Executive Coaching Report - IBC and EMCC


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A distillation of the conversations carried out with 20 senior buyers of external coaching as part of a joint study between IBC and EMCC. The report was written in response to a wish by IBC members to understand the future direction of corporate coaching.

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Executive Coaching Report - IBC and EMCC

  1. 1. External Executive Coaching: A joint study of sponsors’ experiences and perspectives By the Institute of Business Consulting (IBC) and European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC)
  2. 2. 2 Table of Contents Section 1 Introduction: Background and objectives of the study 3 Section 2 Summary of findings 4 Section 3 Approach and methodology 6 Section 4 Findings in detail 8 Section 5 Review and discussion 16 Appendix A List of contributors 17 Appendix B IBC /EMCC Research Project: Interview guide 18 Enquiries Paula Roberts paula.roberts@felicitasassociates.co.uk 07957 651550 Chris Gulliver cgulliver@leadershape.biz 07801 240442 Caroline Lumb Caroline.lumb@ibconsulting.org.uk 020 7421 4242
  3. 3. 3 Section 1 Introduction: Background and objectives of the study The benefits of one-to-one coaching to facilitate professional development have been widely accepted for some time and coaching now has many applications in corporate life. Many IBC members now include coaching as part of their skill set and for some it is their principal activity. The popularity and effectiveness of approaches such as Process Consulting, which draws extensively upon coaching skills, has further blurred the boundaries between consulting and coaching. In recognition of this an IBC “expert group” on coaching was established in 2008. At its inaugural conference in Spring 2009, “Coaching and Consultancy: Finding the Balance,” many IBC members expressed a keenness to develop their understanding of the perspective of corporate buyers of executive coaching. To what extent was the coaching community meeting sponsors’ needs? What could the coaching community do differently or better? What was the anticipated future direction of travel in corporate coaching? The IBC Expert Group on Coaching wanted to respond with a piece of research that directly addressed members’ interests. But at the same time most of its members also had good links with the main professional coaching bodies (AOC, APECS, EMCC, ICF), and with the CIPD; so we were aware that executive coaching was already an actively researched field. The Group therefore decided that it could contribute to the body of research on executive coaching most constructively by carrying out a study which was small in scale but highly qualitative in nature – in effect a “big conversation” between experienced coaches and the corporate purchasers of their services. Following discussion with Board members of EMCC it was agreed that this would be run as a joint study and the nine coaches who actively contributed (see Appendix A) are a mix of IBC and EMCC members. Some are members of both bodies; while one contributor is a member of both the IBC and the ICF. This report is therefore a distillation of the conversations we carried out on an anonymous and confidential basis with 20 senior buyers of external coaching in the winter and spring of 2009/10 Paula Roberts Study Lead and Member of the IBC Expert Panel on Coaching July 2010 Terms and Definitions The term “sponsor” is used throughout the report to describe the organisation (or an individual employed by the organisation) that commissions coaching for its employee(s) The term “client” is used to describe the end-user who works directly with the coach ROI = Return on Investment All participants are described in the masculine form to preserve anonymity
  4. 4. 4 Section 2 Summary of findings How is External Coaching Currently being used? Most likely to be offered to senior executives or rising stars; and at more junior level as part of structured development programmes. Sponsors try to avoid the term “remedial coaching” although it is used to address specific development needs. Some evidence of using coaching to promote a coaching culture. The Role of Internal Coaching Some evidence of growth in internal coaching, often motivated by cost considerations, though concerns were raised of false economy. External coaches still used at the most senior level or in special circumstances. Pooled, reciprocal internal coaching registers appearing in the public sector. Observations and Reflections on the Value and Benefits of External Executive Coaching Structured reflection, raising self awareness and confidence highlighted as most significant benefits from coaching. Better strategic working and networking. Countering loneliness in leadership. Risks of dependency. Concern about sustainability of behaviour change through coaching. Coaching is an asset to support radical structural and other change in the public sector. Observations and Reflections on the Nature and Definition of Coaching Many different definitions and interpretations of coaching. Concern that some types of intervention originating in therapy unsuited to business context. External Coaching: Beliefs, Strategy, Processes, Perceptions Wide divergences in perspective as to “the right conditions” for effective and cost-effective coaching. Particularly focused upon nature and extent of sponsor involvement at all stages of the cycle (sourcing, selecting and matching coaches; involvement in setting coaching objectives and contracting; evaluation; ROI). Marked divergence between public and private sector participants. Public sector sponsors more “light touch.” Heavy reliance upon robust coach selection procedures for quality assurance and accountability. “Obliquity” philosophy common regarding coaching outcomes (i.e. by deliberately creating a wholly client centred coaching programme the business benefits would ensue automatically). Some public sector sponsors see this as unsatisfactory and now tightening up. Private sector highly Value for Money conscious. Robust contracting and close sponsor involvement the cornerstone of ROI. “A new reality” (the oblique approach to business benefits no longer acceptable). Strong support for non-directive approach in coaching, with emphasis upon vigorous challenge and skilful feedback and unwavering focus upon agreed agenda and outcomes. Little appetite for formal/quantitative ROI evaluation. Not the role of coaches themselves. Client resistance can skew ROI exercises. Frustration that line managers insufficiently engaged in contracting. Strong sentiments from sponsors to have improved means of differentiating between coaches. Qualifications/accreditation helpful. Huge variations in way participants approached sourcing/selection/matching of coaches. Determined by organisational culture and personal preferences of key decision makers. Public sector organisations bound by procurement rules which produced closed registers (though low assignment values gave scope for bypassing this system) Private sector leaned towards open/flexible coaching registers.
