaping the benefits that it brings.
At Kent County Council, the principle of coaching has become so ingrained into the managerial mindset that learning and development manager Coral Ingleton says she ‘couldn’t stop it if she wanted to’. The council has 50 qualified coaches with another 40 in training and a further 40 due to start the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) Level 5 course in coaching and mentoring in the autumn.
‘It’s really gained momentum,’ says Ingleton. ‘We have reciprocal coaching taking place across the organisation by people who’ve done the course. People really do value it and can see how it helps them.’
The traditional image of coaching may still be ensconced in the executive suite, but increasingly it’s reaching the shop floor with organisations realising that equipping managers with coaching skills to use in the workplace can provide direct performance and business benefits. ‘Coaching is not seen as something pink and fluffy that you’ll never do again after the training,’ says Bob Dixon, national manager of the branch network at Britannia Building Society and one of 41 people at the company to have completed the ILM Accredited Coaching Programme. ‘It is part of everyday life here and definitely has a positive impact on the business and individuals.’
According to the most recent learning and development survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), just over 70% of organisations use coaching and 80% report that line managers are using coaching methods with their staff. It is fair to say that coaching has moved on from being regarded as a fad, to establishing itself as a valuable tool for learning and development.
Julia Miles, founder and managing director of QED Coaching, which provides the coaching training programme to Kent County Council, believes one of the reasons coaching is proving popular is because it taps into what is happening in society at the moment, with more people working on flexible contracts in smaller, fragmented company structures. ‘Individuals are more isolated and so value something like coaching,’ she says. ‘And organisations know that employees expect a different approach. They’ve got to be more consultative and more engaging.’
Vicki Espin, co-founder of Corporate and Executive Coaching Organisation (CECO), which delivers the ILM Accredited Coaching Programme at Britannia, agrees that it offers respite from the fast pace of many organisations. ‘To be heard and to be heard properly without interruption is so rare,’ she says, adding that by acquiring coaching skills, time-poor managers who fail to delegate and pass responsibility to colleagues can ‘push accountability through the organisation’. ‘Using coaching appropriately will give them more management time,’ she says.
Such a culture is evident at Kent County Council where, in addition to council workers, its network has coaches from fire and rescue services, the police and the voluntary sector. It has top-level support with an elected member and the director for personnel and development both attending each award ceremony, held when delegates become qualified.‘We found that employees like to be coached and want to know what it feels like to be coached,’ says Ingleton. ‘It gives you the time and space to think things through. Often a person could have the solution within them but has brushed it aside so they might just need you as a sounding board.’
Ingleton was among the first to undertake the coaching and mentoring course and says one of the most difficult aspects to put in practice after the training is to resist the temptation to ‘jump in with a solution’.‘You really have to learn how to listen,’ she says. ‘In personnel we’re used to coming up with solutions, so initially it felt like having my right hand tied behind my back. It can mean an uncomfortable silence while you wait for the person to respond but it’s important to wait that little bit longer before saying anything.’Managers who have been trained in coaching also self-coach and Ingleton cites the case of a woman who was diagnosed with a serious illness during her coaching training who found the course helped her get through it. ‘She was able to use the techniques she had learned on herself,’ says Ingleton.
Britannia’s Bob Dixon also self-coaches and find that it can really help to focus the mind on priorities. ‘You ask yourself open questions like, “Where do you want to get to?” and “What are the options for getting there?”’ he says.
Learning by thinking
His advice to managers is to really think about the right open questions to ask coachees. ‘Think about the power of the open questions,’ he says. ‘Get the coachee thinking because it’s when they are thinking that learning takes place.’ Dixon cites a recent example of some on-the-spot coaching that brought a direct business benefit, when one of his direct reports rang asking him for advice on how he could sell more of a certain product. Dixon replied with some open questions such as ‘What are the key levers you could pull to improve performance?’ and ‘Which options would give you the quickest and best benefit?’
Finally, he asked how committed the colleague was to putting their words into action and he replied that he would do so straight away.‘I got home 45 minutes later and he had spoken to and written to his team,’ Dixon says. ‘The net benefit was a 20% improvement in performance. This happened because my direct report came up with the solution, not me. He owned the issue and as the ideas to fix it were his, he followed them through. Also, as he knows his business better than me, his ideas were better than mine would have been.’ Dixon says that coaching has certainly changed his management style and he admits he is far less ‘directorial’. ‘You feel more involved with the people you work with,’ he adds. ‘As well as changing your management style it also changes your thought processes.’
One of the debates around coaching is how organisations weight their coaching strategies – should they develop dedicated internal coaches who would still do their day job but also coach across the business; or enable line managers to acquire coaching skills that are used mainly with their own teams?
