Historically, workplace coaching has been reserved for senior leaders, managers, and employees identified as high potential. That’s starting to change. There’s a growing call for coaching to be accessible to all employees and viewed as a tool that can strengthen the workplace as a whole.
“It’s about providing equitable access to everyone,” says Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of Bravely, which provides company-wide coaching. “Every single employee has access to coaching, as opposed to a select group of individuals.”
Sheehan was among the expert speakers in a From Day One webinar titled, “Focusing Employee Coaching to Ensure the Best Results,” which explored how employers can make sure they define coaching thoughtfully and differentiate it from other important practices, including mentoring, training, and therapy. They discussed coaching’s specific role in the workplace, the importance of collaborative relationships between the coach and the employee, and what coaching strategies have the most impact.
Moderator Anna Maltby, a journalist and editor, kicked off the discussion with a straightforward question: “What is coaching?” As TeNita Ballard, a global diversity and inclusion leader for Intel Corp., put it, there’s “a fine line between the many different ways” in which employees can be supported in their career development. One common thread, Ballard noted, is that the relationship should offer two-way benefits. “As a trainer or a coach or mentor, when you’re in that seat, I think you always need to be open to experiences because someone can show you something about yourself. Yes, you're coming in as the expert, but another person's perspective can help you with your teaching or learning down the way.”
“Often when we’re working with a mentor, you’re going to them because it’s where you want to be–it’s very tactical around the skills you need to get to that level,” said Sheehan. “Coaching is very much about, what is your why? What do you want to do and how will you get there?”
Mike Dallas, global head of employee experience for Manulife Financial, categorized it as “skills refinement and development where everybody is, so it becomes an inclusive topic around performance.” Coaching at Manulife, he added, is “about trying to connect people with one or two jobs ahead of them in their career path, as opposed to someone far removed.”
Joanne Mallia-Barsati, a global talent management VP for Penguin Random House, brought up performance management. “We’ve flipped the script on using performance management using coaching as a baseline We’re using coaching to allow the employee to be in the driving seat of the conversation,” she said.
Employees having agency in their career choices emerged as a core component of coaching. “People can get feedback and use it to apply to what they want to do, as opposed to coming in and saying that I need to build a formal program,” Dallas said. Michele St. Clair, who handles digital business operations for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, stressed that “it’s very important to meet people where they’re at.”
Another important theme was the need for diversity in coaching. “What do your coaches look like?” asked Ballard. “Representation matters.” When it comes to building a coaching team, Ballard stressed “representation, intersectionality and personality.”
What makes for a successful coach? “The formula we’ve seen translate,” said Sheehan, “is the ability to build trust at the beginning of the relationship.” She added that Bravely introduced the option for employees to be matched with a coach of a specific background. “When you’re talking about members of under-represented groups, it goes a long way and there’s safety there.”
Maltby asked how companies should track the impact of coaching. St. Clair said it could be as easy as tracking the growth of a new employee, as well as tracking internal hires in which employees are moving into leadership roles.
“There should be clarity around the goals upfront and what success looks like,” said Mallia-Barsati. That can be followed up with surveys, facilitated feedback, and follow-ups after coaching sessions. “You can take an assessment in the beginning, you can survey in the middle, and you can look at exposure, if people promote it, and what their overall experience is,” Ballard said. “Everything should tie back to the goals.”
Bravely presents employees with structured questions after coaching and also collects anonymized data from the coaches. After one session, according to Sheehan, the research shows that 92% of employees learned a skill and over 90% felt better about their situation. “These are all really powerful data points,” she said.
Each panelist talked about their own impactful “coaching moments”–and most said that coaching isn’t so much about the “ah-hah” moment as it is about incremental change. “A coach really holds you accountable to looking at yourself and thinking about your role,” said Sheehan. “That has been invaluable to me to how I react to things, how I treat other people, and how I show up to work everyday.”
Emily Nonko is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to writing for From Day One, her work has been published in Next City, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and other publications.