  5. 5. 5 Some corporate centres struggling to enforce centralised system/consistent approach. Recommendation, referral, historical relationships the most common sourcing methods in private sector. Some reliance upon “beauty parades” for selecting individual coaches. Others opted for preferred supplier relationships with companies who can provide a number of coaches. Some participants had used assessment centres (mostly in the public sector). Participants included strong fans and concerned detractors: arguments on both sides are described. Demonstration coaching sessions as a selection tool commanded a high degree of support, though some strong reservations were also expressed. Unease expressed that common methods of sourcing and selection failing to deliver sufficient diversity of range/choice. Coaching community itself could do much to better clarify/articulate/differentiate the exact offering. Some uncertainty over whether qualifications/accreditations (which focused upon standards and competence) could entirely resolve this. Question mark over whether coach training companies were best equipped for selection consultancy. Sponsor organisations themselves could/should raise their game. Examples emerging of highly bespoke (assignment specific) coach selection/matching for senior clients. Some participants realised via the interviews that range/diversity had been achieved collaterally – more by luck than design. Undertook to reflect upon existing procedures. Strongly expressed need for coaches to demonstrate:- o understanding of sponsor’s business sector/organisation o commercial awareness. o consulting skills: taking/understanding the brief within the corporate context; clearly stating what would be delivered and how; aligning with company’s internal procedures (Sponsor acceptance that more could be done on their side to promote/facilitate better partnership working between company and coaches) And Finally – Some Messages for the Coaching Community Summarises a selection of eight messages expressed by individual participants
  6. 6. 6 Section 3 Approach and methodology By its nature a small-scale, qualitative study lacks the statistical validity of a large, survey based study. Qualitative research is based upon subjective narrative data, with the aim of producing some insight into underlying issues. Outcomes are therefore restricted to the experiences of the individuals who took part and it is not possible to reach any universal conclusions or generalisations. The value of qualitative research lies in its potential to explore in depth the richness of individual experience and to detect themes and holistic features that throw up subtleties and hypotheses which survey data, though valid statistically, are not always able to match. In selecting participants we did not therefore attempt to achieve a balanced representation across types of organisation. Instead we focused upon taking advantage of contributors’ strong personal relationships with senior buyers of coaching, in the hope and expectation that this would generate goodwill and a willingness to invest personal time in the interviews. However in order to preserve the integrity of the data, most coaches agreed not to interview their own sponsor contacts and introduced a colleague to do this. As a result the composition of the group of 20 participants who were interviewed for the study was entirely arbitrary. All 20 were senior decision makers about coaching in their organisations working in specialist talent management or general HR. The breakdown was as follows: - Large multinational (UK based interviewee with accountability for global coaching strategy) 3 Large multinational (interviewee has UK only or regional accountability for coaching strategy) 6 Large corporate with UK only presence 2 UK Public Sector 7 UK SME 1 International Third Sector Organisation 1 20 We guaranteed anonymity to all participants and the organisations they represented. Some participants made this a condition of taking part and, in return for this firm undertaking, were prepared to express their personal views with considerable candour even when, occasionally, they diverged from the official corporate line. Many interviewees were hugely generous with both their time and their insights and we thank all participants for carving out the time in busy schedules to take part. The list of the coaches who contributed to the study (as interviewers and/or introducers) is at Appendix A. Data were gathered in note form (the interviews were not recorded) using semi-structured telephone interviews (guidance questions at Appendix B). As we had hoped when we designed the study, a number of the interviews mirrored the techniques used in effective coaching – i.e. the interviewer followed the interest of the interviewee in order to open up the conversation to issues he or she may not otherwise have asked about. Some of us also prompted from time to time if we noticed things that were not being said. Consequently no two conversations covered exactly the same ground, or dealt with issues with identical emphasis. The data were analysed using a spreadsheet based coding system. “Meaning statements” were clustered in order to generate themes, patterns and anomalies and for the presentation of the findings, including some verbatim quotations.
