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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Professional development: the challenges of introducing a coaching culture


At Academics’ Corner we explore the latest HR research coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know about. Here, Jan Hills, Partner at Head Heart + Brian, discusses research on the issues faced with introducing a coaching culture.

According to a new study from the International Centre for Leadership Coaching, most managers don’t understand what coaching really is. This lack of training can breed bad habits if left unchecked, so an ongoing research project suggests some ways to fix this.

The method

The study asked a group of 98 MBA participants on a leadership coaching module to coach another person on the topic of time management, without further explanation.

One third of the participants were female and two thirds were male, with an average age of 32. They had an average of eight years’ experience in work, with 3.8 years of leadership experience.

The coaching conversations lasted five minutes and were videotaped, with the tapes then evaluated by other participants in the coaching course through an online peer review system, as well as 18 expert coaches.  

All of these experts had a master’s degree or graduate certificate in coaching, with an average of 23.2 years of work experience and 7.4 years of coaching experience.

Participants then received face-to-face training, with breakout sessions in smaller groups for practice, feedback, and reflection on their coaching skills.

At the end of the process, participants were videotaped again during coaching and evaluated once more.

Participants also undertook surveys about their attitudes and experiences with leadership coaching before and after the training.

The results

The initial coaching sessions were more about giving direction than coaching with participants saying, ‘do this’ or ‘why don’t you do this?’

This kind of ‘direction-as-coaching’ approach was reinforced by the other participants.

In the first coaching exercise, the peer evaluations were significantly higher than the evaluations from experts. In an organisational setting, this reinforces a directive style that people call coaching. This may account for some of the reluctance of executives to authorise budget for coaching training.

Better training

The research also looked at how leaders can be trained to be better coaches.

Researchers analysed nine key leadership coaching skills, based on the existing literature and the researchers’ practical experiences of leadership coaching, which were:

  • Listening
  • Questioning
  • Giving feedback
  • Assisting with goal setting
  • Showing empathy
  • Letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • Recognising and pointing out strengths
  • Providing structure
  • Encouraging a solution-focused approach

Impact of the training

Using the coaching experts’ assessments as the baseline for the managers’ abilities, the researchers identified the best, worst, and most improved components of coaching.

The skill the participants were best at before training was listening, which was rated ‘average’ by experts. After the training, the experts’ rating increased 32.9%, resulting in listening being labelled ‘average-to-good’.

The skills the participants struggled with the most before the training were ‘recognising and pointing out strengths’ (rated as poor) and ‘letting the coachee arrive at their own solution’ (rated as average).

Interestingly, after the training the most improved aspect of coaching was ‘letting coachees arrive at their own solution’. This skill increased by 54.1%, which moved it from a ‘poor’ rating to a ‘slightly above average’ one.

The good news, as evidenced by the research, is that you don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference and unleash potential. 

Based on the experts, ratings the training course resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall coaching ability across all nine categories, on average.

In the study, managers also rated their coaching ability three times: once after coaching someone cold at the start of the programme, once after they were given additional training, and once looking back at their original coaching session.

After the training, managers decreased their initial assessment of themselves by 28.8%, from ‘slightly good’ to ‘slightly poor’.

This change was corroborated by managers’ peers, who reduced their assessment by 18.4%, from ‘slightly good’ to ‘neither good nor bad’, when looking back at their original observations of others.

Practical application

What can organisations learn from this research?

Change your mindset

First, any approach to coaching should begin by clearly defining what it is and how it differs from other types of manager behaviour, like directing.

This shift in mindset lays a foundation for training and gives managers a clear set of expectations.

My view is that managers also need to understand the difference between approaching coaching with a fixed verses a growth mindset (according to Carol Dweck’s definitions). Approaching coaching with a fixed mindset is unlikely to result in adoption of new skills back on the job.

Practice makes perfect

The next step is to let managers practice coaching in a safe environment before letting them work with their teams.

If you take away only one thing from this research, it’s that coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.

The good news, as evidenced by the research, is that you don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference and unleash potential. You do, however, need to invest in some form of training.

Even a short course targeted at the right skills can improve managers’ coaching skills.

Build in reflection time

Ensure the programme includes time for participants to reflect on their coaching abilities.

If managers have more knowledge and training, they are able to provide a better self-assessment of their skills and to monitor their own performance and think about what’s working, and what they could do better.

Get professional feedback

The research suggests it’s a mistake for leaders to only receive feedback from peers, as this tends to reinforce poor coaching habits, particularly directive suggestions.

Using coach experts to give feedback or including coaching from a skilled coach as part of the programme provides participants with an experience of good coaching and a role model. Feedback by coaching experts can also focus on how well the coaching skills were applied and if any coaching opportunities were missed.

Another powerful method is when peer-to-peer coaching is observed by an expert ‘supervisor coach’.

This method (which wasn’t used in the research) has two advantages: first, leaders get practice in a safe environment, and second, leaders and coaches can discuss challenges they have experienced and how to overcome them.

If you take away only one thing from this research, it’s that coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.

Not only does a lack of training leave managers unprepared to undertake coaching, but it may result in managers’ reinforcing poor coaching practices among themselves.

Want to learn more about developing employees with leadership potential? Read Talent management: eight golden rules to accelerate development.

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Jan Hills


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