GIBS Research Assoc. Dr. Natalie Cunningham examines the latest developments and trends in business coaching.

Is coaching a worthwhile investment for individuals and corporates or is it just “a nice to have” but essentially not a real value add? It has been difficult to answer this question because coaching is perceived and used differently. Some people use the words coach and mentor interchangeably, some separate the roles with the coach being less directive and the mentor being an in-house subject matter expert. The reality is that the use of coaching is confusing in its varied application.   

However, it is a rapidly growing industry with the current size of the business coaching market estimated to be $9.4 billion in 2017. The industry has grown on average 5% per year since 2011. Across studies in the UK, Australia South Africa and the USA, over 80% of companies are using coaching to develop and grow their senior leadership.

So, what really makes for good coaching? The characteristics of great coaching conversations are described below.

The more complex business is, the more we need quality thinking to take place.

Coaching provides a reflective, quiet thinking space

There is a strong argument that the reason we have seen an increase in coaching is that coaching is a response to societal challenges. Our world has shifted radically, in ways that have affected all its citizens. We live in a world of hyper-complexity. There is increasing specialisation, digitisation, competition and economic pressures. People are working longer hours, remaining connected, often 24/7, and the time to reflect is reduced. As the research in neuroscience has demonstrated, our brains are less strategic when we are operating under constant bombardment of stressful events. Our prefrontal cortex (where we think about our thinking) is not activated to work effectively when we are rushed, busy, anxious and stressed. We thus need to step off the treadmill of life’s demands and find a space to think. Coaching is not the only mechanism that gives us this space, but it is a structured mechanism in a business world that can provide this reflective thinking space. Coaching is an important type of dialogue. It is a conversation that takes places in a “safe” environment where judgement is suspended, and thoughts and alternatives can be explored. The more complex business is, the more we need quality thinking to take place. A question companies and executives need to ask themselves is: “Do I or my executive team have time, space and facilitated conversations which give us the chance to think and enhance the quality of our thinking?”

Coaching is about co-creation, collaboration and equity

The coach comes in as a thinking partner, respecting the knowledge, intellect and values of the executive or manager to be coached. The coach has techniques, knowledge and skills that enable and facilitate better quality thinking. Together they work or co-labour (origins of word collaborate) on a commonly defined purpose and goal. In a study where executives were asked in what way coaching had been valuable to them, the executives shared it was the very manner in which the coach challenged them that made the difference to their thinking. They felt challenged but in a way that was not judgemental, and this freed them up to be more creative in their thinking. This is different to management consultants who tend to offer advice and frequently position themselves as experts. The relationship with an executive coach is one that is equitable and has a true thinking partnership ethos.

Coaching is personalised learning

Coaching personalises the learning. This is increasingly why it is being used in support of learning interventions and training programmes. The coaching process begins with understanding. Understanding encompasses many factors – understanding preferences, understanding context, understanding emotions, values, history and multiple other considerations. Once understanding is present, it moves to making meaning, which is personalising the understanding to one’s own identity and own life choices and to the context. This leads to a person thinking differently and only after that behaving and then acting differently. This can be manifested in different behaviours – some of which are illustrated in the diagram in the figure below such as managing stress, managing time and enhanced interpersonal relationships, but this is not an all-inclusive list of behaviours.

Many companies send people for coaching to get the changed behaviours as described under point 4 in the figure above. What is often not appreciated is that changed behaviours will be sustainable and lasting, when time is made for increasing awareness and for personalising learning and meaning-making. An example of this is when Samantha (CFO for a listed mining company)  realised that she was an introvert by nature (Step 1 – understanding). She then made meaning of this understanding by personalising it to her context (Step 2 – meaning-making) – to be an introvert working for a very extroverted CEO explained why she and her CEO were continually clashing. This insight led to her recognising that she needed to demonstrate that while she did not do things the same way as her CEO, she still achieved results (Step 3 – thinking differently). She chose to arrange a keynote speaker at their next strategy session who demonstrated in an engaging way the different values of introverts and extroverts in an organisation. (Step 4 – using stakeholder management as a behaviour to improve efficiency). She found by approaching her CEO and board with a dynamic speaker who played an educational role, it improved the communication and ultimately the productivity of the executive and board in leading the mine as it embarked on a major expansion phase.

Coaching often leads to new reflections and perspectives...

Coaching is a reflective, thinking space AND coaching focuses on solutions, results and goals

While coaching is about reflecting and thinking, it needs to focus on actions and results. This is why coaching is spread over several sessions with gaps between sessions. The executive thinks about something and then goes and applies it, comes back to coaching and reflects what the enabling factors were that made it work and what the hindering factors were. It is an iterative cycle of reflection followed by experimentation and application and then a new period of reflection.

