How Coaching Can Boost Performance and Morale

December 22, 2016 – Over the last decade, organizations have increasingly moved away from employing programs to help develop specific skills in their leaders. These days, management and executive development leans more toward working directly with individual executives to improve their professional approach and maximize their effectiveness.

“As it has become clear that one-on-one coaching can be instrumental in driving behavior change and productivity, more companies use coaching for high potential employees, senior management, and now often middle management,” Hilary Pearl, founding partner of Greenwich, Connecticut-based Pearl Associates, told me when we spoke recently. Coaching, she says, is a $1 billion industry and the number of coaches has multiplied. “Companies are becoming more aware of the need for qualified coaches with considerable experience and / or certification,” she notes.

Hilary’s practical approach to leadership and organization issues was honed during her 10-year tenure at PepsiCo, Inc., where she served as director of human resource development. She and her staff were integrally involved in organization-wide change, including increasing PepsiCo’s focus on customer service and the frontline salesperson, diversity, and enhancements to the company’s culture. Prior to that role, she was manager of training as well as director of staffing for the company. Hilary holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master’s in communication from Boston University.

Boosting Performance

Coaching, Hilary explains, can help boost performance at all kinds of organizations, from startups to Fortune 500 companies. By way of example, she tells of one talented senior manager in a post-startup technology firm that Pearl Associates had worked with. The man was trying to establish himself as a well-rounded leader, but had few role models for leadership at the top of his organization. So it was that Hilary’s firm came to provide both professional leadership direction and feedback to help raise his awareness.

The executive in question was a highly intelligent individual, Hilary recalls, and tended to find the right solutions to problems well before his team members and colleagues. “This was compounded by insensitivity to the importance of communication to bring people along ‘your’ journey and how important this skill is to driving productivity, empowerment, and to growing as a leader,” she says. “A coaching intervention by us included a 360-degree survey and interviews with key constituents to provide him widespread and specific feedback. We provided him with specific skills to employ. Once the lightbulb went off, this bright and motivated individual went on to change behavior and perceptions – he is now on his way to become the next CEO.”

Behavioral Feedback

In Hilary’s work, one won’t find cookie-cutter solutions to improving executive performance. That’s why she and her team must dig deep and develop a comprehensive understanding of the business challenges and leadership culture of the client’s organization. Pearl Associates’ initial meetings with a client focus on building this understanding, developing an effective working relationship, and creating a high level of trust.

“We always learn about family background, as past events, values, role models, and family roles can be instrumental in gaining awareness of current behavior,” Hilary says. “Time upfront with the coach, boss, and key constituents is key to help the coach focus on those areas which are going to have the highest payoff in increasing the individual’s effectiveness and productivity. In many coaching situations, time spent shadowing as he or she operates at work can provide opportunities for instant feedback on behavior.”

She tells of coaching one executive who was early in his career and working at a small two-person private equity firm. “The boss had just hired a more senior person, and my client was feeling very competitive and behaving in manipulative ways to undercut the newcomer,” Hilary remembers. “At one point I asked about his role in the family. He had been an only child until his mother remarried someone with an older son; he now had an older step brother with whom he had an intense sibling rivalry. As we discussed this, the lightbulb went off that he was replicating this rivalrous behavior with the new hire, and that the behavior would in the end only hurt him at work.”

One of the toughest challenges companies face is having a leader who is marginalizing the effectiveness and productivity of his or her team. And though team sessions are invaluable for aligning and building cohesiveness around values and work behaviors, sometimes “fixing” the leadership issues at the top provides the greatest benefit for the team, Hilary says.

“That said, we often develop team sessions to integrate or align a senior team and will also do organization-wide assessments of culture, engagement, and morale – often those companies are trying to drive widespread change in how people work or build awareness of changes in the culture,” she adds.

Zeroing In

Not long ago, Pearl Associates worked with a financial services firm that had recently merged with another company as well as hired a significant number of individuals from yet another operation. The business now had employees from three different companies, each with very different values. In the meantime, technological advancements were changing the business and internal landscapes. That, in turn, affected how work was being done and left different functions competing to prove their worth and value to the organization.

Pearl Associates responded by bringing everyone together to zero in on these issues. “We held an offsite with members of different functions, all of whom needed to work effectively together,” says Hilary. “We interviewed staff in advance and fed back to the group the strengths and needs of the group in terms of team work and communication. Working sessions provided the opportunity to address key issues to help drive unity, productivity, and effectiveness day to day.”

In business, as in life, nothing stays the same. A big part of Hilary’s and her team’s job is to keep abreast of the changes in the client’s industry, address any issues that might arise because of them but also take advantage of them when possible. In the technology sector, for example, the formality of relationships has changed, she says. Technological progress and how Millennials use technology are both driving forces behind this change.

“Instead of using formal communications like memos or emails, communication is now instantaneous, with modes such as Google chat, Skype type vehicles, or Slack,” Hilary says. “Some tech companies are now ‘boss-less’ with no titles, open salary information and nontraditional office setups. Some are using highly creative, technologically driven methods to reward or value performance, such as Facebook-like systems to comment on a helpful employee — the employee then gets a cash reward for being a good team member.”

As relationships between bosses and subordinates continue to evolve, coaches must adapt accordingly. “In technology and other companies, manager/staff relationships are far less formal, and individuals are ‘allowed’ to be themselves and show their quirks and eccentricities,” Hilary points out. “At parties, bosses are as likely to stay late and have fun, versus let the ‘younger staff’ be on their own. Relationships are more open, with employees sharing more about their work or career concerns, and since people know how much money others make, employees speculate less on which peers are more ‘valued.’”

Today, Hilary and company spend more time coaching senior staff at startups or post-startups, where there are few experienced leader role models. “Often, entrepreneurial leaders need to work on areas such as emotional intelligence,” she says. “They have vision, charisma, a customer focus, but can be mercurial and insensitive to others. I also spend more time coaching managers on how to manage Millennials coming into traditional companies as new hires. The focus can be on delegation, managing work-life balance, formality of communication, dealing with politics, and hierarchy.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief — Hunt Scanlon Media

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