Business leaders have mostly overcome any lingering skepticism over the importance of so-called ‘soft’ skills like coaching, and just in time. Increasingly, research is showing that investing in people is not only essential for boosting employee satisfaction– it makes financial sense as well.
The statistics pile up: the International Personnel Management Association increased its productivity by 64% through corporate coaching, and a survey by Manchester Inc. of 100 top companies showed – on average – a 600% return on investment following coaching interventions. Not surprising then that nearly half of Fortune 500 companies rely on executive coaching as a central management tool.
Outstanding people management allows a company to stand out when no further improvements can be made to the product itself, says Janine Everson, academic director of the UCT Graduate School of Business Centre for Coaching (CFC) based in Cape Town, Australia and Geneva. It is what sets top companies apart in terms of performance, productivity and employee management. “Success is only as sustainable as your staff satisfaction,” she says.
The CFC, which has worked with clients in Africa, Australia, Europe and the Middle East, is stacking up evidence of its own as to the impact of coaching interventions.
Business leaders who balk at the cost of investing in ‘soft’ skills might, for example, find the results of a coaching intervention run by the CFC at Toyota Tsusho Corporation, compelling.
Toyota managed a 92% increase in the economic value of the company after initiating a customised coaching programme in eight African countries.
Hylton Bannon, then-head of Toyota Tsusho Corporation in Johannesburg, explained this extraordinary feat away as follows: “The company was already successful; what we needed was a sustainable competitive edge. We couldn’t change our product. What we needed to change was how we lead our people.”
Taking a closer look at this, Cape Town MBA students Duncan Harrison and Karen Yodaiken studied Toyota’s coaching initiative in Malawi and Uganda, and found markedly higher employee satisfaction, drastically reduced tension and conflict in offices, and greater confidence among staff in showing leadership. There was more dialogue and more collaboration. The Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) shot up by 25% and overall productivity improved by 35%.
So if the results are so dramatic, why isn’t everybody jumping on the bandwagon?
“Some people struggle to connect initially with the coaching philosophy of employee-led development,” explains Craig O’Flaherty, founding director of the CFC. “But ultimately, what we find time and time again is that it is this actual soft skill approach that is the key ingredient that turns good companies into great companies and great companies into brand leaders.”
At first, the theory underpinning coaching may be bewildering to many who are accustomed to a more pragmatic approach, says O’Flaherty. Coaching – especially coaching that takes an integral approach as does the CFC – is grounded in a combination of Eastern and Western philosophy and research, somatics and neuroscience, spiritual teachings and all denominations of psychology, narrative theory and linguistics.
But, he says, wariness is decreasing as businesses experience the enormous advantages of harnessing individuals’ potential through coaching. “Coaching that takes an integral approach can inspire solutions from all angles, in areas such as conflict management, open dialogue and service delivery,” he says. “By combining academic theory and practical skills with real-life experience, coaching encourages greater individual responsibility and more creative problem-solving, empowering individuals for excellence. It works because it allows for engagement – even at the deepest levels – with how people experience and interpret their world and how that impacts upon their relationships with others.”
Part of this shift is evident in the way employees now buy into the talent development that is fostered by coaching, says Maria Cussell Humphries, a specialist in Coaching, Mentoring and Talent Development at Absa Bank, part of the Barclays group.
“There used to be a stigma around coaching, a belief that if you were nominated for coaching it meant that there was something wrong with your performance that needed to be rectified. But at Absa, if you are nominated for coaching, it means you have been seen to have potential to grow exponentially.” For Absa, which also runs a highly successful coaching intervention with the CFC, coaching has become a respected form of recognition in the company.
Coaching is also, points out O’Flaherty, a valuable way to facilitate adult learning, which flourishes under very specific conditions. Most notably, effective adult learning requires a delicate balance of safety and honest feedback.
“Most adults struggle to learn and change under conditions that make them feel vulnerable, defensive, or open to judgment,” he explains. “Coaching can create a haven for real-time problem solving and learning, whether personal or professional, by allowing participants to reflect on their behaviour and receive immediate feedback.”
Notably, a survey conducted by the UCT Graduate School of Business revealed that 90% of the participants in Coaching Circles, a specific application of coaching that allows groups to coach and be coached together, felt it was the ideal space to make mistakes and be corrected in a safe environment, while 100% of them believed it helped them develop a sense of camaraderie and teamwork. And 100% of participants believed they developed more self-awareness, better listening skills, and the ability to ask the right questions of others.
So how does it work? According to Daniel Ahlers, Swiss Partner to the CFC, and a Certified Professional Integral Coach, an integral approach to coaching is not simply an ‘on the couch’ style intervention. “It is a future-centric approach that allows individuals proactively to achieve their goals through prioritisation and creative problem-solving. The individual is given the tools to teach him- or herself what to do.”
“The change in behaviour occurs when the coachee learns, unprompted, to respond differently to his or her world, with positive results.”
“This type of coaching allows for the development of the various physically embodied competencies a coachee would require in order to be able to engage with the world in a fundamentally different way. This in turn opens the gateway to experiencing greater fulfilment and meaning in life,” Everson explains further.
“This integral approach is not currently mainstream, even amongst organisations that subscribe to coaching in some form, ” says Everson. “It is unusual in its scope and depth of focus, as well as its pragmatic and usable approach.
“But the feedback that we have received from our corporate clients suggests that there is a deep need for this kind of approach.
“Coaching is already seen as an vital part of the talent management strategy in a number of leading companies,” she says. “And it can have a powerful effect on the competitiveness of an organisation. Those who have been slow on the uptake only stand to gain if they follow suit.”