How L&D can Enable the Mighty Power of Coaching

Posted by Gemma Glover on Mar 25, 2022 4:24:01 PM
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You might have noticed that the L&D world is ablaze with chatter on the numerous benefits of coaching practice. Which is all great…until word from up high requests you roll it out business wide as soon as possible.

And perhaps the understanding from the top is that coaching is, much like the friendly basketball coach, just about shouting encouraging tips from the side-lines and generally keeping up morale (whistle optional).

A bit of delving though, reveals a more complex picture - one of facilitation instead of barking orders, and a long list of soft (or power, if you prefer) skills which work in harmony to help people feel supported, motivated and engaged.

Then there’s the yawning difference between informal coaching conversations and full-blown coaching programmes. Do you look at the coaching capabilities of line managers and think about how they could scrub up a little, or establish specific coaching roles? Is it a conflict of interest if someone’s manager is also their coach? What about how you approach new managers and existing ones - are two approaches needed?

ARGHHH! Stop it!

Okay, okay, let’s bench (sorry) that tirade of questions for a moment, and zoom out. Here’s where you can start: right from the source – the need.

A key message in all our blogs, which you might have spotted if you’re an avid reader (no, not you Mum), is that waaaay before you launch a bells-and-whistles laden learning initiative - even one you’ve been asked for - it’s vital to establish the need. That is, pinning down the problem it stems from, and putting in the work to figure out what will actually help solve it, even if it’s not a learning fix after all. This is because what we really want to do, and I hope you’re with me here, is add demonstrable value.

So, let’s assume you’ve put in the required groundwork to unpick it (give our ROI blog a read for a steer), and yes, beyond being the flavour of the month, some form of coaching intervention is called for.

Let’s look at two of the scenarios you might then be facing: 

  • training existing managers 
  • training new managers (who might be just new to the company, not necessarily management) in coaching. 

They both come with a unique set of considerations and challenges, some of which they share. Let’s start with the benefits and barriers of each and then explore their common ground, with top tips aplenty.

New kids on the block - Training new managers in coaching

The onboarding process for new leadership joiners seems like an opportune time for coaching training. And it really can be. Things will start off on the right foot culturally – they’ll understand how coaching is approached in your business, potentially avoiding assumptions and confusion down the line. You get to set the tone from day dot and identify any skills and behavioural gaps which you can support with. Lovely stuff.

A potential spanner in the works here though, is the risk of replicating the same onboarding experience for everyone, as it may end up only serving a few. You’ll likely have a mix of experience and confidence levels and perhaps a manager or two who has picked up some less than ideal coaching practices along the way. 

Pre-boarding is your friend here – having conversations ahead of their start date to help identify experience level and learner needs. Whilst unlikely comprehensive, asking a few considered questions, or just working closely with recruitment and HR, should inform your initial strategy. Ensuring onboarding is as agile as possible and thinking about it less as a ‘one-week-job-done’ process but more as a cyclical, iterative journey over time, won’t hurt either.

A further challenge is how to avoid overwhelming the individual but still achieve a good speed-to-competency. There’s often a hell of a lot of information, people, processes and tech to take in when starting somewhere new, never mind if it’s a step up or new industry to boot. The last thing you want to do is throw so much coaching training their way on top of the basics, leaving them with nothing but a migraine and a faint recollection.

So, how can you tackle this?

You can’t beat some good ol’ user research. Ask established managers about their onboarding experience – their first 30/60/90 days in the business; what worked, what didn’t and what would have been helpful. You can look for trends and ideas to inspire changes. Also, think about classifying learning by how relevant it is to the learner and the now. Start with what’s crucial. Nice to haves or things that will be valuable later down the road or at the time of need, should be easy to find, but potentially don’t need to be centre stage in the first few months.

Another worthwhile exercise is thinking about how their learning is packaged and delivered and how beneficial this is. Do they need to join a two-hour session about taking payments or is a surface understanding (perhaps achieved via a PDF, email or quick conversation) sufficient? Is there something else they could be achieving with this time? Think beyond the theory too and provide plenty of opportunities to practise on-the-job and with peers. Absorbing information about coaching is all well and good but it doesn’t translate to being able to coach well without experience and reflection.

Established Leadership - How to train existing managers to be coaches

Can you imagine suggesting to Gordon Ramsay that his conflict management skills could do with a refresh? Or that, despite his many years as a Chef, his paella technique might benefit from a new approach?

