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Case Study: Coaching at Kimberly-Clark



John Faulkes of Team Communications looks at the importance of evaluating coaching, using Kimberly-Clark as a case study and asks ‘what prevents managers adopting a coaching approach in so many organisations?’

Kimberly-Clark Europe Learning and Development Director Rick Woodward sometimes introduces external presentations saying: “If you throw it away, we make it!” This however under plays the organisation’s success in making and selling some of the leading brands of household, hygiene and health products worldwide. Kleenex, Andrex, Huggies, and Kotex will be well known to readers in the UK!

Yet maintaining this level of commercial success is a huge challenge. Relentless competition comes not only from major competitors such as Proctor and Gamble, but also from supermarket own brands.

In the last few years Kimberly-Clark have devoted more and more energy toward developing the talent of their people, particularly senior managers. Everywhere, organisations are waking up to the fact that this will be the driver of short-term survival in the marketplace and long-term growth and change. KC are taking direct action – with managerial coaching and talent development skills being key objectives. As part of this they are introducing an innovative online assessment system.

During 2004, KC’s board established a new matrix of six key leadership capabilities: Visionary, Innovative, Inspirational, Decisive, Collaborative, and Building Talent. They instituted a rigorous global review of top leaders against these criteria. Individual development plans were written for each top leader in order to help each of them to focus on performance improvement.

This year KC is beginning a major programme of developing leaders across the range of capabilities and – pertinent to this article – vital amongst them are coaching, developing and building talent.

‘Coaching’ means different things to different people. Where necessary, KC hires expert, external coaches for its senior leaders. But it’s determined to raise the basic level of performance coaching skills within its leadership. Future leaders will need to have building talent and the development of others as a core accountability.

Of course, many organisations aspire to this. ‘People are our greatest asset’ is quoted frequently, by firms that expend enormous effort in developing their products, courting their customers and pleasing their investors, but pay scant attention to the potential of their staff. This is a fatal strategy in the long term. So why is it so difficult to change it?

In theory, in shouldn’t be. Good, basic coaching skills are not that difficult to acquire. Developing top class business skills and high-level experience in any functional discipline is, arguably, much harder! Furthermore, as far as staff members are concerned, any manager wanting to coach is ‘pushing at an open door’ – people thrive on coaching and welcome it.

Why do they? Well, because although course-delivered training is important – and in large concerns like KC has always been available – good managerial coaching is much more effective. This is because change and development plans are those that the staff themselves think through and commit to. Learning tasks are work projects, usually stretching tasks but real and relevant. And importantly, managers lend both their sponsorship and authority to them. Proper coaching tasks are serious, work-related, committed-to objectives. Coaching sometimes replaces traditional training approaches, but is at its most effective when it provides the ‘back to work’, real application of new skills that training has kick-started.

So what prevents managers adopting a coaching approach in so many organisations? Primarily it is because they are recognised and rewarded for being experts, not leaders. Being a leader is about setting a clear vision /strategy for the future, then enabling others to make it happen. But as so often happens, senior managers get sucked into fire-fighting, cost-minimisation, personally taking on a myriad of small decisions. If a series of business tasks is all that a manager is held accountable for, this will happen, more often than not.

To break this cycle, it is essential to make the various duties and opportunities of leadership a major part of the objectives that senior managers are set, and measured against. KC is starting to do just that. In the future, these capabilities cannot be disregarded as nebulous or impossible to assess. They can be measured and must be.

This year we are helping KC to introduce an innovative, 360-based system to help managers assess their own skills. Rick Woodward asked us to develop something that “is engaging and fun to do, yet provides tough feedback when it’s needed.”

We developed something a little different from conventional 360-degree questionnaires. Rather than asking managers ‘How good are you at.x?’ via a simple rating scale, most of the questions set out realistic staff situations, typically encountered in day-to-day meetings or performance discussions. Managers are asked ‘What would you do now?’ and ‘How would you resolve this?’ Staff are asked similar questions about their managers.

The output report draws conclusions from across the questionnaire and provides tailored advice and guidance. It rates managers in three areas – appreciation of the business benefits of coaching and current commitment to it; how much they understand about how people learn; and their current skill level.

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