  7. 7. 7 In the Findings section we have given priority to topics that reflected common themes or concerns – or where there seemed to be a distinctive difference between types of organisation (particularly between the private and public sector participants). However some points are passed on simply because they struck us as interesting and illuminating and worth reporting, even if they were raised by a single participant. The report concludes with a short review and discussion of the findings.
  8. 8. 8 Section 4 Findings in detail How is External Coaching Currently being used? Nearly all participants reported that access to an external coach was most likely to be offered to members of the top team, senior management or rising stars identified as having high potential. External coaching was hardly mentioned at middle management level, with the notable exception of structured leadership development or talent management programmes, where it is often an integral part. It is also used as a tool to support major change initiatives (though team coaching was also favoured for change management work). Some participants were hesitant about using the term “remedial coaching” and attributed this to the fact that it had taken time to overcome a misperception in corporate life that coaching was merely about fixing “a problem.” However, when drawn on the topic, a number of participants (all from the private sector) said that coaching was often the preferred means of addressing specific issues that were preventing an individual from achieving their full potential. Some would automatically use external coaches for this; in a couple of instances the company’s policy was to use HR executives. None of participants we discussed this with saw remedial work as a task for internal coaches. However several were concerned about pressures from business areas to “throw money” at a problem by offering coaching indiscriminately. One remarked that in his organisation coaching was sometimes used to gain quick wins, rather than as part of a properly thought through strategy. “Onboarding” coaching for newly appointed senior executives was mentioned by only a few participants, but always in glowing terms. In particular it seemed to enable new directors and/or executives joining from outside the organisation to settle more quickly and with greater impact. Some participants mentioned that their organisations were making greater use of external coaches to work with teams, though we noted that terms such as “team coaching,” “team building” and (in the public sector) “board development coaching” seemed to be used quite loosely and inter-changeably in some interviews. It was unclear whether all respondents recognised them as distinct and different interventions. One to one coaching was also mentioned by some participants as a means of transferring coaching skills to executives to use in their line management capacity. In a few cases this was seen as an integral ingredient in moving the organisation towards a “coaching culture”. However group training programmes were more likely to be used to achieve this aim. The Role of Internal Coaching The place of internal coaching ranged from almost zero in some organisations to one organisation where it was the preferred intervention, made possible by an established and highly structured internal resource. In this organisation the aim was to use external coaches only in defined circumstances, such as to support development programmes, or in response to a well argued business case to address a remedial agenda. The shift towards internal coaching, and in some instances internal mentoring also, was mentioned by both public and private sector participants, with cost cited as the driving force (“We now need a good business case to go outside”). However concerns were raised that, without a proper infrastructure to sustain an internal coaching capability (supervision, quality assurance, CPD, proactive matching support etc) there could be a poor return on the significant initial investment to train and externally accredit internal coaches. Some participants were finding it challenging to secure adequate resources to fund a professional and sustainable internal coaching capability. One wondered if the fixed costs of supporting a credible internal coaching model were so different from the variable costs of a closely controlled external coaching model.
  9. 9. 9 A number of the organisations who were expanding their internal coaching capability continued to use external coaches at the most senior levels, not least because the executives themselves demanded this. This was partly for reasons of confidentiality and partly because external coaches were seen as possessing greater skill and expertise. Kudos was also flagged as a factor in some cases. Two public sector participants mentioned the trend towards pooled registers of internal coaches who would coach in other participating organisations on a reciprocal basis. This was seen as a cost effective means of retaining the benefits of access to “external” coaching during a period of tight budgetary restraint. Observations and Reflections on the Value and Benefits of External Executive Coaching For many of our participants the defining benefit of coaching was the opportunity for structured reflection. Several used terms such as “holding up a mirror” or “reframing of thinking and behaviour” to describe key benefits. One highlighted “overcoming arrogant attitudes towards personal development through having space to think and reflect” as one of the most valuable benefits of coaching in their organisation. Achieving higher levels of self awareness and the opportunity better to understand and develop emotional intelligence were also emphasised in a number of the interviews. Evident in many of the interviews were themes clustering around development in the areas of personal confidence, more effective networking and better strategic awareness. Several mentioned the loneliness of leadership and the importance of having a sounding board. A number or respondents mentioned the risks of dependency arising from a coaching programme and the need for proper monitoring of the length of coaching relationships. One saw this as a boundary issue for the coach/client relationship. One respondent had observed a number of instances when positive behaviour change achieved through coaching had not been sustained when tested in stressful circumstances. In the public sector in particular we noted a strong appreciation of the value of coaching to support organisational or structural change. One respondent described many executives in his sector as “rabbits in the headlights” in the face of having to implement radical cuts for the first time in their careers. Observations and Reflections on the Nature and Definition of Coaching The notes of all 20 interviews demonstrated that, if the term “coaching” was a marquee, within it you would find a busy array of different stalls and activities, representing a wide range of coaching models, approaches and styles. It was implicit from some interview notes for example that a coach was perceived as synonymous with a business psychologist. In others there was an implied emphasis upon senior line management experience. Others defined coaching through the prism of disciplines such as leadership development theory, OD or change management. Even allowing for this wide range of interpretations, it is worth highlighting that several participants expressed concern about introducing interventions that were seen as inappropriate and unwelcome in a business context. Two participants mentioned Gestalt as a cause for concern (because of negative feedback from clients) and some others noted occasions when coaches had focused wholly upon counselling/therapeutic activities without linking this to the business context. External Coaching: Beliefs, Strategy, Processes, Perceptions All our participants took it as a given that, under the right conditions, the positive benefits of coaching were beyond question. However we found wide ranging perspectives on what constituted “the right conditions” for effective and cost-effective coaching. At the heart of this lay different beliefs about the appropriate nature and extent of sponsor involvement. These differences were apparent at every stage of the coaching cycle, from the sourcing and selection of coaches to evaluation and ROI. We found a marked difference in beliefs between our public and private sector participants at most stages of the cycle.
