Making the most of your coaching program
Just establishing a coaching program in your organisation is not enough. To derive the most benefit from external coaching, you will need to ensure the program is well-managed internally. Michael Holmes discusses eight best-practice principles to help you maximise your return on investment.
The value of running external leadership coaching programs for executives on leadership development journeys was explored in detail in a previous article (“Put me in coach, I’m ready to change”, FutureLeader, Vol. 3, #1)¹. The benefits are significant, and such programs generally show very positive tangible as well as intangible ROI.
But once your enterprise has made the decision to use external coaches for some of your key people, how does the relevant HR manager ensure the program is managed well?
There are many things to manage — the initial organisation and communication of the coaching initiative, the selection of coaches, and then the management of the process. This article focuses on the challenges of managing the process: the internal perceptions, the external relationship, the processes, the integration with other development, the feedback loop, the reporting to the board/senior leadership team, and of course you’ll need to make sure you get value for money.
So where to start?
We’ll cover some of the best practices we’ve not only been on the receiving end of, but also encouraged our clients to implement to ensure that all of the above elements are successfully managed, and outcomes sought are achieved.
In the book Dangerous Company: Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin by James O’Shea and Charles Madigan (1998)², whilst the authors recognise there is much benefit from bringing in external consultants to assist in developing and executing strategy, they also strongly caution about the need to manage them closely, and ensure that there is no collateral damage caused by the ingress of non-organisation thinking. So too then is the necessity of closely managing the various elements listed above.
So, to ensure success in managing successful externally resourced coaching programs, our advice is to execute against the following best practice guidelines.
Where is the ROI?
- Executive coaching should be a mandatory L&D selection because it has an extremely high and demonstrable return on investment.
- Research shows that senior and mid-level executives strongly support coaching initiatives.
1. Align coaching with enterprise imperatives
Link the coaching not just to the immediate development needs of the individual being coached, but also to the immediate and longer-term needs of the enterprise. This will ensure that the coaching is, and remains, relevant. These needs may have come out of individual and group development assessment, but must always be aligned to the critical business objectives — how they may be achieved, and how barriers to achieving them need to be removed.
2. Manage the internal perceptions
By ensuring Practice 1 (above) is executed, managing internal perceptions is easier. Many HR teams will undoubtedly communicate the high priority competencies being developed in the program, and possibly feed back to the enterprise the measured improvement through various assessment milestones.
It is important to remember to add the missing link — how these individual improvements will translate into enterprise improvements. HR teams know this link very well, but occasionally they make the mistake of assuming that because the link is obvious to them, it will be obvious to the senior leadership team of the enterprise. It often is not.
An excellent way to manage internal perceptions is encouraging and facilitating involvement of the manager and the senior leadership team in the coaching program.
3. Manage the external relationship
Consultants are clearly going to want to remain profitable throughout these programs, and are confident that they have the “goods” necessary to execute successful coaching. To keep their enthusiasm and confidence on track, best practice dictates that the coaching brief is based on critical competency analysis, and the coaching program is constantly referring to, and refreshing, the individual development plan.
One retail client that desperately needed a regional manager to be more strategic, ensured that after every coaching session, the “two-up” manager was briefed on the discussion. They agreed actions so he could help the behavioural change progress through providing the coachee with assignments that would stretch and build on the coaching sessions. Conducting regular reviews with the consultant of individuals and the group is a critical part of this process.
4. Manage the processes
One drawback of coaching initiatives is that there is an enormous amount of energy and time spent in setting up appointments, meeting rooms, diaries and calendars for the coaching appointments to take place. Figuring out who is going to manage this process, and how the HR team is going to receive regular reports is very important. The reports need to focus on outcomes as well as activity.
Best practice here says create some tension in the equation by putting the onus on the individuals to manage their own development — their own appointments, their own reporting, their own refresh of their individual development plan (IDP), with a clear responsibility to report to you on all these elements. This is not an unreasonable request given the significant and individual investment that the enterprise is making in the coachee.
The HR team’s responsibility is to accumulate this reporting, and aggregate it to group outcomes.
In our experience, the more the manager of the coachee is fundamentally involved in the whole program, the more likely it is to be really successful. There are many ways in which they can be involved, from supporting and encouraging development of their direct reports, to providing relevant opportunities (such as special projects, or secondment experiences), or to attend part of a coaching meeting to add comment, confidence, and show support and interest. Setting this up as an expectation in the process is a real “value-add”, as it deliberately connects the development activity into the work context, and links it to business needs.
The Coaching Triangle
5. Integrate the coaching with other development
It is all too easy for the coaching program to sit out on its own, and become an end unto itself. One client allowed this to happen, and the coaching program died after a short time with the CEO still refusing several years later to countenance coaching as an effective development intervention. Best practice is to ensure coaching is an integral component of the overall IDP. Coaching should be, in a well-designed leadership journey, complementary to other development activities such as workshops, on-the-job projects and professional self-reading.
6. Implement a feedback loop
Keeping the HR team’s finger on the pulse of the health of the coaching program, whether for an individual or a group, is obviously essential. The question is: how does the HR team do so with the maximum impact and the minimum of fuss? Implementing regular, say quarterly, surveys of all coaches and their managers, and/or undertaking sample in-depth one-on-one interviews with participants and managers on the efficacy and value for money, as well as efficiency of process and other operational implications, will ensure that you are able to pick up problems before they occur and put into operation contingency action.
Generally, feedback is a very positive force. One client picked up such significant support for their pilot coaching program from all participants, that the senior leadership team of the enterprise approved a doubling of the budget and an ongoing commitment to funding.
7. Regularly report to the board/senior leadership team
Garnering the support and advocacy of the most senior leaders in the organisation legitimises a coaching program as a true and equal contributor to achieving business objectives. Linking the outcomes of the coaching program to a slew of relevant metrics will ensure that the outcomes of this initiative, like any other investment in an enterprise asset, adds value to business performance.
One of our clients used metrics that included improved short-term business results, better engagement scores leading to improved productivity, retention of key talent, and accelerating the state of “readiness” of high-potential future leaders, as indicators of building the sustainability of the enterprise and building competitive advantage.
8. Use coachees as advocates
It is unfortunately the case that HR teams are expected by the rest of the business to argue passionately for learning and development (L&D) interventions, like coaching programs. It would be odd, indeed, if HR wasn’t banging on about the importance of coaching and other leadership development initiatives. As much as you might present cogent and independent data, the advocacy of the HR team is always taken with a pinch of salt.
Not so the testimony of hard-nosed, gruff 40-something-year-old line managers who are generally dismissive of development efforts. Whether in person, or by written report, evidence presented from happy coachees, who can point to specific instances of “ah-ha” moments, or breakthroughs in understanding or systems, count a great deal at senior leadership level.
Michael Holmes is a Senior Associate with Harbour Future Leaders.
Want to get a free HFL Toolkit on Maximising the ROI on Executive Coaching?
We have produced a 12-point template for senior HR professionals to ensure they get maximum ROI from their executive coaching programs. For a free copy, contact
Simon Brown – Director of Client Relationships, Sydney 02 9927 3014
Katelijne Pee – Director of Client Relationships, Melbourne 03 8648 6490
2. O’Shea J. & Madigan C. (1998) Dangerous Company: Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin