I ought to start by saying how much I am a fan of coaching. This is no rant about the established orthodoxies being less than perfect. No, I like the person-centred conversations which seek to empower individuals and lead them through clever questioning to both enlightenment and a new found clarity of action. An organisation taking an interest in their employee’s wellbeing and capability is incredibly positive.
But there is a problem with coaching which is seemingly unrecognised in the coaching literature. And there’s plenty of that. A quick Amazon search provides you with almost 7,500 books devoted to business coaching. Google ‘business coaching’ and you arrive at 58m results – with a multitude of companies prepared to provide some kind of coaching service – either training how to coach or coaching those seen as deserving of such learning largesse.
While some of this might be at the pseudo-scientific end of performance improvement, I am sure that much of it is sensible and built on models and foundations which are solid. The idea of coaching – regular one-to-one meetings in which individuals are encouraged to reflect on their performance and the challenges they face; consider a range of alternative options to enable them to move to the next level of performance or address current difficulties and then commit to action – is terrific. The follow-up - where the coachee reports back and analyses the progress made since the last session – can be brilliant. There is real evidence that this investment of time and specialist coaching skills improves results.
But this is also where the problem lies. The time taken to undertake this coaching is not inconsiderable. The skills required of a good coach are tricky and not everyone’s forte. The trust, openness and candour often cited as essential to a good coaching relationship are a refreshing injection of humanity in a dog eat dog world driven by numbers. Whenever I see firms striving to ensure that action follows from traditional learning interventions – however they are delivered and organised – I regularly see that the line managers are expected to support the transfer of learning through 'coaching'. Unfortunately, I rarely see resources devoted to this practice by the organisation nor the skills engendered in those who are expected to provide that coaching support.
The CIPD factsheet on coaching revised last year is clear that "It is a skilled activity which should be delivered by people who are trained to do so." It goes on to assert that: "this can be line managers and others trained in basic coaching skills."
This I’m unsure about. In a very readable MA dissertation, Phillip Ferrar sought to answer the question 'Does being a manager inhibit effective coaching?' as long ago as 2006. Among the 11 ‘Manager as coach impediments’ which Ferrar outlines in his research is a disconnect between the culture of openness, trust and candour which informed the best coaching relationships and the relationship between team member and team leader. In certain circumstances, the team leader may have access to information which she or he is not at liberty to share with the individual – perhaps involving restructures, mergers or the like. What’s more, the team member may have aspirations which she or he is unwilling to share – such as that job they just applied for with the competition or the designs they have on the job that the team leader currently holds.
Certainly my own experience of setting up a manager-as-coach process with a large global company found that a lack of clarity about the role required was a significant impediment to the coaching being undertaken. Beguiled by the literature into thinking that a person-centred, non-directed developmental conversation was required (which would need a significant amount of time) we found that of the over 750 coaches who responded to our evaluation survey, more than 60% had neither the time nor – they felt – the skills to undertake that role properly. What’s more, almost half felt that the coaching should be the responsibility of someone else – preferably someone in HR.
The problem here is one of terminology. The programme I was reviewing was a marketing skills programme – taking in everything from induction to more advanced skills and spanning more than 40 separate modules. Assuming you started from module 1 and worked your way through everything, it would take five years of elapsed time to complete every module and in truth the idea was that you dropped in and out of the programme to meet your training needs as and when required. This was not ‘a non-directive form of development’ as defined by the CIPD factsheet. It was highly directed, standards based and focused on meeting both organisational requirements and regulatory compliance. I’m not sure that what we usually understand as 'coaching' was what was required at all, but that was the terminology in use within the organisation.
This experience, and many similar ones which I’m sure I share with many of you, is that there is a dirty little secret about asking line managers to coach. The problem is not that when it happens it isn’t very good. Almost any engagement by a line manager with the subject of development is positive, however cack-handedly it might be undertaken. The problem is that most of the time it doesn’t happen at all. Worse, when an organisation makes a big thing of monitoring line manager coaching, what happens is a collusive box-ticking exercise in order to get HR off everyone’s back so they can get on with the real work.
Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He is the author of two books published by Kogan Page: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture and Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement.
About Robin Hoyle
Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world.
He is currently working as Head of Learning Innovation for global sales training company, Huthwaite International.
He chairs the World of Learning Conference and speaks at many events. He is regularly published as a writer and commentator on training related issues. His book, Complete Training - from recruitment to retirement, is published by Kogan Page and can be ordered here. His most recent book: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture was published by Kogan Page in September 2015 and is available from all good retailers.