  10. 10. 10 1. Sponsor Intervention Overall our public sector participants were more comfortable than their private sector counterparts with the notion that, provided their coaches had been robustly quality assured, the sponsor would take a largely non-interventionist role. The quality assurance underpinning the selection of the coaching register was of itself perceived as providing a high degree of accountability. Although 360 feedback was frequently encouraged to shape the coaching agenda, coach and client were generally allowed to “just get on with it.” “Three way” contracting meetings with line managers and/or HR executives did not feature in any of the public sector interviews. This type of regime generally involved some light-touch, post-assignment feedback from the client (which did not seem to be tightly enforced in all cases) and in some cases we were also told of periodic evaluation exercises looking at a large sample of coaching partnerships (commissioned from third party research companies). Feedback of a more anecdotal nature was also often relied upon. Two public sector respondents expressed concern about allowing this type of approach to continue. One was tightening up on procedures and now required a business case to be made for all external coaching contracts, “sign off” of the coaching agenda by both the relevant talent manager and the line manager and formal written evaluation by the client and line manager at the end of the coaching contract. We also noted that only public sector participants emphasised benefits from coaching such as “space to think”, “non-judgmental” or “escape from pressures” in describing the primary reasons for making coaching available to senior people. That is not to say that these types of benefits were absent in the remarks of our private sector participants. But there was certainly a discernable difference in emphasis. We formed the impression that the public sector coaching sponsors we spoke to favoured an oblique outcomes model: i.e. by deliberately creating a wholly client centred coaching programme the business benefits would ensue automatically. In general we found that the private sector participants required a more direct link between inputs and outcomes. Value for money was invariably emphasised as the overarching factor in all aspects of external coaching strategy and processes. Although there were still pockets of “laissez faire” procedures (where clients could pick their coach and work with little HR or line manager involvement) most private sector sponsors were unequivocal in their view that robust contracting was the key to ROI in coaching generally and, invariably, a critical success factor in individual coaching contracts. They took it as read that, as sponsor, the organisation would play a major role in defining the coaching agenda and setting specific and measurable objectives that would benefit both individual and business. Some acknowledged that this represented a shift (a “new reality” as one put it) from earlier days when the client’s ownership of the agenda was regarded as paramount and the organisation took it on trust that, through an oblique process, there would invariably be business benefits. This so called “new reality” played out in practice in various ways according to the culture of the company, notably the status of the talent management function and the degree to which coaching strategy and practice was centralised. However we did not pick up from any of the interviews that “new reality” was a merely a euphemism for saying that coaches were now expected to become more directive or didactic in order to ensure the sponsor’s brief was implemented. The “ideal” we picked up from a number of the interviews was an inherently non-directive process, characterised by a high degree of attentiveness and concentration by the coach, vigorous challenge and skilful feedback, with a clear and undeviating focus upon the agreed agenda and desired outcomes. 2. Formal ROI? We found little appetite for quantitative ROI evaluations and most participants who were asked about it thought this unnecessary because the business benefits could be discerned through more qualitative evaluation (“You cannot quantify something the very essence of which is disorderly and human”). One participant stated that robust contracting involving the line manager, combined with careful coach/client matching and ongoing monitoring of progress during and after the coaching contract provided “the key to the ROI debate”. If those three factors were got right the business benefits would
  11. 11. 11 be self evident and it was not necessary to embark upon formal or time consuming ROI exercises beyond the company’s normal performance review and appraisal processes, including periodic 360 feedback exercises. This participant noted the increasing preoccupation with ROI tools by coaches themselves and expressed the view that this was a misapplication of our skills and talents. Coaches should focus 100% upon delivering the best coaching we were capable of against the specified brief - and leave it to our sponsor organisations to put the systems and processes in place to determine whether the investment had been worthwhile. Several participants cited client resistance as a factor that muddied the waters considerably on attempting formal ROI. One pointed out that no coach, however skilled, could achieve much with a resistant client (“you can lead a horse to water .....”). We picked up some frustration in some interviews that it was not always possible to properly engage line managers in contracting and evaluation. However one participant respondent noted that talent managers needed to be sensitive to circumstances when the relationship with the line manager itself was the trigger for the coaching. 