Demystifying Leadership and Employee Coaching

Workplace use of coaching has evolved over the past 60 years into two very different forms: coaching for people in leadership positions and coaching of lower-level managers and employees. These two forms of coaching share a common history but have resulted in a mixed reputation for coaching in workplaces. Let me explain why:

Coaching of upper level managers and executives that started in the 1960s was based on a counseling model that addressed a person’s shortcomings and was actually called “counseling,” not coaching. At that time, the companies utilizing coaching were primarily large corporations. During the 1980s, the use of coaching grew dramatically and underwent an important transition, from coaching aimed at solely at addressing a manager’s deficits to one that emphasized professional development aimed at enhancing a manager’s performance, effectiveness and impact. The term “leadership coaching” evolved in the late 1960s and 1970s. It is generally viewed as an offshoot of the Human Potential Movement and related to efforts to create high performance individuals, teams and organizations. This form of coaching is generally viewed as the most effective form of professional development because it supports leaders in real time as they address actual opportunities and challenges.

Also in the 1980s, coaching that was previously limited to those in the senior leadership level in corporations was extended to those reporting to senior management and even a level or two below them. It was increasingly adopted as a valued practice in medium and small companies, national non-profits, and even at the local level in small businesses and non-profits. More recently, progressive companies have come to offer coaching to any employee wanting to advance in the firm and now increasingly use coaching as an incentive in recruiting and retaining employees and to support succession-planning.

Over time, however, another form of coaching took shape as HR departments in smaller companies required employees with behavioral and/or performance deficits to agree to coaching as a condition of their “Personal Improvement Plan” or PIP. Failure to enter coaching or comply with other elements of the plan could be cause for the employee’s termination. This type of coaching is used as a form of corrective personnel action and never references coaching as a form of professional development.

It’s not difficult to understand why employees required to enter coaching on these terms have a much more negative experience of coaching. The coach appears to be an extension of HR, the employee’s supervisor or both, making the development of trust and rapport with the coach difficult. To make matters worse, in my experience more than half of these clients are not the client needing coaching. Instead it’s their boss who should be in coaching aimed at improving their supervision and people management skills. Unfortunately, HR departments tend to side with managers and supervisors, overlooking their supervision shortcomings, and agreeing with the supervisor’s perception that the employee is “the problem.” For these reasons, I consider forcing employees into coaching as a condition of a PIP to be an ill-advised personnel practice.

There is one other very important difference between these two forms of coaching. For the executive or upper level manager who enters coaching as a form of professional development, coaching is almost always preceded by a 360 assessment. Typically these involve interviewing 10-12 of the client’s colleagues, peers, and bosses to assess the strengths of the client as well as their areas of needed improvement. This assessment results in short report that highlights strengths and needed areas of improvement (often called “developmental opportunities”) and proposes goals for coaching. For the lower level manager or employee, however, there usually is no formal assessment process whatsoever. Instead, HR and the supervisor usually work together to generate a list of client shortcomings based on the supervisor’s perceptions, and these employee shortcomings must be corrected through mandatory coaching. Since no formal assessment is conducted in these cases, the perceived shortcomings of the employee are often distorted, even to the point of being wildly incorrect.

The effect of these two very different approaches to coaching has led to divergent perceptions of the value of coaching. My experience is that most companies tend to rely on one approach or the other, either emphasizing professional development for upper level employees or mandatory coaching for lower-level managers and employees who have been identified as problem personnel.  I work with both types of coaching clients. Clearly coaching that is based on an assessment and that emphasizes professional development is my preferred approach. At the same time, I feel strongly that managers and employees forced into coaching to correct  perceived shortcomings deserve to have a competent coach and advocate who can help them turn around this punitive situation.