Coaching: the key to world champion business performance

21 January 2016

Author: Justin Harper

Coaching: The key to world champion business performance

One-on-one guidance has become a popular way to nurture talent in the west, but can it work for Asian companies?

Imagine you are a high-flying senior executive in charge of a sizeable team and earning a handsome salary. Your career has been a constant upward trajectory of promotions and plaudits. Until one day, your friendly HR business partner calls you in for a meeting to tell you you’re about to get some corporate coaching. A shiver runs down your spine. What have you done wrong?
For many uninitiated executives, coaching is still regarded as something that’s used when things have gone awry. It carries a stigma that you’re not doing your job properly and corrective action needs to be taken. And yet, spurred by its ready adoption among Silicon Valley start-ups, in many enlightened sectors coaching has become a positive and widely accepted tool.
Faced with a shortage of talent and worrying turnover among key employees, firms wanted to signal their commitment to high-potential executives by offering increased development opportunities. And they recognised that a traditional reliance on developing quantitative capabilities instead of people-oriented skills had often led to technically excellent managers who lacked empathy and communicated poorly. Coaching, with its one-on-one nature and focus on the interpersonal, has come to be seen as the answer to both issues. And today, there are signs that it is becoming more and more popular and accepted among Asian businesses that have been slow to adopt it compared to other parts of the world.
Coaching is decidedly different from pure performance-based counselling – the business equivalent of a sports coach bellowing at you to buck your ideas up – or mentoring, which tends to involve a more experienced individual assisting with career navigation. Coaching is a creative and collaborative, solution-focused approach to business challenges that nurtures high performance and centres around identifying and building on key skills and talents. In essence, it aims to bring out the best in an individual to help raise overall organisational performance. It is mostly delivered, at first, by external experts, but businesses are increasingly using internal coaching networks comprising both HR professionals and professionally trained employees.
In an ever-more complex and competitive business environment, corporate coaches are finding themselves more in demand, targeting existing leaders while helping to groom future ones. Aarti Thapar, Experian’s head of talent, engagement and culture for Asia-Pacific, says: “We’ve used coaches as part of our talent programme for emerging leaders – an integrated learning programme that combines face-to-face training, mentoring, on-the-job projects and coaching.”
Experian involved coaches in two contexts. The first cohort was split into teams to tackle action learning projects. Each team was paired with a coach who worked with them on specific themes, such as team dynamics and working in a matrix. The second group was trained by a coach in influencing and communication skills, helping them prepare for key presentations.
The results, says Thapar, demonstrated both the benefits and the pitfalls of coaching: “Where we used a coach to fill a particular skills gap, the changes were significant – we saw real growth in the individuals with regard to skill development. But where coaching did not have specific objectives, we saw fewer benefits coming out of it.” It’s better, he adds, to engage coaches that are specialist, rather than generalist, with experience of the particular area you are looking to focus on.
Singapore-based corporate coach Susie Sadler says there are other key characteristics to look out for: “A good coach is an astute listener, drawing out the best in the client. A coach offers different perspectives, and may challenge a client’s assumptions. That can open up more choices and better decision-making. A coach may give feedback to a client that he or she has never heard before, or may confirm something they already knew intuitively, but didn’t trust.” Language becomes important in this context, and experts counsel that lack of familiarity in a local language can be a barrier to a deeper coaching relationship.
At present, coaching remains in its infancy in Asian businesses, despite growing enthusiasm. According to coach Andy Ng, this is because many governments do not recognise coaching or mentoring as value-added activities and therefore focus grants on the training end of the L&D spectrum. “The Asian mentality is around tangible stuff – and coaching, being more intangible than training, is considered less valuable,” says Ng. “You see people willing to pay S$3,000 to attend a two-day course but unwilling to fork out S$300 for 90 minutes with a coach. But Asians are open to counselling, so for coaching to work in Asia it has to be packaged as counselling or learning from an expert.”
There may also be cultural barriers that stop locals benefiting from coaching they view as too intrusive or western. A good coach needs to be culturally aware of styles and preferences in different cultures. “I’ve worked in just about every country in the region including China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong, and have found that people are happy to be listened to by someone outside of their company,” says Sadler. “It’s sometimes like a dam burst. They open up and say things that they might not talk about with others at work or even their own family. The coaching relationship is powerful.”
