Why a culture of coaching can drive wider workforce performance

Is coaching and mentoring right for your organisation? Danone and Cancer Research UK explain why it works for their workforce

 

Coaching has traditionally been reserved for senior management to give leaders the support they need to deal with the demands at the top of the organisation and to make the high-pressure business critical decisions.

It is also typically seen as an expensive development resource.

Likewise, formal mentoring programmes are again typically aimed at those employees approaching the top of the organisation – although more informal schemes are becoming common, for example as part of graduate recruitment programmes.

However, there are organisations who have decided to take these on further, to make them a part of their workplace culture.

Why have they chosen this path?

What drove the decisions to embrace this new approach and what are they hoping to gain?

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Danone digs deeper

Danone recognised that, despite expectations for continued growth amid turbulent market conditions for others, projections for that growth were being slashed and the business needed to adapt and change.

“We’d used coaching selectively before and we knew there was something about coaching – we knew it could develop trust, but it was more of an enabler than anything else,” said Danone UK head of learning Paula Ashfield.

“We commissioned research which found that coaching comes out as the number one initiative to create leadership and talent.”

Danone realised this person-centred approach could bring very substantial benefits to the organisation – and also to the employee – helping them understand their role in the organisation and the wider system they are working in.

One of the most critical points to making it a success was that Danone knew the problem it was trying to solve and by targeting these specific needs it has been able to get the most from its project.

 

Strategic goal

Speaking at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) Learning and Development Show, Ashfield continued: “One of the things that we did well wasn’t just to have a coaching culture, we knew the difference we wanted to make. It was part of our strategy and our sustained approach; so we could draw connections between behaviours we were trying to build and where the business needed to be and how coaching could enable it.”

The business committed to the programme for the long term. It expected it to take several years to see results and believed in the eventual outcomes

That patience is now bearing fruit and importantly, this includes recognising and understanding how employees can help the business through more than their core vocational skills.

“Yes of course there’s still room for expertise and functional experts, but actually we are much happier through coaching conversations to recognise potential in different ways. We trust people’s potential far more than we ever did and that shows through in the risks we’re willing to take on the support to the business,” Ashfield added.

More on why Danone is benefiting from its commitment to coaching

 

Cancer Research targets its talent

Cancer Research UK sought to tackle a different problem with its coaching and mentoring programmes.

Its engagement surveys found that while employees were committed to the cause, they were not always so wedded to their manager or role

“We’ve come to think of it as a bit of a parent-child culture – so the parent is looking after their children but are they helping their children grow? In the way we thought, not enough,” explained Cancer Research UK director of brand Anthony Newman.

Newman and his colleagues wanted employees to feel empowered to do what they do best. This meant less input from their manager – and hopefully improvement in retention and promotion.

“What we can do is make people feel they have a really satisfying job. And we don’t often have room for promotion, but when we do we want our internal candidates to be at least as strong as what the external field has to offer, so we need to make people ready for that next step up rather than just very good at what they do now.

“So coaching culture is all developed around improving performance – coaching not being a nice to have but being a must have thing and a very challenging thing,” he continued.

 

Coaching or mentoring

One problem the team came across was clarifying what was coaching and what was mentoring.

It decided to use both practices, but used coaching just for the senior management and top talent, while mentoring was opened out to everyone.

“Coaching is a management style. It’s about creating a more empowered culture,” Newman said.

“It’s primarily available to our leaders and our top talent so it supports the development of our leadership and keeps the talent pipeline healthy. Mentoring helps in terms of our talent and also our leadership agenda for the next generation.

So far the signs are positive and there appears to be a culture shift in progress, with evidence of coaching a wider practice than was originally intended – an area of which the team find comfortable.

“Our aim was not to turn anyone into certified coaches, our aim is to use coaching techniques within their regular conversations – within meetings, one-to-ones, brain storms, in the kitchen, by the lift, any conversation that people have there’s coaching tools that they can use. And we were very comfortable with mentors using coaching tips within those relationships too,” Newman concluded.

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