Sharp practice

Coaching at the sharp end or consulting at the high end? The CIPD’s Learning and Talent Development survey has thrown up some searching questions. John McGurk explains why

Coaching is growing as a central part of manager skills and behaviours. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Learning and Talent Development (L&TD) survey 2011, indicates that coaching and mentoring occurs in more than four-fifths (86 per cent) of organisations, which is a very high and consistently stable level (2010 was 82 per cent). Aside from 2006, where it dropped slightly, the ‘incidence’ of coaching has never been higher. This is consistent across sectors and sizes of organisation.

The primary objective of coaching and mentoring is reported as supporting performance management (43 per cent), followed by preparing and supporting people in leadership roles (33 per cent) and supporting learning and development (21 per cent).

In two-fifths of organisations, line managers have the main responsibility for delivering coaching. Internal coaches have the main responsibility in a third, while for one-fifth it lies with external consultants.

Responsibility for coaching appears to be particularly mixed in very small organisations (up to 50 people). Half (50 per cent) report that line managers have the main responsibility, while more than two-fifths report that it lies with external consultants (46 per cent) and internal coaches (44 per cent). It may be that in very small businesses it is outsourced at leadership levels only.

Some companies are using coaching and mentoring as a high impact low cost intervention in these hard times. Some are bringing to fruition strategies to develop coaching capability where it has cascaded through. It’s an indicator of the value and assumed impact of coaching that they continue.

What is the role of the external coach/consultant in all of this? Many tell me they would love to have coaching, but that an executive coach is not what they need. That’s because they want the coaching to be delivered through line managers and teams.

I was recently invited to speak at a major Financial Services Authority conference aimed at financial service professionals. They wanted to know how coaching and mentoring could help them deliver what they call Training and Compliance (T&C).

Help or hindrance?

Drawing on CIPD research such as our Developing Coaching Capability project with Ashridge, and our Coaching at the Sharp End research with Portsmouth, I explained that coaching was an ideal method for delivering T&C.

I put this in terms of structuring powerful, productive conversations around the three Cs: compliance, competence and customer. These are the critical ‘needs’ for learning in the financial services sector.

I introduced them to some projects involving coaching in financial environments, particularly our work with Zurich Financial and M&G Fund management. I also related coaching to the SMEs and micro-business climates, which many small independent financial advice firms operate within. I used basic techniques such as GROW, OSKAR and CIGAR to relate coaching to them.

I also explained that coaching linked to L&TD and to organisational development offered a systematic pathway to sustainable organisation performance, especially in times of adversity.

This audience seemed engaged and energised by the idea of using coaching and mentoring. This caused me to reflect:

Is the executive label leaving you behind the curve when the real issue is coaching capability?

What’s our market?

Earlier in the week I had been approached by a leading coaching academic to help him gain an idea of the size of the executive coaching market in the UK. I explained the difficulties in estimating this.

Half the time we don’t know what executive coaching is. Is it coaching ‘masters of the universe’ and executive teams – as in a minority of cases? Is it coaching leaders, whoever we believe those to be, through internal coaches? Is it the majority activity of helping organisations and individuals develop coaching capability? Many coaches – primarily internal – are involved in the latter.

The executive label, with its elitist connotations, concerns me. If we mean business and organisational coaching – as opposed to life coaching – why don’t we just say so?

Overuse of the ‘executive coaching’ label gets in the way of showing the real value of coaching – as do some executive coaches.

We must understand the organisations we are delivering to and their needs. The fact is, organisations need coaching skills and they need coaches who can help deliver them. However, many coaches position themselves at the apex of the coaching pyramid. It is easy for firms to dismiss them as suppliers of this coaching capability.

Yes, I know that some of the best coaching delivery has come from consultants helping organisations build capability. Yet, as the case study of Signet Trading in our L&TD survey shows, much good practice is driven internally by enthusiastic L&TD practitioners.

I suggest that the label is used because some people think, like the bank robber asked why he robbed banks, that executive coaching is “where the money is”.

For me the value is in building whole organisation capability, embedding it and proving its impact.

Let’s ask ourselves searching questions. I’d like to hear yours too – the best will be used in Taking the Temperature of Coaching 2011.

Here are my questions:

  • Now coaching is becoming essential to the line manager’s people management skills, what, if anything, can external coaches add?
  • Are internal coaches now the pivotal resource in delivering coaching capability and how can you help them? Do they need your help?
  • Is it time you stopped confusing people by putting the ‘executive’ tag on coaching with all its mixed messages about both costs and access?
  • Is all good work going to be squandered anyway by poor evaluation across the board?

What can you do to tackle that?

These are genuine issues you need to address. In September at the CIPD Coaching At Work conference we will be discussing the results of our Taking the Temperature of Coaching survey, building on our 2009 results. This is a two-yearly look into coaching which allows us to go further than our learning and developments survey. In it I will be asking L&TD people how internal and external coaches are used, how mentoring is being practised as a distinct approach, and whether they think the labels and signals we put on coaching are getting in the way of effective coaching capability.

We need a real debate about what external coaches do around building coaching. Let’s choose the sharp end – not just the high end.

John McGurk is CIPD adviser on learning and talent development
Email him at:

Coaching at Work, Volume 6, Issue 3

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