(Photo by Fizkes/iStock by Getty Images)

Did you put employee career development on the back burner during the pandemic? What will happen to coaching and training in the new normal of hybrid work environments? Numly, a company dedicated to improving employee engagement through peer coaching, offers an innovative SaaS solution to those challenges by pairing coworkers as coaches and learners, based on self and organizational assessment of critical skills. From Day One spoke with Numly’s founder and CEO, Madhukar Govindaraju, about the concept of peer coaching, how it works in practice, and the benefits it can bring to employees and businesses. Excerpts:

Why aren’t corporate managers devoting more time to coaching and developing the skills of their employees?

Employees always complain, whether the complaint is official or during water-cooler conversations, that their managers are not supporting them in the area of career growth. There are two reasons for it. One is that the managers are not really sure where to start, what skills to work on, and how to work with the teams to really help them grow–which means they don't have a strong coaching culture within the companies. The second reason is that the HR leaders and organizational-design experts at all the big universities have been talking since the 1990s about flattening the organization. Over time, organizations have actually become flat. Now you don't have enough managers–less than 15% in every group of 100 people. You can't expect them to have enough time for coaching. So people aren’t getting the support internally–and meanwhile the culture has become one of all work, work, work.

Have the pandemic and remote work made the situation more critical?

What’s happened is that the need for skills that we thought were critical before the pandemic is expanding today at a much faster rate. Every company is feeling the same pressure. They need to put the focus back on reskilling and upskilling their teams. Gartner released the results of a survey of HR leaders’ priorities for 2021, and the No. 1 priority was “building critical skills and competencies.” Critical skills are not just hard skills. For a software engineer, for example, programming is a hard skill. But for a person becoming a leader, you must have a lot of soft skills, including written and oral communication, and leadership skills. With everybody working from home today, you need a program to develop skills like time management and working together from a position of trust.

How can corporate leaders figure out specifically what skills are needed–and in which roles?

Every CEO wants to address the skills gap. But no one knows what the gap is. When you ask an HR leader, “Hey, tell us the three areas where you have a gap,” their immediate reaction is, “We sort of know; we have a hunch,” but there is no quantified view or detail to actually bring that together. At Numly, we measure and quantify the skills gap through self-assessment and coach evaluations and help organizations get started on a peer coaching program that spans the course of three to six months, so we can demonstrate progression on the skills. And it’s not just a set of five skills or ten skills–we have a very deep database of hundreds of soft and hard skills that we can help them build across.

Numly CEO Madhukar Govindaraju (Photo courtesy of Numly)

How did you catalog what skills are needed–and for what roles?

We funded research to gather data from HR professionals. And we asked them what skills are important for your career growth. We interviewed over 18,000 professionals worldwide, from different career stages and different industries: high tech, retail, education, insurance, pharma, automotive and manufacturing. The sum total of that mega-research effort is our crown jewel: the ground-truth data sets that we have. We actually have a set of over 350 skills, but when we took out anomalies and looked at what skills really matter, we brought it down to about 185 skills.

How is peer coaching different from traditional executive-coaching programs with external and expert coaches?

What we mean by peer coaching is literally a coaching network within your company. When people use the term “coaching,” they tend to think about bringing in external experts. That's still valid. But for most companies, that's a very expensive efort. And most companies do that with only the top 8% of the executives and senior leaders, which doesn’t benefit the bottom 92% of your organization. What we’re trying to do is pivot it back to the critical mass of the entire organization and develop a strong bench or a very resilient organization with peer coaching.

How does peer coaching work between the coach and learner?

The key definition of peer coaching is that it’s about two individuals within the company. They reflect on current practices, what's happening, and what the challenges are. They refine and share ideas. And eventually they’re solving problems. It could be something like, “Hey, my manager is not helping me,” or “What do I need to do to get a promotion?” You develop a trusted connection between the two. That's the first step. And it’s a private conversation. All the conversations that the platform will guide between a coach and learner would be entirely private. The idea is to create a safe environment where a coach and a learner can openly discuss issues, without the learner having any kind of fear that something they say might lead back to HR. It's almost like my conversation with my physician, whom I’ve been seeing for over 15 years at Stanford. When I go there, I say, “Here's my problem, what do I do? Please give me a solution.” Now, if that conversation came back to my manager at work, or my HR team at work, and there's no privacy, I wouldn’t be opening up to problems with my physician. We want to bring in privacy to enable trust. Trust enables us to connect and share knowledge with each other.

How do you match the peers for a peer coaching partnership?

We have algorithmic ways to identify coaches according to their rating on a set of skills. Companies can bring in their managers and other talent into the system. Then once you identify the coaches and learners, we put them together with a set of skills to be learned, a coaching program. You can pick different sets of skills for different audiences. And we give our customers a dashboard of analytics showing the distribution of where the skills are and where the gaps are.

In these one-on-one coaching situations, what’s in it for the employees doing the coaching?

Everybody in the company wants to be a Leader, but the first skill you want to master before you become a leader is how to be a coach. Coaching helps to develop leadership skills. That’s a big thing: As humans, we want to grow, we want to feel that we are contributing, that we are impacting others. It also helps coaches to expand their network. Today, what leaders typically do is mentoring programs, say connecting a VP to a Senior VP, but the networking connection could be superficial. In contrast, we’re connecting for skills and development, within and across teams. Those lateral network connections strengthen your organization and are a lot more powerful compared to external coaching. So the investment that companies make with our tool is not a one-time thing, it's an ongoing process.

What are some of the other benefits?

It also drives employee engagement. In a peer-coaching platform, skills development and engagement become natural and foundational. Right now companies are pivoting from the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion, to one of inclusion and belonging. You need to create a sense of belonging in the employee experience. And we’re not just connecting them, we're helping them with developing the skills they need, which is a much better employee value proposition (EVP). We empower employees to help each other. What better way to motivate and energize your team than to say, "Hey, we want you to help us get there."

Can it help with the burnout factor, which seems to be widespread?

Yes, and that’s what every company is facing. In an article I recently wrote for Forbes, I said that work-from-home burnout is real. Whether it is Zoom fatigue or because everybody's scrambling throughout the day, work-life balance has evaporated because there's nothing that differentiates work from life. Employee well-being is becoming a big issue. Of course, there are tools that make your life easier and more productive, which is where Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex and Slack are going. That's one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is recognizing there is a role for the manager to help with work-from-home burnout by understanding employee problems and issues. Peer coaching can help because it is highly personalized and contextual, rather than being an out-of-the-box solution. These programs have been designed to bring people together in a guided, customizable process so that they can engage and feel connected again–and not just to each other, but to the company as well.

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this story: Numly.