From the Wild West to a Maturing Development Tool: How Leading Companies are Reimagining Coaching

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This article is a summary of Trium’s 2019 Coaching Outlook and Best Practices Study. If you’d like to hear more on this topic, please contact us.

Executives and people leaders who have seen great coaching know it helps company leaders achieve breakthrough results and should be a key part of how leaders powerfully face today’s highly complex world. But our recent best practices study of companies across multiple industries showed that the use of coaching is sub-optimized.

Across all industries and company sizes – from high-growth start-ups to Fortune 500 – we found that every participant places a high value on coaching…but none thinks their approach is mature. And there’s a remarkably consistent aspiration for how coaching should be used.

Let’s look at what making this transformation could mean for your company.

From “issue-fixing”…to acceleration of already-healthy development

For 80% of participants, “issue fixing” is still the main coaching use case. But there’s a widespread belief that by the time issues lead to coaching, it’s often a perfunctory final effort. New-in-role use of coaching is also common, with about half saying they utilize it in their organizations. But many say this is also related to performance. Think “new in role…once issues develop.”

Yet, in spite of the legacy “fixing” uses, we found a unanimous preference to use coaching to help already-good performers get even stronger and more ready for greater responsibility.

Coaching should mean ‘helping top talent grow.’ But most of our engagements are about issue-fixing which is viewed negatively. 

– Major media company

One good sign for the future: there is a growing perception of coaching as a great thing for strong performers. Today, having a coach isn’t a stigma, but rather sought after as a sign of upward mobility.

From ad hoc and poorly documented…to more-consistently managed with visible goals and results

Most companies are still in a “wild west” phase with coaching selection and management. About 70% have some centralized source of coaches to start the process (most via a self-assembled list; about 20% with a single “broker” source). But fewer than 10% have standardized on a type of coach they seek, and nearly all are dissatisfied with the quality of their current list, and its scalability.

Business units (BUs) almost invariably fund coaching. Consequently, initiating the coaching process, selecting a coach, and many aspects of managing the process (or not) are driven by relatively “un-coaching-savvy” managers.

The evolutionary goal: better-vetted coaches; a clear and better process with documented goals, and; better measurement of impact and ROI post-engagement. People leaders are seeking a shift in policies and sharing of budgets to help make this happen in a more centrally-coordinated way. But they also recognize that BUs are and should be integral to the process, and this envisioned shared-responsibility approach heightens the importance of the BU-embedded HR Business Partners role.

From isolation…to integration with Learning and Development (L&D) and management culture

People leaders know the ROI on L&D would be higher if they could make the impact of periodic and short-term programs “stickier.” Many see coaching as a great way to do this. About half of participants are doing small-scale experiments here, trying out coaching as a fundamental part of L&D. Imagine a cohort in a six-month leadership effectiveness program, for example, working with a coach between group sessions to make new learning become native within their mindsets and default behaviors.

The most progressive companies also aspire to bring coaching methods of mindfulness, inquiry, and purposeful mindset shift into the repertoire of line managers. Ask people leaders what they really want – “a coaching culture” is often their response.

From focus on second-level leaders…to more impact at C-level and deeper in the organization

More than 90% of participants focus 1:1 coaching on a relatively small portion of people toward, but not at, the top of the company. This typically means at a Vice President or Senior Vice President level and above.

Ironically, there’s often a gap at the senior-most level. Coaching for C-level leaders is usually self-initiated, with little influence by or visibility for people leaders. And there’s typically no “peer development community” benefit among C-level “coachees,” since they lack visibility into peers using coaches. When you consider that most L&D programs aren’t C-suite-facing either, this leaves a development-support gap at the top of the company where development might be most important.

For manager/director levels that don’t make the cut for today’s coaching, many participants are experimenting with an array of variations. These include group coaching, coaching “office hours,” and selective 1:1 coaching for high-potential or other specially-defined cohorts. It also includes lower-cost “virtual coaching” platforms – though there’s awareness that low cost is less driven by the technology than it is by low-rate coaches.

Keys to enabling evolution

More than 75% of participants see these three mega-themes as essential to progress:

  1. Foster a deeper understanding of coaching among senior-most leaders to raise the understood importance and expected excellence level of coaching…and to gain sponsorship for policy and process changes that overcome inertia and support the “from/to” shifts described above.
  2. Manage coaching in a more balanced way where budget and process ownership are shared between people development roles and business units to help bring stronger coaches to BUs with better-documented engagement goals and clearer ROI.
  3. Create the conditions for great coaching to have its highest impact by getting clearer on what coaching approaches are most supportive of company goals for investing in people development. Then find coaches and manage the process in a way that fits that specification.

As companies take these steps, they experience more dramatically powerful benefits from coaching. We saw this within the most advanced companies participating in this study, and you can experience it for yourself.

If you’re interested in learning more about this study or hearing our thoughts on leadership development, culture, executive coaching, and more, please join our mailing list or contact us to arrange a conversation!

Trium is a leading management consulting firm that seeks to understand and address the human dynamics that impact performance at the individual, team, and organizational levels. Founded in 1998, Trium has provided consulting and coaching to senior leadership teams at some of the world’s most recognized companies, including Dropbox, Genentech, Warner Bros., Cisco, Sephora, Disney, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Activision Blizzard, eBay, lululemon, StubHub, and more.

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