3. Sourcing, Selection and Matching of Coaches We picked up a strongly expressed desire by sponsors to have better means of differentiating between coaches and some intimated that this problem had grown in line with the increase in the number of coaches in the marketplace. To this end many of our participants had enthusiastically welcomed the professionalisation of coaching, particularly qualifications and individual accreditation. A number said that they now set accreditation as a prerequisite for all their coaches, irrespective of the sourcing or selection methods used and some specifically mentioned CPD as important assurances under the accreditation system (though very few explicitly mentioned supervision without prompting). Our single SME representative in the study indicated a particularly strong attachment to external verification, citing coaching accreditation, membership of other professional bodies (e.g. IOD, CIPD) and client references as a prerequisite of hiring a coach. For such a small study we were struck by the huge diversity in the ways coaches were sourced, selected and matched with clients. In fact there were almost as many variations as there were interviews. Practices and preferences clearly reflected the culture and structure of each organisation, but we also sensed that the background and preferences of the key decision maker was the key determining factor in many instances. This was borne out by noting that, on a number of occasions, a change in key personnel had resulted in an overhaul of policy and practice, not only in sourcing and selection but also in the areas of review and evaluation. Our public sector respondents all had to work within standard procurement requirements, so some form of tendering was invariably involved. (However one noted that assignment values for individual coaching programmes were low enough to qualify for the single tendering system, which could be used to hire independent coaches without a framework: many individual budget holders took advantage of this and bypassed frameworks). One organisation had partially sourced its register through a “call off” from another public sector register. All our public sector participants had set up closed registers comprising individually quality assured coaches. In some instances the coaches had tendered as individuals directly to the organisation or sector body; in others a contract had been awarded to a single commercial supplier who carried out a delegated responsibility for sourcing, selecting and quality assuring a fixed panel of coaches. We did encounter two closed coaching panels in the private sector, set up as such to enable the organisation to develop strong relationships with a fixed number of coaches. But overall the private sector approach was less rigid and two respondents said they were opposed to closed registers because it precluded the introduction of new blood to meet changing or idiosyncratic requirements. One flagged the risk of external coaches “going native” and perhaps ceasing to challenge “group think” effectively, so fresh faces were encouraged. Not unexpectedly, standardised policies and centralised coaching panels were more likely to be found in companies with a strong corporate centre, though a number of participants were struggling to implement a unified coaching strategy and approach across the whole organisation. Several noted that individual businesses (or countries/regions) – or indeed individual executives – went their own
  12. 12. 12 way, spending their own budgets on coaching solutions as they saw fit. This didn’t always fit the model set by the centre and two respondents felt that executives who sourced their coaches independently were more influenced by personal relationships and/or the coach’s previous career in the corporate world than recognised coaching credentials. Where there was a drive to centralise coaching strategy and resourcing cost control (by setting standard fee structures) was cited as a key factor, though the importance of having a coherent coaching strategy and consistent approach was also cited. Where companies preferred to contract directly with individual coaches, rather than from supplier companies, their panel had generally been formed over time through recommendation, referral and historical personal connections. From time to time (e.g. upon the arrival of a new Head of Talent Management) panels were reviewed and refreshed via a range of methods. Sometimes this simply involved removing “dead wood” based upon poor or indifferent feedback; sometimes a more formal “beauty parade” was used to revamp the coaching panel. In most cases a “beauty parade” involved some form of interview and a number of participants mentioned that a coach’s previous clients (i.e. level of work and the relevance and prestige of client organisations) weighed heavily in their decision making. Only one participant had actively enlisted end user clients in their selection process and this had proved very effective. Two said they had tried to do this but been unable to engage the client group in the process. Private sector respondents who did not wish to deal with large numbers of individual coaches tended to source their coaches from preferred supplier companies (though we talked to some respondents who sourced via both methods). Both single and multiple supplier relationships were noted. Assessment Centres A few of our respondents had compiled a closed coaching register by setting up half-day assessment centres, (preceded by exacting pre-qualifying written applications, references and sometimes also a telephone screening interview). These had in each case been run with significant input from external consultants and normally involved bringing to assessment centre at least twice as many coaches as there were places on the eventual register. The formats varied but always included an observed, assessed coaching session and a written coach reflection. Panel interviews and/or observed group supervision were also sometimes included in the assessment centre format. Our interviews suggested that the assessment centre approach has both fans and detractors, though many of our participants were unaware, or barely aware, of this route to selection. Fans associated assessment centres with robust practice in selection and quality assurance and a sign of maturity in the coaching profession. One participant told us that, such was the level of faith in this selection process that if a client expressed dissatisfaction with a coaching relationship the default assumption was that the issue was client defensiveness rather than some deficiency on the part of the coach. Another with experience of the approach said that it was a necessary response to the coaching “gravy train” – too many coaches in the marketplace with inadequate professional standardisation. Assessment centre based selection hardly featured in the conversations with private sector participants (though it had been used to compile a closed register in one organisation). The method was receiving prominent coverage in the professional press around the time that many of our interviews were carried out. Consequently some interviewers expressly asked participants about assessment centres, even if they had not raised it themselves. This revealed a low level of familiarity with the process outside the public sector. When it was summarised for them some expressed concern that the costs far outweighed the benefits, though the opportunity to see coaches actually working with clients was generally picked up as a positive factor. However the use of demonstration coaching as a selection tool produced strong, cautionary observations from four participants, who disliked the idea that coaches would inevitably run the coaching session with the published selection criteria and the awareness of an audience their prime