In a paper titled Coaching: Meaning-making process or goal-resolution process?1, the conclusion is not that it is either/or but both. The coaching client finds the coaching process valuable as it increases understanding and facilitates meaning-making, which leads to thinking differently. Monitoring progress and adapting behaviours due to changing variables is a critical process. Often due to new problems and firefighting, the golden thread of problem-solving is lost. Strategic planning is much easier than strategic implementation. Coaching assists in monitoring the role of the implementation process.

Coaching is contextual and adapts to the environment

Today, knowledge needs to be shaped and applied in specific contexts and situations. We need to learn to adapt in our personal and public lives. Coaching often leads to new reflections and perspectives that pertain to a specific environment and subsequent potential adaptive behaviour strategies. Coaching is being used increasingly to provide support to executives and senior managers as they lead the organisation. The personalised, strategic and reflective nature of the conversations held over several months is making a difference to not only personal growth but to organisational goals being achieved. Other reasons for the use of coaching are in support of leadership development, followed by helping facilitate a transition – normally a promotion, increasing employee engagement and developing executive presence. Coaching is used primarily to aid personalised learning. It may target a specific agenda e.g. wellness or resilience in the workplace or a target group – high potential individuals or to assist and aid inclusivity in the workplace.

Regardless of the focus, ultimately coaching should lead to enhanced performance. By focusing on the individual’s needs within a context (e.g. the work environment), the intervention is able to be customised to the need and consequently the gap or developmental need, or the goal should be addressed.

A case study

David worked for a membership-based company. He was a rising star. young, dynamic, fast thinking and his role as director of membership had seen increasing membership numbers. Membership numbers then started to decline. In the coaching session, David shared how he was planning a massive marketing campaign to attract new members. The coach asked him how he was sure that this was the best strategy and how he had reached this conclusion. David realised that he had defaulted to previous patterns. Upon reflection, he realised that he liked to be future-oriented and taking quick actions was what he loved. He felt detailed analysis slowed him down and he did not enjoy doing that. He chose consciously to do analysis after the coaching session. He returned to the next coaching session sharing that he had dropped the marketing idea and was implementing a key account-retention strategy by appointing a relationship manager to manage top accounts. Through his and his team’s analysis, he had learnt that if they lost one of their key accounts, it would potentially lose revenue of approximately R60 000 million over five years. Marketing strategies tended to be aimed more at individuals and would potentially not generate that income.

Marketing might bring in small clients, but the core strategy was retaining the large corporate clients. Coaching helped David recognise that his driving forward preference needed to be balanced by reflecting and analysing. Changing his thinking led to changed decision-making and ultimately impacted performance and the bottom line.

How do I know if I need a coach? How do organisations know if they need to put in coaches?

Do you or your management team regularly find time to reflect on decisions made? Are you sure the best quality decisions are made? Do you find yourself stressed and unable to focus? Coaching helps provide time for quality decision-making and monitoring of the decisions.

Do you feel that there are areas about yourself that you need to understand better – why do you do what you do? Would you like this insight to be channelled to focus on your learning and development in a very personalised manner? Would you like the learning to be adapted based on what works and what does not work? Coaching personalises and monitors an individual’s learning journey.

Is time a challenge and do you find long training programmes difficult to put into your diary? Would shorter programmes supported by coaching be more time-efficient for you? Coaching can be adapted to suit your diary and schedule.

Coaching@GIBS:

At GIBS, our learning interventions are driven by the philosophy that learning must be personally meaningful. The knowledge we deliver is current, relevant and world-class and is delivered by world-class faculty. However, we also believe that this knowledge needs to be shaped into something uniquely impactful by the individual learner. Learners are not motivated by knowledge on its own, but by the meaning-making that happens when they engage with knowledge in their unique way. Making meaning allows learning to be applied and to yield results. Application happens through behaviour and performance and the whole notion of effective performance is contextual. The effective way for one person to influence a team in a given situation is not the same as another type of personality in another situation. Therefore learning and performance are both individually customised and individually contextualised concepts. At GIBS, we build personalised learning methodologies, like coaching, into most of our programmes, alongside classroom teaching. This enables learning to result in something tangible and not just stored as interesting concepts in the learner’s mind. We are also ambitious. Our aspired impact does not stop at improved performance. Improved performance (productiveness of some kind) is often espoused as the ultimate aim of learning in a management/leadership context. In fact, it can be argued that country-level success is often measured similarly, through, for example, per capita GDP. We value performance highly; indeed, it’s a core part of our mission. However, a performing, productive individual who is unhappy and unhealthy, is not a successful outcome. Meaning that impacts well-being and happiness is therefore valued equally to performance results at GIBS. Thriving individuals, in turn, tend to perform better. Coaching@GIBS provides deeply personalised learning through facilitated thinking spaces that drive both performance and more widespread positive impact for individual’s lives.

Cunningham, N. Coaching: Meaning-making process or goal-resolution process? Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal Vol. 2, No. 2, November 2017, 83-101. http://dx.doi.org/10.22316/poc/02.2.06 

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