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Using coaches in a tightly structured program for junior managers can have a startling impact in a short period of time. Article | Mon, 02/07/2011 - 01:00


It is estimated that businesses spend $1 billion to $2 billion a year on coaching. A whopping 73 percent of those funds is targeted at the senior and executive levels. Despite the recent economic downturn, that number has remained relatively stable. When questioned, organizations note it is important to continue to invest at these higher leadership levels given the leverage of their top leaders.


Essentially, an enormous amount of money currently is being spent on top-tier leaders who have real world-experience, who have earned some stripes, who have been schooled in leadership, and who have had years of mentoring and/or coaching as a leader. Coaching money spent on executive and senior leaders helps sharpen capacity and results while providing a payback of at least 6 to 1.


We believe investing at the front-line level makes just as much, if not more, sense. A client of ours invests heavily in coaching for front-line leaders. A recent study by that client found that those who were coached improved their engagement scores on average by 12 percent. Their non-coached counterparts scores improved by 1.7 percent.


Aside from the big increase in engagement scores, several other skills saw statistically significant improvement. Three of those items continue to be on the “needs improvement” list of most organizations and their managers. They include the following:


  • The supervisors’ ability to provide constructive feedback (which saw an 18 percent jump).
  • The employees’ feeling of empowerment in terms of the work process (a 22 percent jump).
  • The employees’ trust in their manager and the organization’s senior leaders (15 percent and 18 percent improvements, respectively).


In short, this client has shown that with an average investment of roughly 15 hours per manager, the organization has helped these managers improve engagement, feedback, empowerment, and trust.


Why the Front-Line Level?

Where are coaching dollars best spent—at the top or bottom of the proverbial hierarchy? We suggest the front-line manager (and the data above supports that). This is the beginning point of the leadership pipeline. Coaching these crucial individuals provides them with support and sets them up for success. They directly touch the largest number of direct reports (spans between 10 and 15) and, therefore, have the highest potential impact on employee engagement. If they are not focused on facilitating workflow (and busting barriers), gaining trust of employees, and evaluating work behaviors, no one else in the organization is. This may lead to spotty employee performance, poor engagement, higher attrition, and resultant increases in retraining costs.


We believe that each new manager should be assigned a coach after three months on the job and definitely within the first year.


What About Training?

We are not advocating the elimination of classroom or online training. It’s a start and provides new managers a foundation.


Training for new supervisors generally focuses on the mechanics of supervision. It typically does not address the particular team dynamics that face many new supervisors nor how to deal with a difficult or non-supportive boss who may be in the picture.


New supervisors leave training with the best of intentions and are armed with good leadership theories, practices, and maybe even some useful tools. They arrive back to their offices with a full plate of expectations from their boss, new job duties, and people with myriad needs and problems. The demands and expectations are great. Despite their eagerness and new tools, many feel unprepared to meet the challenges.


Coaching picks up where training leaves off. It helps new managers make the translation from classroom to real world and from worker to manager/leader.


So How Does the Process Work?

A coaching relationship generally lasts between six and 12 months with the coach and manager getting together about once every three to four weeks.The manager ultimately decides how to use his/her time with the coach. He/she identifies areas where he/she needs help, strengths upon which to build, and goals to be achieved. This promotes accountability and ensures the commitment necessary for ongoing and regular work.


The rapport and confidentiality that develops between a manager and a coach creates a feeling of optimism rather than the hopelessness many describe before being assigned a coach. It appears that simply being assigned a coach creates a halo effect that encourages a positive spirit and generates energy both in the manager and in his/her team.


As the coach and manager work to identify and recognize manager’s strengths, the manager begins to see himself/herself as a leader. Coaching simply focuses on how to use strengths to bridge gaps (areas where they are learning or in which they are lacking skill).


The coach stretches the supervisor beyond the immediate by asking the right questions:


  • What is your job?
  • Why are you doing this job?
  • What makes your job so compelling to you?
  • What difference do you want to make?


Most come to realize that with all the noise around them and the myriad to-do’s, they are dedicated to doing good and making a difference, and the most important thing is their people. If they aren’t focusing on them, no one else is.


When introducing a new skill or tool, the coach works with the manager to assess how willing he/she is to try something different. What could be the payoff if he/she were successful? What would be the fallout if he/she didn’t do anything differently? The coach also helps the manager debrief and synthesize the learning. What worked, what didn’t? Why? What commitment is there to incorporate this new behavior/skill into one’s repertoire?


Finally, the coach helps plan ahead of time for potential failures—or missed opportunities and helps the supervisor strategize about what to do if that happens. They help him/her consider scenarios, identify intentions of their actions and desired outcomes, assess how it went, adjust and try again.


Keys to Success

We see three factors that, when addressed, make for program success:


  • Intent. The coaching program must be presented to the organization as a whole, in a positive light. If not, having a coach can be seen as punitive and those being coached can feel, or be seen as, less than their counterparts. Additionally, there should be no secrets as to why a manager has been selected for coaching. A candid discussion with the manager and his/her supervisor is an ideal precursor to the coach entering the picture.
  • Process. At least one session of coaching needs to be face-to-face. This builds rapport with the coach and also allows the coach to gain insights from body language and other subtle clues. Coaching meetings also must be scheduled at regular intervals, and scheduled in advance. If not, meetings tend to slip and/or be cancelled. Control over one’s calendar is a critical skill front-line leaders are just starting to learn. To attempt to get on one’s calendar month after month can be trying.
  • Focus. The coaching should be holistic (focused on the broad domain that makes for leadership success). The frantic pace faced primarily by front-line managers can drain them of energy and enthusiasm. Work-life balance, organizational, and time management skills are often some of the first components in the coaching. Toward the end of the coaching relationship, the focus turns to long-term goals, plans, and legacy.


Return on Investment

Historically, a coaching intervention was viewed as too large an investment for junior managers. In general, leadership coaching is seen as an expensive alternative that is reserved for higher levels—often just the executive level. However, using coaches in a tightly structured program for junior managers can have a startling impact in a short period of time.


The return on investment for this program is seen at three impact levels:


  • Individual managers have greatly improved business results over a broad range of business measures. Twenty percent of the managers in this program have strengthened their performance management skills. In addition, 14 percent of the managers have learned better skills for managing up the organization.
  • At the group level, it has resulted in more productive and accountable front-line employees. Teambuilding and engagement scores are indicative of groups pulling together to achieve higher business measures even in a time when many workloads are increasing exponentially.
  • At the organizational level, increased engagement scores are just one measure.


When training was first offered to organizations, it was targeted at the top. Coaching, too, started with the more senior levels. This project portends evidence of a trend that has already started. Coaching is moving down the organization. Many organizations have started to offer coaching to mid-level managers and/or those who are considered high potential as part of a training experience. Over time, organizations will transition that assistance to the front-line. We suggest that those who are progressive do so now, given the results and paybacks highlighted here.


This article was written jointly by Dr. Ria Hawkins, president of Take Charge Consultants, Coatesville, PA; Sheree Butterfield, president of Butterfield Associates; and Jennifer Lee, president of Giraffe Consulting. The three of them have worked together for several years on shared projects on which they integrate their collective experience and areas of expertise.

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