  13. 13. 13 preoccupations. This made it more akin to a staged performance. One likened such sessions to a driving test, in the sense that it could identify the safe and competent – and hopefully the gifted too, but the testing process itself would get in the way (“impede real opening up”), making it difficult to identify diversity and “USPs” in individual coaches. Assessors would therefore still need to rely heavily upon the written application, references and interviews to find these individual differentiators. A second participant raised ethical concerns about asking coaches to make themselves vulnerable in a live demonstration, given that the final selections were likely to be distorted by a variety of weighting criteria (e.g. gender balance, areas of specialist expertise, geographical factors etc.). One would probably end up rejecting coaches who had done a perfectly good demo, which could cause resentment. This view was strongly countered by a participant from the public sector who had used assessment centre selection on several occasions and who pointed out the “psychological contract” between candidate coaches and recruiting organisation. The former had a personal choice about whether to put themselves through the process, in return for which the organisation had a responsibility to ensure that it was robust and proactively and professionally managed. All four who expressed concerns about assessed demonstrations said that they could not give much insight into how the client and coach would work together in privacy over a period of many months (“the essence of coaching is the lifetime of the programme and the trust vested in the relationship”) One participant said that his organisation often used coaching to accelerate the development of top talent and a coaching demonstration would reveal little about a coach’s ability to coach for future behaviours as well as presenting issues. 4. Meeting Sponsors’ Requirements for Diversity and Differentiation We picked up some unease from many participants that that the common methods used to hire coaches were not delivering a sufficiently diverse range and choice. One regretted that they somehow always ended up with “too many white women with a background in HR” and a number noted that it had been necessary to invest what had felt like a disproportionate amount of time and effort to ensure that their coaches represented different approaches, experience and specialities. “We look for something different – though not too different” said one. And another: “there is room for the wild and whacky” alongside the coaches who fit a more standard brief. A third said his organisation deliberately set out to hire a wide range of coaches who could work at different levels and, through different approaches and skill sets, meet different needs. A number of our participants pushed the responsibility for differentiation squarely onto the coaching community itself. Several said that coaches should learn to articulate what they did and how they did it more effectively: too many coaches’ bios or profiles were too bland or undifferentiated to be of much value. Some told us that they felt that qualifications and accreditations could only help so far with this, not least because sponsors didn’t always know the different routes to qualification and what standard they actually assured. They were evidence of meeting a standard of competence and offered quality assurance, but they were of limited assistance for the finer aspects of differentiation. Many coaches, for example, failed to appreciate how much weight was placed by sponsors upon a coach’s personal credibility at senior level. It was for this reason that personal recommendation and reputation remained important differentiators since, as one participant pointed out, the “guinea pigs” who volunteered for coaching demonstrations at assessment centres were rarely representative of senior end-users of coaching. Another said, “How can we as the buyer know the different offerings from coaches in order to meet the full range of our coaching needs? We need a better dialogue with coaches to understand differentiation as our needs become more refined”. A participant who represented an organisation that had used an assessment centre, and been disappointed by the outcome, told us that in his opinion the selection criteria applied by the advising consultants had used an overly rigid definition of coaching. “We were saved only by the diversity of opinion of our own {organisation} assessors: there was no appreciation of the different kinds of coaching .... the different approaches”. This and another participant questioned whether companies whose expertise lay in coach training and accreditation (“the process side of coaching”) also possessed the right skills to design candidate specifications to match the full range of corporate coaching requirements. However it was conceded by two participants that some responsibility had to
