In today's increasingly demanding and competitive market, many organizations are investing in coaching to retain high performing talent, develop their skills, and motivate them to improve their performance. This study offers valuable insights into understanding what high potentials value in coaching, key factors that influence coaching outcomes, and how a client’s coaching experience might align with an organization’s perspective.
Understanding how high potential employees value coaching and exploring if, and how, their experiences align with the organization’s perspective was the subject of a study published in 2018 by M. Taconis that informed this article.
The study used an exploratory, qualitative methodology and was conducted in an international manufacturing organization that identified its high potentials based on their current and past performance, as well as indicative future potential. This study focused on the most senior group of high potentials that were on the verge of growing into an executive role. Their individual coaching was a part of a talent development program that lasted 13 months.
The study participants were eight senior high potential employees who offered the participant’s perspectives and two HR managers who offered the organization’s perspective for commissioning the coaching program.
Face-to-face interviews were conducted with all participants and thematic analysis was used to encode the transcribed interviews and analyze the data.
Three main themes emerged from the study: expectations, learning and outcomes, and success factors.
Theme #1: Expectations
When asking participants about their expectations before coaching began, they reported that, although they felt honored to be selected for the talent development program, they were reluctant to participate. Most of them weren't ready to be coached, and the attitude of participants varied from waiting to see how it goes to being skeptical. There were several reasons for their attitudes. A few participants had issues with coaching being non-voluntary, others were questioning the coach's background, and some had previous coaching experience that they didn't find useful.
From the organization's perspective, the most important reason for commissioning the coaching program was to develop strong leaders. Because the organization was growing, new leaders were needed to fill both new and existing leadership positions as previously trained high potentials were trained only on the content of their jobs and lacked other leadership skills.
From the accounts given by both the participants and organization, it became clear that the expectations and perspective of each group were misaligned. The participants approached coaching with some resistance and didn't see it as an opportunity to develop as a strong leader, which is how the organization looked at it.
Theme #2: Learning and outcomes
After the coaching process, both participants and the organization's representatives generally had a positive outlook on the coaching experience.
Three main learning and coaching outcomes included: increased self-knowledge and self-awareness, choosing how to lead, and managing stakeholders.
Increased self-knowledge and self-awareness
Participants reported that coaching helped them gain insight into their strengths and capabilities, their growth-limiting beliefs, and their impact on others. They found these to be the key elements that enhanced their self-knowledge and self-awareness.
For some, this newly gained perspective encouraged them to change jobs within the company. That was a welcomed outcome for the organization because it meant that their high potentials could show their talents in a different environment.
Choosing how to lead
All participants considered their leadership skills stronger after participating in coaching. The improvement in leadership skills helped them choose how to lead and adjust their style to the situation or individual.
From the organization’s perspective, coaching helped them have more adaptive high potential leaders, which was in alignment with participants' views.
The participants reported they usually felt like they were between two sides: their superiors and their team members. Coaching helped them learn how to deal with their superiors more effectively.
Others mentioned how, as a result of coaching, they became more conscious of other people’s behavior, what was happening around them, and in the organization. The organization’s representatives shared that coaching helped participants see the bigger picture of the company and as a result, become more involved and opinionated.
The author explains that, in this case, the organization was focused on promotions and career moves as the outcome of the coaching process instead of focusing on ROI measures or other outcomes that directly contributed to the organization's performance. That facilitated the alignment of the participants’ and the organization's perspectives.
However, this isn’t often the case in other similar coaching programs, where there are larger discrepancies between participants and the organization.
Theme #3: Success factors
The third theme that emerged during interviews was related to coaching success factors.
Four main success factors were mentioned: opening up to coaching, getting to the core, facilitating discipline, and embedding in their context.
Opening up to coaching
Although most participants weren’t ready to be coached or were even skeptical of it, they opened up eventually. The reasons for becoming more open to the practice varied.
Some participants started looking at coaching as a personal development opportunity. In this case, the exemplary role that was given by senior management helped significantly. The explanation that coaching should be viewed as an organization’s way of supporting their development, instead of trying to fix them, helped decrease the negative perception of coaching.
The successful and trustful relationship with the coach also helped the participants open up. Key factors in forming a successful relationship were the coach's credibility, expertise, empathy, and authenticity.
The final element in opening up was the confrontation with one's behavior and impact on others.
From the organization’s perspective, the participant’s intrinsic motivation was essential in coaching success.
Getting to the core
Many participants felt like the coaches helped them find the "real" issue, understand their behavior, and gave them specific feedback, which was another factor that contributed to the positive coaching outcome.
The next factor that was vital for success was the perception of coaching as facilitating a participant’s discipline to achieve their goals. The author emphasizes that the continuity and duration of coaching intervention were crucial because it added to a participant’s accountability and allowed them enough time to experience real change.
Embedding in their context
The final factor that positively impacted coaching success was embedding coaching in a workplace context. Before coaching started, each coach put in the effort to understand each participant’s specific business context by spending time at the assessment center and having regular contact with HR and line managers, which was very much appreciated. The coach’s ability to truly understand the participant’s business environment and issues generated trust in the coach-client relationship and had a positive impact on coaching success.
Conclusion and Actionable steps
Coaches might use these insights when planning coaching initiatives for high potentials. The finding that the client’s readiness—which is vital for coaching success—might be influenced by the client-coach relationship, the encouragement and support the organization offers, and the set-up of the coaching program, might be used in other coaching niches too, such as executive coaching.
The key factors that led to coaching success in this study such as opening up, recognizing the real issue, facilitating the discipline, and embedding the coaching in the workplace context, might be useful when planning talent or leadership development programs and the coaching process as a whole.
Taconis, M. (2018). How high potential coaching can add value – for participants and the organisation. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 12, 61-72. DOI: 10.24384/000541
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