Dr Doug MacKie, business psychologist at Brisbane-based CSA Consulting, has worked with leaders from Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Korea. “Much of my work is with the local divisions of multinational companies that already have a strong coaching culture and commitment to the development of their leaders,” he says. “It is fair to say that the vast majority of coaching research has emanated from the US and the UK, partly because of the alignment with western individualism and leader-focused development.”
Research – principally from social psychologist Professor Geert Hofstede – does tell us that there are some well-recognised cultural differences that may play a significant role in the cultural adaptability of coaching. These include differences in the relative focus on the individual versus the collective good, how much individuals cooperate rather than assert their own needs and the degree to which power (and consequently leadership) is centrally held rather than distributed within the organisation. “Coaching is fundamentally about empowering others and believing that the individual is most effective when their progress is self-determined. These assumptions can clash with organisations that have a more hierarchical and fixed view of talent,” says MacKie.
But Asian organisations are steadily catching up with the west. Prominent local organisations that have internal coaching programmes include Temasek and the Singapore Civil Service, where Low Peck Kem, the Public Service Division’s chief HR officer, has spoken admiringly about its impact in embedding new ways of working across government. “These organisations recognise the value of one-on-one coaching for an individual’s goals and priorities, and often combine a leadership training programme with follow-up coaching to cement the learnings and action steps,” says Sadler.
In larger organisations, coaching has so far predominantly been aimed at middle managers and above, with group or workshop interventions more prevalent among more junior employees. This is a natural reaction when resources are tight, but it overlooks the enormous value of coaching to high-potential employees who are likely to find new challenges coming at them thick and fast and can benefit from intensive one-to-one guidance. Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, is quoted as saying: “The best thing I ever did was hire a coach.”
Sadler says her typical client is someone who is successful in their field, with at least 10-15 years of working experience. They come to coaching for a number of reasons: to receive feedback about an area of their performance that is holding them back; because they have been recently promoted and want to make sure they do well in the new role; or when they are looking to elevate their executive presence and visibility to get their next promotion, among others. Corporate coaches say the crucial factor is that the client has to be ready and willing to be coached.
Evidence has been steadily building over the last decade that supports the effectiveness of coaching in organisations. The most convincing is provided by controlled studies that contrast a coaching intervention with a controlled group that received no intervention. These studies can be combined into meta-analytic studies that offer great statistical power. “We currently have three meta-analytic studies in coaching that all found significant effects in terms of coaching’s ability to enhance relevant organisational outcomes like performance, wellbeing and leadership,” says MacKie. But he adds that most coaching research still adopts a “within subjects” design, where a population receives an intervention with no reference to a controlled group.
One key variable that seems to differentiate those who benefit from a coaching approach is change or developmental readiness – the person being coached must want it in the first place. Developmental readiness is both the motivation and ability to grow and change as a leader and is a precursor of effective leadership development. One of the factors that underlies this is the mindset of the person being coached towards modifying their leadership ability. Those with a fixed mindset around leadership believe that leaders are born not made, and that it’s very difficult to modify your natural ability.
“Individuals with these mindsets can really struggle in a coaching process. By contrast, coachees with a growth mindset take an incremental approach to their development, believing that leaders are made, not born, and that the acquisition of expertise is a function of application and effort. Individuals with this mindset really thrive in a coaching process,” adds MacKie.
While opinion may still be divided over the true effectiveness of corporate coaching and who benefits from it the most, it is not a remedial intervention. It’s an individualised form of leadership development that is particularly effective with more senior managers and leaders who are high performers and have specific rather than generic leadership development needs. Understand that, say the experts, and you’ll be well on your way to making it work for you – and banishing forever the dread that too often comes with that knock on the door from the HR department.
Find out how to make coaching come alive in your company with the CIPD Coaching Toolkit: