In an ideal world, the talented entry level candidate you hired straight out of college would grow and develop over the course of her career with your organization, ultimately evolving into a key leader who carries with her the lessons of every position she held as she climbed up the corporate ladder.

Not all employees will make the decision to stay with one organization throughout their careers, but when an opportunity exists to retain and develop an existing resource rather than hiring externally, it can be beneficial for both the individual and their employer. In order to capitalize on this type of opportunity, the appropriate tools and resources must be leveraged to help your great individual contributor make the critical transition to team leader and manager.  Traditionally employers have turned to training programs to develop these skills, however in recent years that trend has been shifting towards a newer tool for talent management: management coaching.

What is management coaching?
In the past coaching was not offered as a benefit but mandated to those poor souls who were failing to achieve their workplace goals. From the executive suite to the cubicle, the term “coaching” was synonymous with “remedial training” and carried an implication of failure. For many, being coached was the last stop on the train to termination. Fortunately those days have passed and savvy business leaders and HR professionals have realized that coaching can be a great benefit for high performers and (when properly implemented) can turn things around for a struggling employee rather than being a last ditch attempt to salvage a poor business choice.

A 2009 survey by Bersin and Associates ranked coaching programs as the #1 best practice for performance management. While coaching, particularly life or personal coaching, has gained some prominence over the last decade, the industry as a whole is still in its infancy. A wide variety of practitioners offer coaching services. Some come with newly minted certifications from training institutions (many of which have cropped up in recent years to exploit the recent popularity of the profession with career changers), while others are re-branded consultants or psychologists. Some effort has been made to normalize coaching credentials (the most notable source being the International Coach Federation), but most practicing coaches are measured by their experience and rapport with potential clients rather than any formal certification process. While coaching can take many forms, the one of most concern to business managers and HR executives is the form which takes place as part of an employee development program and is more commonly termed executive coaching.

Technically the term “executive coaching” applies to the act of coaching C level employees or individuals at the highest echelon of management. While there is certainly a substantial benefit to targeted programs for these key individuals, more recently this type of support has been offered at all levels of the organization, and as such has come to be more broadly described as “management coaching”. Regardless of the intended audience, the goals are largely the same – to improve the effectiveness and enhance the performance of the individual, with the intent of improving (by extension) the organization as a whole.

How Does Coaching Work?
How do management coaches work with their clients to create these changes? Simply put, a coach helps an individual identify his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then guides them through the implementation of strategies to leverage their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. The core value of coaching is in its ability to focus on the specific needs of the individual manager being coached, as viewed through the lens of their organizational ecosystem. While training can provide general skills development such as time management or planning, coaching allows the manager to focus on the exact challenges of their personal environment, and to develop targeted strategies to overcome those obstacles. This combination of the trusted adviser relationship and intense focus on applicable skills makes coaching one of the fastest and most effective tools in resolving workplace performance issues.

A further benefit of management coaching is its focus on the development of skills by the individual being coached. Rather than forming a dependent relationship where the manager must always rely on (and have access to) his or her mentor, an effective coach will work to reduce the amount their client depends on them, thus building confidence and self sufficiency in the recipient of the service. Most coaching engagements last between 6 and 12 months, with the majority of active coaching taking place in the first 90 days of the relationship. So what actually happens during a coaching session?

The engagement often begins with the stakeholders defining specific, actionable goals and targets which become the metrics for success for the coaching process as a whole. One of the ways to uncover what issues exist is through the implementation of a 360 feedback survey. By soliciting input from the managers, colleagues and direct reports of an individual, the coach can then focus and on building an actionable plan to respond to any deficiencies, as well as to build skills in specific areas such as time management or communication.

Some coaches employ the GROW model – an acronym which stands for Goal, Reality, Options and Will. By defining the goal, accounting for the current realities of the environment in which the individual operates, finding options to achieve the goal and then applying the individual’s will or commitment to complete the process, coaches can lead their clients through a structured process to achieve their targets. Other coaches use a holistic model to incorporate aspects of self awareness and personal growth into the process of developing the manager’s leadership abilities. Each coach will have their own unique approach, and a key factor for the success of a coaching relationship is a productive relationship between the coach, the organization as a whole and the individual being coached.

Rather than relying on the presence or absence of credentials, organizations who seek coaching for their managers and leaders should meet with potential coaches to find out about their style and approach. Any reputable coach will be willing to provide references and to speak in detail about their experience with the challenges inherent in the proposed coaching engagement, and to describe how they intend to approach the situation.

How Does Coaching Benefit the Organization?
There are many situations where a structured coaching program can show tangible benefits to the organization. One scenario where coaching is commonly applied is to avoid management turnover. Change is a challenging issue in the corporate environment. Whether viewed as positive or negative change brings with uncertainties which can make employees anxious, and thus degrade their job performance. Management changes can be particularly disruptive because of the close relationship between an employee’s relationship with their manager and their overall job satisfaction. Rather than hiring a new manager, many employers prefer to coach an existing resource to improve their performance, thus retaining the individual and avoiding both the impact of a management change and the costs of recruiting and on-boarding a new manager.

Coaching is often offered to individuals who have been identified by the organization as having leadership growth potential. Succession planning can be helpful in locating individuals who have the capability of growing within the organization, and coaching can help them do so successfully. This type of management development, once reserved for the executive suite has shown such a positive return on investment that it is now being applied at all levels of the organization. A study conducted in 2001 by Manchester, Inc. (reprinted by the International Coach Federation) showed an average ROI of nearly 6 times the investment in coaching.

Another scenario where coaching can have substantial benefits is when an employee is promoted from individual contributor to team leader. While many companies advocate promoting from within, the practice is challenging since the skills which make someone a fantastic individual contributor are not the same as those that make a successful manager. Further there are often internal political challenges to transitioning from being a member of a team to leading it. These can range from hard feelings on the part of team members who thought they should have been considered for the position to the failure of other managers to accept the fact that the new manager is now a colleague. Coaching can help a high performing individual learn to adapt their communication style and other processes to become effective leaders, and can help them avoid many of the pitfalls and errors that new managers commonly make.

Management coaching is continuing to evolve, but based on the results garnered in the first few years that the industry has existed it’s clear that there are benefits to engaging professional management coaches which are not yet being fully leveraged in many organizations. To learn more about coaching, please come visit my coaching site or contact me!

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