Nope, we wouldn’t relish that task either.

Hopefully, you’re facing a much more receptive, cool-headed pool of managers. But there are understandable triggers to be aware of to help you sell the benefits of learning, without getting hit by a frying pan.

And getting it right opens the door to all the benefits of effective coaching, not least addressing bad habits that have snuck in. Done badly, (or poorly maintained), it can have serious implications on culture, retention and beyond, dispensing damaging people management techniques company-wide. Scary stuff that even Gordon would lose sleep over (okay, maybe not him).

By working with existing managers as well as those new to the fold, you’re helping to build consistent coaching practice, focused on what good looks like in your business. And that’s a key message to try to impart – your intentions are to upskill managers on how coaching works here, not to criticise how they’ve approached it before. Because it should stem from and work in harmony with your unique company culture (or at least the one you’re trying to craft).

You might face resistance, at least initially. How many of us can hand on heart say we’re super receptive to change? It’s worth taking the time to explain the why of the situation – why you’re doing it and why it’s important – to them and the business. Try to address any reticence and barriers up front by having honest conversations which take their experience and perspective into account, with lots of relevant, exploratory questions to get to the root of their issues. You can also get closer to their specific needs and move away from providing one, generic solution for all. Hopefully, by tackling things early, you can earn buy-in before you launch, avoiding bigger problems later on and perhaps even winning an advocate in the process.

However you map skills and behaviours in your business - a competency matrix, as-needed gap analysis or otherwise - taking the time to understand where people are, where they need to be, and how to bridge the divide will go a long way towards delivering real value with your interventions. As an added bonus, it can also help you identify and harness, shining, existing coaching capabilities. Perhaps it’s less about introducing great coaching practice from scratch and more about amplifying and disseminating the good stuff which already happens

Individuals can have different things to offer and improve upon at the same time and understanding the status quo is a smart place to start.

6 ways you can develop coaching skills in your business

Whether you’re developing coaching skills in new or existing leadership, here are six top tips which can help with both:

  1. Know when to bring in the experts

A 2018 study, featured by Harvard Business Review, found that after fifteen hours of coaching training, Managers’ skills across nine related competencies increased by over 40%. Training was largely delivered by experts, and the researchers concluded that a little professional help could go a long way. In this case, specifically in identifying skill gaps and developing self-awareness.

For many organisations, the first step to successfully embedding coaching is to bring in the experts - at least to provide that initial dose of best practice. Let’s face it, despite the dawning realisation that L&D efforts are integral to business success, budgets aren’t exactly roomy, but if it really is the right move, then coaching needs to launch on the experienced foot.

Any coaching guru worth their salt will also be able to guide you as per your context: how coaching can thrive in your business given its size, structure, goals etc. and support your longer-term plan with things like how to demonstrate its working and finding opportunities to iterate. 

Be mindful that as the demand for coaching pros has surged, so has the number of individuals defining themselves as such. Reach out to your existing network for a referral and do your research. Make sure you’re bringing in a vetted, qualified professional and, if you can, speak to other organisations they’ve worked with.

  1. Curate targeted solutions

Effective coaching sits more firmly in the soft/behavioural skills (sorry, power skills) camp than hard skills. We’re taking active listening, understanding when different questioning styles are needed, empathy, facilitation and giving and receiving feedback (to name a few).

Plugging the skills gap could be a blend of many things: existing or sourced content, external consultancy, focus groups, eLearning, and beyond. The vehicle should be whatever is most effective and efficient considering the learners, learning and logistics (Clive Shepherd’s wise words to the rescue again).

Once people are demonstrating these skills or behaviours, paying close attention to what is (in the development pathway or outside of it) driving success. If you know what’s working, you can enhance it, celebrate it and replicate it. This is also a key part of evaluating the approach - not just focusing on areas of improvement but also how to protect and project what’s working. 

  1. Health check when it makes sense

Whilst we’re on the subject of evaluation - rather than leave it to the last, or leap over it to the next exciting initiative, build it into your design. Essentially it’s about defining what’s relevant and valuable for your solution and the data, metrics and trends which will evidence its success.

