Workplace Coaching: Selecting A Coach
Workplace coaching can come in a variety of forms. It can exist to enhance technical, professional, business or leadership skills. Its purpose may be to help with immediate skill application in the employee’s current role, or it can be used to develop the employee for a future role. The latter purpose is more usually described as “mentoring”. In setting up a coaching program, other than agreeing the purpose of the program, your key question that you will need to answer is who will play the role of coach. Your options here include the employee’s manager, a trainer, a technical expert and a professional coach, amongst others. Which is right for your program will depend on your particular circumstances. In this article, I will look at each of these options in turn.
I include in this option anyone with a supervisory or management responsibility that sits in the organizational hierarchy in a position above that of the employee. So, this option includes:
• immediate team leader, foreman, supervisor, manager, etcetera
• manager’s manager
• immediate manager’s peer
• three levels or above manager
• three levels or above manager’s peer
• executive or director
Here, I will refer to all of these positions simply as “manager”. The immediate manager is mostly used for assisting with the application of technical skills. Where the manager actually possesses the skills in question, this can be a prudent choice for three reasons. Firstly, it can serve to strengthen the personal bond between the manager and their direct report. Secondly, it allows the manager to provide up-to-date information on their work objectives and to give accurate and timely feedback on the employee’s job performance. Thirdly, in cases where a manager has adopted needed workplace changes half-heartedly or haphazardly, easing them into a coaching role can help them take ownership of, and be a driver for, the required change.
The other options involving managers above the level of immediate manager are sometimes used for coaching in professional and leadership skills. Choosing a coach that is outside of the participant’s immediate or direct line of responsibility has its distinct advantages. Where the coaching assignment takes in interpersonal relationship skills, such as delegation, goal setting and conflict management, having a coach that is outside of their normal day-to-day interactions brings a higher level of objectivity. Secondly, having a coach who is in a different reporting line, such as in a different department or business unit, makes it easier to maintain the trust and confidentiality of both the coach and employee.
With the emphasis in recent years by a growing number of organizations on the “manager as coach” philosophy, this approach to lifting employee engagement and productivity may be warmly welcomed in your organization. Immediately following a training program may be an opportune time to introduce managers to the coaching role. You will need to make sure that the training program is targeted at real strategic or operational needs agreed by the management team if you are to get managers on side with this new role. In addition, to help ensure consistency between the messages coming from the employee’s manager and the learnings from the training program, encourage the manager to attend the program, even if they are already skilled in the areas in question.
If the coaching program links with a training program that you are rolling out, then using that program’s trainer as coach can be an obvious choice. This approach can provide a seamless transition for the training participants from the classroom to the workplace. Trainers are a natural choice because they are an expert on the subject matter already and are familiar with each participant’s skill level, preferences and personal challenges. A word of caution here is needed. Just as not every manager is a natural coach, the same holds true for trainers. The most effective trainers, that is, those that can impart skills, will usually make great coaches. However, those trainers that are simply great “presenters” may find the coaching role a challenge. So, even though the trainer may be willing and available, you will need to ensure that the trainer possesses the necessary coaching skills.
Subject Matter Expert
In some cases, the training participant’s supervisor or manager and the trainer may not possess enough subject matter expertise to coach the employee effectively back on the job. Or they may not be willing or able. Subject matter experts, usually from within the organization, can fill this role. Where deep technical knowledge is required, such as within engineering streams, or where extensive experience is necessary, such as with managing large, complex projects, an appropriate subject matter expert can fill this role. The important caveat here is that the subject matter expert will need to be given the appropriate training, resources and time to fulfill the coaching role properly. If not, the coaching relationship will suffer and you will see little return in terms of improved workplace performance.
Sometimes you will need to make a choice between using an internal employee as a coach and engaging the services of an external coach. The internal employee will usually be one of the three types considered above; manager, trainer or subject matter expert. The main advantages of choosing an internal employee as opposed to an external professional are:
• no extra funding is required as they are already on the payroll
• they may already know the employees, saving time developing familiarity and building relationships
• they may already have been involved with the change or training program, saving time with familiarization
• they know the history and politics of the organization and can get things done
External Consultant or Contractor
Sometimes the characteristics that make using an internal employee as coach beneficial can turn out to be handicaps. Features of an external coach that may make it more prudent to select them into the coaching role can include:
• they have no prior relationship with the employee, so can be more impartial
• they may have been involved with implementing the change or training program, saving time with familiarization
• they are divorced from the organization, so less likely to get embroiled in organizational politics and favoritism
Of course, they will work for an hourly, daily or fixed contract fee, so will be more expensive than using an internal employee. You will need to weigh up the extra costs involved against the added benefits from using an outside source.
Getting support from peers is not always in the form of a coach-employee relationship. In fact, most times it is not. I include this option here because it is an often overlooked but very effective way of providing low cost support to employees impacted by a change or training program. Peers are people at the same level of responsibility as the employee and can reside either within the same organization as the employee or in a different organization. They may even work in a different industry altogether. In some cases, this can even be an advantage, as they can bring a whole new perspective to the issue at hand. Consider these sources for getting peer support:
• regular “brown paper bag” sessions organized during lunch times for which participants organize for one of them to speak on a topic or invite an outside expert to speak
• workgroups meet regularly during work time to review course materials and take turns in discussing a problem with which they are currently grappling
• forums and chat rooms, either located on the corporate intranet or on websites devoted to the industry or profession, provide valuable group discussions on relevant topics
• corporate or external wikis in which groups of participants contribute to a group resource on specific subjects
• many local chapters of professional associations provide special interest group meetings and seminars devoted to various topics
• Communities of Practice (CoP) bind members of a profession intent on sharing ideas and learning from each other and may use one or more of the above methods to promote such learning
Your coaching choices are not limited to one or other of the above options. You may use them singly or in combination. In fact, the more points of support that you provide employees, the more chance that you will avoid the individual constraints of employees and take advantage of each of their peculiar learning styles. I’m not saying that you should organize more than one on-the-job coach per employee; however, you can supplement on-the-job coaching with a corporate online message board or subsidized professional association memberships.
Whoever you decide on fulfilling the coaching role, ensure that you put in place clear coaching guidelines. Coaching for specific procedural and manual skills will look very different from coaching for professional and managerial skills. To begin with, coaching for the former will be quite directive at times, whilst coaching for the latter will be more open ended, allowing the employee considerably more self-direction. The coaching guidelines should leave no surprises as to what is expected in terms of coaching outcomes and professional standards of behavior from both coach and employee. The person you choose as coach will need to be comfortable with your guidelines. Choose wisely.