Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What you focus on is what you get - coaching in a corporate context

Summary: This blog post refers to coaching skills as a part of the leadership capacity suite. I will look at the impact of business coaching depending on the specific perspective taken by the coach. I will distinguish coaching approaches that focus on the purpose of either the coach, the coachee, the organization or a combination of those.

In the last years, coaching of employees has become an important part of what leaders do. Well, probably it has always but it wasn't called coaching. Managers have always worn different hats depending on their own leadership style and the company's culture. There are like the directing hat, the delegating hat and the mentoring hat. No wonder that many managers get confused when they are told that they are now also supposed to wear a coaching hat from time to time. And of course, the employees get confused too. And maybe coaching is nothing else than what was called human resource development for a long time. Well, at least word is shorter. In any case, mature organizations make an effort to develop people, and that's good. For the company and for the people.

In 2008, Roman Hamlin, Andrea Ellinger and Rona Beattie made the glorious effort to compare definitions of coaching. They found forty. I don't dare to add another but it is interesting to look at some of the definitions they found:

  • "Coaching is designed to improve existing skills, competence and performance, and to enhance their personal effectiveness or personal development or personal growth." 
  • "Executive Coaching is a process that primarily (but not exclusively) takes place within a one-to-one helping and facilitative relationship between a coach and an executive (or manager) that enables the executive (or manager) to achieve personal-, job- or organizational-related goals with an intention to improve organizational performance." 
  • "Business Coaching is a collaborative process that helps businesses, owner/managers and employees achieve their personal and business related goals to ensure long-term success."

Here we go! Obviously, what companies expect when they want their managers to coach employees is to achieve (business) goals. Coaching has become a tool for increasing the success of the organization. I believe the economization of HRD has rescued the Human Resource Departments which are resuming the influence they lost in the Nineties of the last century.

A little side remark: for the time being I will use the words "leader" and "manager" interchangeably. I am well aware of the three quadrillions of attempts to distinguish between both words, and I earn my money as a leadership not a management trainer. However, for the sake of the discussion on business coaching it doesn't really matter whether we speak of leaders or managers. We are talking about better business results and happier people. Call it management or leadership, I don't care. And actually, I realize that it becomes easier when I use the word "manager" instead of "leader" with the baggage the word carries along. I have had numerous and endless discussions with my leadership trainees (sic!) on whether leadership skills are innate or can be acquired (of course they can but not everybody believes this). It is ironic that nobody questions that management skills can be acquired. Anyhow: coaching skills are not innate so there is good reason for building coaching capacity of managers.

The Executive Coaching Handbook of the TECF lists around 300 singular coaching skills - most likely the most comprehensive register that anybody has ever compiled on that subject. In this blog post, I want to refer to one skill - the capacity to shift the focus of the coaching process from the coach to the coachee and the strategy of the organization.

If I am the coach - a manager with the task to coach an employee - I can center the conversation around
  • my purpose (what is important to me),
  • their purpose (what is important to the coachee), or
  • the company's purpose (what is important to the organization).

The quality of the human resource development process and the achievement of business results depends entirely on that focus. Let us therefore look at the likely outcome of these different perspectives.

Perspective 1: The manager focuses on his own purpose. This can be overt or covert but in most cases we would expect that the manager would not reveal that this is all about themselves and not about the other person or the company's goals. At best, such a coaching session can help to strengthen the relationship between the coach and the coachee but there is no benefit for the company or the employee. It is worth to be called a coaching session.

Perspective 2: The focus is entirely on what is important for the other person. The outcome of such a coaching session will be a support for the genuine development efforts of the coachee. It might or might not be linked to the company's goals so the business effect can be positive, neutral or even negative (for example if an highly talented employee leaves the company as a result of the coaching process - not good for the manager either).

Perspective 3: The focus of the coaching is on the company's purpose, i.e. the strategy or the values. It would be interesting to look closer at whether this is possible at all, given that human beings always bring their intentions into a conversation. However, let's assume that a coach and a coachee would able to exclude their own interests and just focus on what is important for the company. The effect might be positive for the company, i.e. if both try to understand the strategy and why this makes sense for the business. However, such a conversation would not have a long-lasting effect on motivation and engagement of both the manager and the employee.

As we have seen until now, from an organizational perspective it might be ineffective to center a coaching session on either the manager's, the other person's or the company's purpose alone. The art of business coaching consists in combining those perspectives to varying degrees.

Perspective 4: Combining the manager's purpose and the company's purpose as the focus of a coaching conversation while neglecting the purpose of the other person might help the coachee understand what is required from them and in which areas they will likely receive support from their manager. They can then start to find out themselves whether they want to buy in or not. However, we cannot predict whether this leads to an increased motivation and engagement of the employee.

Perspective 5: Focusing on what is important for the manager plus what is important for the other person without aligning this with the company's strategy will at best lead to a coalition between the manager and the employee. It might help to getting things done but it has no significant effect on the success of the company and probably little impact on the development perspectives of the employee within the organization.

That leaves us with the two areas in which successful business coaching happens:

Perspectives 6 and 7: Aligning what is important for the employee and for the company results in higher motivation and engagement and as a consequence leads to better business results. Adding the spice of the manager's purpose to the equation increases trust and reduces the need for supervision or micro management.

To develop their coaching skills, I would however ask managers to intentionally operate in area 6. To refrain from putting your own goals into the center of a conversation is a skill that few of us master very well. Only if we are able to swiftly change perspectives, and to make this shift transparent to the coachee, we can try to create an alignment that helps the other person to grow and the business to succeed.


Anonymous said...

Great way of explaining!! We just did a management development exercise on development and this fits right in with our message. Nobody cares about YOU (the supervisor) - focus development on what is in it for them and how the development correlates to the goals of the company. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I tend to keep my coaching sessions focused on what the coachee wants to achieve in the next month with regards to the company's performance standards. I only offer my own advice if they request it of me or if I feel like they are way off base (after seeking permission to give my suggestions). Other companies I have worked for did not follow this coaching model and held no regard for the coachee's goals, which proved to be completely ineffective. I really enjoyed reading how you broke it down!

Anonymous said...

Great view on this. I work in an office everyday, I also was just recently promote to a supervisor(coach) over a group of peopel I worked with for the past five years. It is a challenge everyday to know scream stop wasting so much time and get to work. I find it being alot of numbers game with them. The naste comment "oh I only have to do 7 transaction a day, that is it no more than that." Take pride in your work. Actually if i came down to it, the company would probably get more out of having the type of job done at home. THanks again for the blog. It was really helpful.

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