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“Historically, coaching was limited to just bringing in an external executive coach and working with our senior leaders, and thankfully, it’s expanded well beyond that,” said Jackie Bassett, the director of people strategy for the UChicago Medicine health system.

Now, companies are including employees at all levels of the organization in the coaching experience. Some are bringing in third-party coaching services, some are training people managers to coach their teams, some are even facilitating group sessions or peer-to-peer coaching. Others are doing all of the above.

The potential is great. Coaching in the workplace can improve resilience, increase engagement, encourage collaboration among workers, and boost performance. It’s both a talent attractor and a talent retainer, and 86% of employers that invest in employee coaching say they recoup their investment.

In May, Bassett joined four other leaders in corporate learning and development and people operations for a discussion titled “Balancing Technology and the Human Factors in Coaching,” part of From Day One’s May virtual conference on coaching and recognition. The panel conversation, which I moderated, addressed what employers can expect from corporate coaching programs and how to set those expectations, how tech can scale a program, and the importance of “coaching culture.”

Employee coaching isn’t necessarily for workforce upskilling or training the next line managers, though it can include this. The five panelists identified all kinds of worthy goals for corporate coaching programs, including generating a sense of belonging for employees, encouraging employee rapport, general workforce skill development, creating opportunity for people from marginalized communities, individual employee growth (personally and professionally), and succession planning.

Focusing on coaching, top row from left: moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Kristine Ayuzawa of Attuned, and Jackie Bassett of Chicago Medicine. Bottom row: Gerard Camacho of Atrium Health, Emily Pearce of Achievers, and Sharahn Monk of FIS Global (Image by From Day One)

The reasons may be myriad, but panelists agreed that leaders must set clear expectations for the outcome of a given coaching program, especially once it reaches the one being coached. Emily Pearce, the director of global customer care at employee recognition and engagement platform Achievers, recommended not being overly prescriptive when picking outcomes. “We’re not saying, ‘This is the outcome, this is what you’re going to get,’” she said. Instead, they outline the “basic rules of engagement and shared values.”

Pearce continued: “For example, if respect is a shared value, how does that show up in your partnership? Is that being on time to meetings? Is that doing the pre-work you say that you’re going to do? It’s more about setting expectations by starting that dialogue and also creating that safe space.”

At fintech company FIS Global, Sharahn Monk, the global director of learning delivery and performance solutions, said that in the company’s one-on-one coaching setup, the person being coached, that person’s manager, and the external coach, if there is one involved, should all agree on three things the person being coached says they want to work on. Keep it focused.

Employers might even consider involving employees in distilling goals for the entire program. “I think there’s definitely a case to be made for organizations to ask your employees what they want,” Pearce said.

At Attuned, an employee-engagement platform that offers insights on intrinsic motivation, identifying goals and starting the coaching process actually begins in the interview process, where candidates take the company’s intrinsic motivation assessment, said the company’s director of people operations, Kristine Ayuzawa.

“It’s a really great opportunity to begin that conversation by saying, ‘Maybe you and I are coming at something from a very different perspective, but where are the places where we potentially meet in the middle? How might this benefit us? What are some of the blind spots or challenges that we might want to overcome?’” Ayuzawa said.

Where Coaching Shouldn’t Go

The group flagged the limits of coaching, too. Coaching is not a way to fix performance issues. In fact, a report from McKinsey & Company warns that reserving coaching for performance problems will backfire, essentially making it a disciplinary measure.

“Coaching is not meant to be a way for leaders to abdicate their responsibility in developing their employees and managing performance issues,” said Bassett. “But on the other hand, we will encourage leaders, as they’re working through a development plan with their employees, that perhaps coaching could be one component of that development plan.”

It’s also not a quick fix for culture problems, Gerard Camacho pointed out. Camacho is the AVP of learning and career development at North Carolina–based health system Atrium Health. “Coaching is not going to save everyone, going to promote them, going to engage them, going to make sure that they have a sense of belonging within the organization,” he said. “It has to be attached to something more. It’s a tool. Coaching is a tool to get to a certain outcome.”

Similarly, Monk made a point of noting that training people within your organization to be coaches should not be transactional. “[You can’t] just send them off to coaching school, and they’ll come out on the other side doing and being everything that we need them to be.”

How to Establish a Coaching Culture

For all of the panelists, a “coaching culture” is what they’re going for, one that blends structured, preplanned coaching sessions with coaching opportunities that naturally present themselves between manager and employee, or even employee and employee. A 2020 Gallup story based on its research urged employers to move from “bossing” to “coaching” their employees, a distinction that reflects both employees’ increased interest in being coached and how important it is to business success.

Bassett said this is why managers at UChicago Medicine who are expected to coach receive coaching themselves. “As they get more familiar with the coaching approach, we see that they naturally start to apply it in their own leadership practice, that they start showing up with that coaching mindset.”

Coaching and being coached can seem like an unrealistic luxury for workers who struggle to find enough time to get their regular responsibilities done, like health care workers, for example. When employees are already stretched so thin, you have to make coaching easy by bringing it to them, and make it worth their time by giving them knowledge they can use right away.

Camacho said Atrium employees are given micro-coaching sessions, and he recommended other employers think of similarly flexible delivery vehicles. “The ability to create an incentive for people and for leaders to attend is to give them the tools that they need the most to make the time worthwhile. Perhaps the solution is to do micro-learning, or to take time during already existing huddles and things like that, that are there to provide those sessions and not make them do something extra.”

Monk encouraged employers to make every employee their own “chief learning officer” so they’re empowered to pursue the help and information they need, even if it comes from a peer. “It goes above and beyond just the formalized coaching,” said Monk. “How can we leverage each other to support each other?”

For those wondering how to make coaching happen at scale, Ayuzawa said the right technology can handle the administrative chores, which may seem like small potatoes, but can drain a lot of hours scheduling sessions, sending reminders, digging up session notes, and organizing surveys. “I also think it can be really useful in terms of helping to give some structure to the content of what's going to be discussed,” she said.

Further, having the consistent framework tech provides can give participants a shared vocabulary, and that can contribute to a culture of coaching.

The fruits of such a culture are promising, panelists said. “Participants have reported feeling more engaged, more valued by the organization and more connected to their coaches and to their peers,” Bassett said of UChicago’s programs. “We’ve seen that coaching is really great at creating that safe space for people to be more vulnerable to share their fears, their hopes, and and especially in a group coaching format, to really get support from their peers as well.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter based in Richmond, Va., who writes about workplace culture and policies, hiring, DEI, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others, and has been syndicated by MSN and The Motley Fool.