  14. 14. 14 rest with the sponsor side for not addressing this more proactively themselves. This not only applied to the design of coach specifications, but also to the sophistication of the interviews. We talked to two participants who favoured a highly bespoke method of sourcing and matching in order to meet diverse and evolving requirements. In these companies the relevant HR business partner (HRBP) would circulate a client-specific coaching brief to several preferred supplier companies and invite them to nominate individual coaches, who would be required to submit both their coach bios and a short “pitch” against the brief. A shortlist (which may involve coaches from different suppliers) would then be drawn up jointly by the HRBP and the client and the successful coach selected from that – (following a mandatory chemistry session in one of the companies). If the coach had worked for the organisation before, previous client/sponsor feedback and knowledge of the coach was also taken into consideration in shortlisting. This approach involved the investment of significant time and effort by the HRBP compiling the brief, but the two participants who used this system (and in both cases it was only for their most senior people) had found it to be a highly effective way of accessing particular types of coaching experience or expertise when required. Both felt that the outcomes generally justified the time and attention and that this approach made better use of HR/Talent resources than assessment centres, which were seen as “front loading” the quality assurance and significantly reducing the flexibility subsequently to find the right coach for every individual need. One participant commented that both quality assurance and coach selection should be “proactive, responsive, flexible and above all continuous”. It was clear from the interviews that “differentiation” meant different things to different people. For some participants (particularly in the public sector) the emphasis was upon ensuring the selection process was designed to differentiate professional competence as a practitioner and as a quality assurance exercise. But for others it was additionally about classifying a wide range of attributes (skills, experience, approach) to enable them recruit for range and diversity. Several participants who had used quite formal selection processes to recruit their coaches said that they had probably ended up with a pleasing range and diversity but this was more through coincidence than the direct result of any mechanism built into the selection process to achieve it. Two respondents said that the interview with ourselves had highlighted differentiation as an issue for their own coaching panel(s). One made it a firm action point to review processes in his own organisation, where major change was imminent and it would be more important than ever that their coaching capacity was flexible enough to meet new requirements as they emerged. 5. Coaches as Consultants: Meeting Sponsors’ Requirements for Understanding of the Business/Sector and Shared Responsibility for the Management of Coaching Assignments We were struck by the high value placed by most of our private sector respondents (and our single representative from the not-for-profit sector) upon their coaches’ understanding of their business and sector. A number of respondents used terms such as “affinity,” “culture fit” as prerequisites for hiring a coach and one said they looked for evidence of understanding of “what good leadership looks like in this sector” in their hiring decisions. Some would only hire coaches with previous experience of their business sector and some cited this factor as a reason for having closed registers because it enabled their coaches to build up a solid understanding of the company through volume of work. Many also looked for “commercial awareness “and we picked up a strong perception in some quarters that too many coaches they came across lacked this. Academic and theoretical knowledge were certainly valued, but the clear message was that this must not be at the expense of the practical and commercial side. Some participants made the more specific point that they would like to see their coaches make more effort to familiarise themselves with the coaching strategy and processes of the companies who gave them regular work. One said that the relationship with a “preferred supplier” coach (i.e. the individual) should be like a partnership and similar to bringing in a management consultant to handle a defined project. This point extended to making the effort to respect and cooperate with deadlines, timelines and the administrative side of things. One said “we’d like to see coaches be more proactive and sharing responsibility for the management of the coaching assignment as a whole”. Another said that coaches must take responsibility for taking a precise brief on what’s required of the coaching “ask, don’t assume, and reflect back for understanding verbally and in the proposal: say HOW the objectives will be delivered”.
  15. 15. 15 In some cases HR executives invested time and effort in laying on briefings and updates for their coaches to ensure they understood business objectives, mission, culture, values and current issues. Some acknowledged that they could do this better and one, reflecting upon the situation with a previous employer, said “we really didn’t do enough to make our coaches feel valued and an extension of a huge, global business; we {talent managers} need to get better at connecting, to invest more in the relationship ..... see it more as a partnership”. And Finally – Some Messages for the Coaching Community In the final section of this report we have captured a selection of the more personalised “messages” individual sponsors said they would like us to convey to the external coaching community. Some develop ideas reported in the main body of the report. Others are idiosyncratically individual. In order to demonstrate that you understand the culture you are working in you must adopt the language, syntax and style. You can’t be ponderous if the culture is punchy. And you can’t be brisk if the culture is more chilled. Great coaches will always be busy because they will get work through personal reputation and referral and get great results; for these formal accreditation is a “good to have” but simply rubber stamping. It’s a crowded profession and no coach can be effective in every context. Determine your strengths/USP then learn to communicate them effectively and clearly to the buying population Why can’t you (the coaching profession) set up a single national register which we (the buyers) can interrogate using quite sensitive variables, so that we can find exactly what we need? You need to demonstrate more flexibility – show that you can work effectively with the presenting need, not just push a standard model or package. The process you use is your servant; don’t treat it as your master. “Get over yourselves ....... we have big people in this organisation and we would expect the coaches who work with them to tackle ethical, moral and other typical dilemmas professionally and matter-of-factly – not emotively, like it’s a really big deal. Coaches don’t always manage themselves that well.” If you have been selected to work with an organisation please don’t attempt to introduce your coaching colleagues unless you know there is a specific need in the organisation. It happens too often; it’s irritating and it can turn the sponsor off the coach. Get better at selling yourselves (this message was directed towards supplier companies as well as individual coaches). Be more commercial. You learn on the most basic sales course that effective selling is based on asking good questions. It’s the thing you coaches do so brilliantly with clients, yet you don’t do it in this context! 16