The CIPD learning and development survey found that the bulk of the responsibility for delivering coaching lies with line managers who are coaching their reports (36%), compared to HR and/or learning, training and development specialists (30%). In a CIPD reflection paper, written in response to the findings in the survey, Martin Howe, training and development manager at the Cega Group, says that while operational coaching carried out by line managers will help to improve performance, it is dedicated internal coaches who will bring about the sort of long-lasting behavioural change that can really add value.
McGurk agrees and says that equipping line managers with coaching skills instills ‘coaching behaviours’ throughout an organisation, but on its own won’t necessarily help companies develop the in-depth coaching capability that dedicated internal coaches will offer. However, he adds that it is important to develop both strands. Equipping line managers with coaching skills helps to empower their team members and generally improve performance, as well as facilitating an ‘ongoing’ conversation with employees, he says. ‘When overlaid on an appraisal system, this can be a bridge between the period of setting goals and achieving them.’
The belt and braces approach is similar to that taken by Britannia Building Society, which runs the Coaching for Success course for more junior line managers at its learning academy and the ILM Accredited Programme, a complete coaching programme, designed and run by CECO and aimed at those who will coach across an organisation. Head of information systems at Britannia, Mark Jacot, was one of those involved in the pilot scheme. He’d already been exposed to the benefits of coaching when he worked at Mars and so was keen to champion the coaching cause.
‘We’re not an out-and-out, heads-down technical department looking after computers,’ he says. ‘Coaching sparked with a number of my managers and I put a lot of emphasis on developing people and believe if you’ve got the right team leaders, the rest will follow.’ Jacot is now one of the 41 accredited coaches at Britannia, alongside Dixon. He agrees with Ingleton that it can be tempting to ‘offer solutions’ rather than keep quiet, but says if you find yourself about to interject, stop and ask the coachee to summarise what they are thinking. He also believes it is important to know your strengths as a coach and to always focus on the positive.
‘Look for what they are good at as you’ll get far more out of them,’ he says. ‘Don’t try to make a goalkeeper a striker. Focus on making them an even better goalkeeper.’ As an internal coach, Jacot says it has given him the chance to make a lot of connections outside of IT and the skills he’s acquired as a coach are used all the time in his day-to-day job.
While coaching is starting to earn its stripes within many organisations, one of the skills of being a coach is knowing when it may not be appropriate. QED’s Miles is keen to stress that the function of coaching is not to provide therapy and coaches should not try and be counsellors. ‘We teach them to spot when a member of staff may need the help of another professional,’ she says.
Similarly, Espin, co-founder of CECO, ensures that managers are given lots of examples of how coaching will work but also stresses that it is not ‘a panacea’. ‘We make sure they know when it is appropriate to direct, coach or mentor,’ she says. ‘In a crisis, for instance, you direct.’ McGurk adds that it is important for organisations to have the support of a three-cornered relationship involving the coachee, the coach and HR. As well as providing support, involving HR also helps to ensure the coaching process remains business-focused.
One of the issues the report by CIPD and Ashridge sought to address was the tension that can exist between what the individual and the organisation aim to get out of the coaching. Alternatively, some organisations, such as Britannia, involve a sponsor, which could be a line manager. ‘As long as there is a firm framework in place, you can stay focused on the business benefits,’ explains Jacot. Sue Marriott, who runs the accredited programme at Britannia, carries out regular reviews of the coaching. One of the areas she has focused on is using coaching to build confidence and improve the customer experience – a recent survey showed that 40% of employees who have received coaching believe their confidence had increased. ‘This should bring a clear cost benefit,’ Marriot says.
Kent County Council is formally evaluating its coaching but Ingleton is in little doubt that it has improved performance. With managers coaching both inside and outside of their respective divisions, one of the clear benefits is that it has helped to build partnerships across the organisation and ‘increased fluidity’. ‘Often a person will never go into another directorate so this gives them the chance to do so,’ she says.
Learning to listen
Deriving a business benefit as well as a return on an any investment in coaching is vital, but while the evaluation of specific coaching programmes and initiatives is crucial, there is another important benefit of training managers as coaches – it helps them manage better. As McGurk points out, developing their own questioning skills and learning how to listen actively enables managers to become more effective on a day-to-day basis. ‘For instance,’ he says, ‘you get insight only when you listen and when you’ve been trained in active listening, you really notice the difference.
’The idea that coaching training will create a generation of ‘all-listening’ managers may be too much for those who always believed coaching was too touchy feely for its own good, but increasingly these sceptics are likely to be out of step with both thinking and practice. The future workforce has grown up with a freedom of expression and action that was not afforded to their predecessors and a new openness in society is reflected in business – the old-style, directorial management styles are unlikely to get the best out of younger employees.What is needed is something that pushes accountability and empowerment through an organisation but also demonstrates that employers still have time for the individual – coaching could well prove to be exactly what is needed.