Unlike our Olympians Coaching has Run to Fat
As we bask in the glow from our record Olympic medal tally, just
think of the years of preparation our athletes put in, developing their
muscles, honing their techniques and tuning their minds so they could be
on peak form in their moments of truth.
Now think of UK PLC. In recent years it displayed similar passion for and commitment to coaching. Millions were spent and thousands were trained in this exciting new discipline, with investment peaking, probably, in 2009/10.
Today though there is cynicism. We talk to a lot of Senior Executives in big companies who are completely jaded about coaching. During the second quarter of this year we conducted interviews with 14 senior HR professionals from the FMCG, retail, professional services and public sectors, and most shared with us poignant tales of waste and failure. Having been hot-housed, all that glorious coaching muscle is running to fat.
From this research we discovered that the lifespan of a shiny new coaching programme averages out at 14 months, and after that it starts to wither. There are three reasons why, at the moment, coaching doesn't stick:
- 1) Those receiving the coach training aren't moved emotionally;
- 2) Coaching doesn't connect with their organisational pressures and objectives;
- 3) There is no follow-up to embed the learning.
Let's unpack the first one. The typical approach to date has been to get some people in a room and train them, which means imparting to them information, packaged as skills and tools, about coaching. At an intellectual level, these trainees may see the sense and appreciate the wisdom, but when they re-enter the pressurised world of their jobs, they find it hard to remember, let alone apply. Faced with challenging situations they fall back on familiar coping mechanisms.
I call this the ‘sheep-dip’ approach to training: in, out, send 'em on their way.
For coach training to be effective, what is needed is behavioural change, and to do that you have to affect trainees at an emotional level, something that simply ‘training’ groups in a room singularly fails to achieve. People have to have a fundamental experience that shifts their insight. Good coaching operates at the level of belief, and once you unpick someone's belief about a situation, new insight dawns. Coach training that fails to achieve this in the classroom misses the point.
Warning: When you match the emotional epiphany to the real world, there could be tears. We see this in our workshops, even among supposedly thick-skinned Senior Executives. Frequently. That's because one well-placed question can un-dam a lot of pent-up emotion. It doesn't matter how academically sound or psychologically proven the content of coaching is – how potent the wash in the sheep-dip – if the trainee coach hasn’t connected the emotional dots for themselves, the training will wear off.
Second point: Coaching needs to address business needs and pressures. Directly. The link must be explicit, not implied, as in 'get this theory right and the real world will fall into place'. It won't. Ninety percent of coach training today operates at the theoretical level. I was privy to a massive coaching roll-out at a food manufacturer you know well, and I could have wept. There was no business imperative, no linking of the programme to peoples' real, local situations, no discussion of the benefit each individual might actually derive. According to one senior manager I spoke to, a year down the line the programme hasn’t had any noticeable impact on business performance. Businesses are demanding. Unless there’s a measurable business benefit, enthusiasm for any coaching initiatives will quickly dissipate.
Which brings us to the third point: effective follow-up. Even emotional epiphanies need reliving, and new behaviour patterns need embedding. Remember the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve? In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus showed just what sieves our brains were, that forgetting happens most rapidly just after learning and slows down over time. He proved also that learning is more effective when it comes in staggered bits, not in one long, expensive brain dump. So an effective coaching programme finds clever ways to allow trainee coaches to relive their learning experiences, to practise the tools, to report on what they've done – effectively, to teach themselves.
Business coaching is still new and we're seeing signs of growing pains. It's moving from an indulged, carefree childhood into difficult adolescence. Despite the hothousing, I think there's still scope for UK PLC to use coaching effectively to achieve peak form for its own moment of truth, which, unlike the Olympics, never ends.