  16. 16. 16 Section 5 Review and discussion Although we expected to find a wide range of different approaches and practices amongst the organisations represented in this study, the extent of the diversity was still striking. We must be cautious about what we infer from such a small study based upon an arbitrary selection of participants, but another recent study¹ (using a different cohort of participants) also found a similar picture. Although there are some signs of emerging communities of practice in certain areas (for example the increasing importance attached to qualifications and accreditation), it seems that organisations have largely been forging their own paths on executive coaching. In some cases organisations have explicitly designed and implemented a coaching strategy tailored to their particular culture, business strategy and approach to people development. In others the approach and practice have evolved in a more piecemeal fashion. By contrast the coaching community, through the various professional bodies, has been striving to find greater homogeneity, with the aim of professionalising coaching and defining and setting standards. There is some incongruity here and we hope that this and similar studies will stimulate useful debate within and between the buying and supplying communities. Notwithstanding the multiplicity of approaches, we believe that there is some valuable learning for both coaches and sponsors from this study. It is very evident that sponsors struggle to differentiate between coaches and it has been suggested that both buyers and suppliers must take greater responsibility for clearing the fog. Buyers increasingly want their coaches to demonstrate adequate understanding of their business objectives (and in the private sector to demonstrate good general commercial nous) and we noted the emphasis placed upon references, referral and “pedigree” (who have you worked for before?). Our conversations also highlighted buyers’ interest in assembling a broader range of coaches, but uncertainty about how to achieve that. Coaching qualifications and accreditations attest to professional standards and calibrate practitioner competence, but reveal nothing of a coach’s business acumen and cannot address the more precise points of differentiation many of the sponsors we interviewed said they were keen to nail down. This suggests that, in addition to ensuring that they are properly qualified and accredited, coaches also need to think beyond practice, process and approach when they prepare their “bios” for sponsors. It suggests also that sponsors need to think in more rounded terms about the “person specifications” that are appropriate for the “job descriptions” they expect to ask their coaches to fulfil: and also what sourcing and assessment methods will enable them to make the right selection choices. The language of executive recruitment is used very deliberately here, since the HR profession possesses mature and sophisticated skills to select their organisation’s senior executives. Yet our findings suggest that these skills are not routinely transferred into the talent management departments. There are some interesting insights into attitudes towards ROI in this study, with little appetite for crude “input/output” quantitative evaluation. There are also some messages about partnership working, with both sponsors and coaches potentially having work to do here. The differences that surfaced between the public and private sectors were very marked in this study and seemed to be partly cultural and partly driven by procurement rules and conventions. At the time of writing spending cuts look set to curtail public sector executives’ access to external coaches. Recessions typically create opportunities for review, restructuring and renewal, so this could be an ideal time for the public sector’s thought leaders in learning and development to shape a new model for coaching that is closer to the “new reality” that has been adopted in many parts of the private sector. Paula Roberts July 2010
  17. 17. 17 Appendix A List of contributors The following individuals either conducted interviews themselves and/or recruited participants for the study. Name Affiliation Peter Abrahamsen IBC Expert Panel on Coaching David Backinsell EMCC member Chris Gulliver IBC Expert Panel on Coaching (Chair), EMCC member Mike Hurley President, EMCC UK Advisory Board 2008 - 10 Rehena Harilall IBC Expert Panel on Coaching Diane Newell Managing Director, UK Executive Board, EMCC Paula Roberts IBC Expert Panel on Coaching (Report Author), EMCC member Debbie Rynda IBC Expert Panel on Coaching, Finance Director, UK ICF Board Mike Taylor Finance Director, UK Executive Board, EMCC
  18. 18. 18 Appendix B IBC/EMCC Research Project: Interview guide 1. Establish category (public/private/size/geographical coverage/industry sector etc). 2. Establish scope/nature of organisation’s procurement of external coaching (past, present and envisaged in future). Cover coaching bought as discrete service and as part of wider projects (e.g. leadership development, OD, change management assignments). 3. What are principal factors driving your choices regarding: - a. How you source b. How you select providers of coaching services? 4. Where you have had positive experiences of using external coaching providers (individual coaches or corporate suppliers), what were the principal contributing factors? 5. Where you have had negative experiences of using external coaching providers (individual coaches or corporate suppliers), what were the principal contributing factors? 6. Drawing upon your experience as a client of coaching services, what message(s) would you most like to pass on to the coaching community to help them better: - a. to understand what you want b. to demonstrate understanding of your needs in proposals, tenders, interviews or assessment centres (if used); and c. to partner you effectively in achieving your evaluation/ROI objectives.