Staff coaching adds value

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags National skills academy

Staff coaching adds value
The quality of business coaches varies wildly, but Rod Addy finds the good ones are worth their weight in gold

Society is full of 12-step programmes and 'seven ways to be the perfect x', so it's not surprising that there's a healthy amount of cynicism when it comes to business coaching.

Trainers in this area are often viewed with the same sort of disdain as cowboy consultants, who charge exorbitant fees in return for two hours of guff and jargon.

Often firms get stuck at the beginning of the process: those holding the purse strings are unconvinced that the material benefits outweigh the cash outlay.

How much money is involved clearly varies from person to person depending on factors including the length of time spent on the training, the number of training sessions and the seniority of trainee. Justine Fosh, director of the National Skills Academy for food and drink manufacturing, says: "As a guide for one individual undertaking perhaps six months of coaching with one session per month, costs could range from £1,800 to more than £6,000."

If this sounds like a lot, Fosh can provide concrete examples where the pros outnumber the cons. Internal development can, for example, make costly external recruitment unnecessary, she says. "One company used coaching to develop the next sales director - a capable individual with strong performance in managing a divisional team, but who needed additional behavioural skills.

"That individual is now vice-president for an overseas division. It would have cost £30,000-£40,000 in recruitment costs [to find someone like that externally], but the company spent less than a third of this on coaching." The decision also meant that the business retained a talented individual.

Senior managers have a genuine need for the kind of personal development coaching can offer, says Chris Garner, commercial manager at Loughborough College, Leicestershire, which offers business coaching services. "They tend to work increasingly in isolation. Key decisions are made almost independently. One-to-one coaching can help them by providing someone to talk through ideas."

Picking a coach worth their salt can pay dividends for a company in the long run. The trick is to find the pearls in the mud.

Fosh says glowing referrals from reliable sources who have used them before is always a good place to start. "Key attributes to look for would be experience, flexibility, but most importantly a coach that people feel safe and open with." There's little point forking out for someone who may be great on paper, but who people can't get on with.

Garner says it's important to secure coaches who tailor their approach to the needs of businesses, rather than applying an inflexible method to everyone. "It's important for a coach to contextualise in an organisation, spend time understanding the structure and decision-making, then be a sounding board. We try to understand the problem the manager is looking to resolve through coaching."

When sourcing coaches from one company, choose one with a reasonable male to female ratio, says Fosh, adding: "Enable individuals to meet one or two coaches and decide who they feel most comfortable with."

It's also important to recognise the areas in which coaches can commonly provide the most help. According to Fosh, these include transferable interpersonal skills, prioritising and managing workloads and building confidence and impact, particularly in influencing or presenting to senior managers or customers. Dealing with change and support through a promotional transition are other key coaching roles. Coaching can complement traditional training programmes by sustaining external learning on the job, building confidence and focusing on specific areas of greatest need. Overall, it's in performance and motivation that the greatest strides are made.

Garner says: "A core benefit of coaching is improved time management, so people can work in a less stressed environment. If processes are improved, stress is removed. All that has a tangible impact on a business."

Once the decision has been made to hire the services of a management coach, the situation needs to be approached in the right way to get the best out of it, says Fosh. "Weaknesses stem from lack of preparation for, or understanding of, the role of coaching. If wrongly positioned, [coaching] can be seen as remedial - addressing weaknesses or alternatively divisive in that cost precludes widespread usage, which is then kept for an elite."

In addition, bosses should not use coaching as an excuse to abdicate responsibility for supporting workers themselves, she says. There needs to be clear involvement from the employer ensuring the areas addressed are relevant for the role and the organisation. And it's important that the coaching is supported by line managers, as employees often undertake a lot of work between training sessions.

A good coaching programme embraces the company's requirements and the individual's needs, although ultimately it should be primarily undergirded by a firm's overall growth strategy, Fosh says. "At the National Skills Academy we have introduced coaching as part of an organisational activity to move from a business start up to a fully operational business. Each individual reflected on the areas they would most like to work on to fully contribute to this move and this represents between 50-60% of what they work on with their coach. The remaining 40% of the coaching time is available to them to work on other areas, perhaps not strongly linked to this organisational change but that are important to them."

Strategic investment in business coaching, then, can save companies substantially more money in the long term. But as with everything, the trick is to apply it correctly and find the right person for the job.

Skills training moves on at a rapid pace

Sector Skills Council Improve is making dramatic inroads into establishing a co-ordinated development programme for industry workers, exceeding targets for National Skills Academy (NSA) training providers and progressing bespoke qualifications for different sectors.

A qualification in poultry inspection is expected to be available early in January, with planning already underway for qualifications for other sectors, including dairy, brewing, craft and plant baking, confectionery and meat processing. "Dairy is the most advanced," says Derek Williams, development director at sector skills council Improve. "This is known as Project Eden, with the roll out of fit-for-purpose qualifications expected in September 2009."

The idea is that the qualifications can be built into a skills passport that will have European recognition.

The hope is that Improve can mobilise industry, trade bodies and training providers to forge a comprehensive package of these practical training standards within 12-18 months. "It takes that amount of time to turn around the skills tanker, but we're turning it," says Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve.

The qualifications are designed to provide recognition of workplace skills that would have greater relevance and credibility to employers outside the existing National Vocational Qualification structure.

"These are short programmes, says Williams. "The idea is that you could take these modules at work or home and they would work out at 80 hours of work in total."

Matthews is pressing on with the work of getting business and government support for the qualifications. "We produce more for export than all of the other service industries, with the exception of finance," he says.

"Our industry has a critical role to play as the engine driving the economy and government is waiting to see that happen. The only way we are going to do that is to give workers confidence in their skills. Skills lie at the heart of opportunity and in stormy waters you need skilled navigation."

Meantime, these qualifications will tie in with the development NSA for Food & Drink Manufacturing. Headed by director Justine Fosh, Its mission is to provide food and drink processors with the training they need to further productivity and competitiveness through a network of providers across the UK. There are now 27, but more are planned.

"We plan to have 40 by the end of next year and 60-65 by the end of 2010," says Matthews. "We've hit our target for our first year of learners - we have achieved 3,500 new learners, in addition to the numbers planned by the NSA for this academic year. Next year, we believe the number will reach 7,300.

"The NSA is one of the key delivery arms for our new qualifications. The employer can rest assured the product they will get is of gold standard.

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