Being able to conclusively say that coaching is now a roaring success is very tricky - especially because it naturally occurs in a private bubble, often one-to-one or in the flow of work. But think about why it was necessary in the first place. Did people feel lacking in motivation and direction or dedicated time? Were HR issues arising from people management problems or poor feedback delivery? Go back to that benchmark data - is the dial being positively impacted and if so, can you demonstrate the role coaching has to play?

Don’t forget about the coaches either - their level of investment, experience of the programme, and sense of personal growth are vital, as are their ideas to improve it. And all of these things can change. Accept it might take time to get it right - that balance between letting the programme get up and running and breathe, and appropriate monitoring.

  1. Create a cycle of continual learning

Straight from the off, there should be shared understanding that effective coaching is an ongoing process, with commitment to what this involves. Great coaches are developed over time, not perfectly formed after a few hours. So, instead of just a one-off intense training session, considerable emphasis should land on the Follow-up stage. As in, the training’s been delivered, now what? How do we ensure it’s translating into real impact day-to-day?

Making sure plenty of opportunities for spaced practice are available will play a big part. Exactly how frequently they’re needed and what form they take needs to speak to your context. The journey after the core training will be all the more crucial if you’re shepherding a cohort of new coaches, who are likely (at least in the beginning) to need more help. 

You can support this by signposting timely resources which are responsive to how coaches and their coachees are feeling. Meet them where they are. Refreshers and reinforcement will help the formation of long-term good habits and catch set-backs early. 

  1. Encourage regular collaboration

It’s important to provide avenues for coaches to talk through their experiences together - the good, the bad (and hopefully not the ugly), so that they can practise together. They can continue to coach one another by sharing success stories and providing feedback, guidance and support. This can also form part of reflective practice - pressing the pause button and processing.

No matter the experience level, there will inevitably be situations which blindside from time-to-time, where group counsel can prove illuminating. Whether or not such sessions are facilitated, part of a buddy-system, formally arranged,  informal conversations over your LXP platform, or all of the above, depends on what’s valuable and relevant to the individuals involved.  

Whatever you set-up or encourage post-training, poke your head round the door from time to see if coaches are seizing the opportunities as intended. If not, it’s worth investigating why things have changed and isolating the barriers by going straight to the source - your people.

The collaboration required doesn’t start and end between coaches; it’s also about L&Ds relationships with the stakeholders in the business. For any learning intervention to be a success long-term, it needs to be supported as a means to addressing a business problem, not just a learning problem. RACI matrix the hell out of your network and come up with an ongoing plan so individuals feel connected, consulted, informed, and everyone crucial is aligned.

  1. Help coaches adapt to change

Business priorities can regularly flux due to internal and external factors (I’m sure we can all think of somewhat significant one beginning with C… ). These shifts can trickle down and affect the coaching experience in numerous ways, like the time available, budgets, halted opportunities or new areas of focus. Even shifting to coaching remotely from face-to-face will have required different skills and techniques. You can help them respond to current needs and stay future-focused.

Coaches also need to be informed of what’s going on at a strategic level, so they can sync it with what they’re supporting at a personal level. And the sooner they’re brought up to speed, the smoother any necessary transition can be. If a coach is feeling frustrated and behind the curve, this might negatively impact the interactions they have. But if they know what’s important and they’re aware of any changes afoot, they can work in-step with the direction the business wants to travel in. 

Similar can be said of positive developments - maybe there’s a new training opportunity, support available or something which will impact someone they coach down the line - is it on their radar?

This isn’t a hand-holding exercise, it’s ensuring they have access to the right information, at the right level, to enrich the coaching experience for everyone.

Upskilling your leaders to become coaches

If you’ve determined that a coaching initiative is a top notch way to solve an existing business problem, hopefully this blog has inspired your next steps. 

How you decide to upskill or coach your coaches will depend on your context. Just remember: great coaches are forged, not born. 

In order to maintain their healthy habits, behaviours and ongoing development, you’ll need to think about long-term L&D infrastructure. Don’t promise overnight success, promise slow but meaningful progress and you’ll set your leadership team on the right track.

If you’re finding there’s a tricky relationship developing between your coaches and your L&D team then you need to check out our recent webinar ‘Bridging the gap between coaching and learning’. It’s chock-full of helpful tips, tricks and personal experiences from our own team and external coaching experts.

Or if you want to know more about how you can improve your own learning strategy, reach out to Gemma, our L&D Manager, for a quick, no-obligation chat.


Topics: Learning Strategy