Add Coaching to Leadership Development Programs

Most talent development professionals know that executive coaching is a powerful tool to accelerate the development of key talent. This targeted and personalized approach helps aim leaders at the right priorities at the right time in order to grow and expand. What’s more, many organizations use coaching strategically – focused on successful leaders to catalyze their growth. That compares with the low-return approach of coaching poor performers, which too often is a last ditch attempt to “save someone” before finally letting them go.

The smartest organizations leverage coaching to support their talent development plans, including key talent, high potentials, and critical target audiences such as key roles with higher turnover or diversity-focused development of historically undervalued groups such as minorities and women.

But in many of the organizations I consult with, coaching is underused – or not used effectively – in one key area: internal and external leadership development programs. Coaching is a natural fit with these programs because it provides a mechanism to ensure the learning is sustained, which leadership development programs often lack. To be fair, some organizations weld coaching onto an existing leadership development program, but have not thought about how to truly integrate coaching into those programs to reinforce learning afterwards.

But let’s start with some basic questions about the value of doing this.

Why should any organization add coaching to a leadership development curriculum?
If you agree that coaching, when done right and used correctly, is a truly effective tool for learning and growth, then think about impact of targeted coaching with the sole intention of helping leaders implement the learning from a development program. The most effective leadership development programs always ensure that leaders create an action plan or some commitments after the program.

Coaches can leverage that plan and help leaders stay focused on the plan, helping leaders grow into a newer version of themselves. While managers of those attending these development programs are “technically” accountable for the development of their team, their focus can also get diffused. Coaches can play the role of accountability partner, and help problem-solve when things aren’t working as planned. This approach helps ensure “stickiness” of the development experience.

How else can coaching reinforce learning after the program?
Use yourself as a test. Think back to a development program you participated in that did not include coaching. What do you remember? If you are like most leaders, you might recall one thing that really stood out in that multi-day or multi week experience. But was that one thing something that helped you develop a new way of thinking or leading or operating? Did it justify the time and investment to attend and learn? What was it like to come back to the real world after your learning experience and try to implement what you learned?

If your experience is like mine, your work doesn’t go on hold while you attend training programs. At the end of each learning day, you spend hours catching up on critical issues, responding to urgent requests, and addressing other time-sensitive concerns. Which begs an important question: Where is the processing time for the learning and how to apply it? And when you actually do go back to your job without the “hall pass” of being away in a program, the piled-up work slams you in the face. By ensuring coaching is integrated into development programs, leaders have a built-in process to take great ideas and plan through how to implement change in their approach and in themselves.

When is it most prudent to integrate coaching into a development program?
The best place to start is where the largest investment of time and money occurs for the organization and the participant. Typically this means multi-week internal “exec ed” programs or when organizations decide to send leaders to external high-impact programs.

It it worth the additional cost?
By now, you might say that you are spending thousands of dollars on this person already, so why spend more? The short answer is: Because learning concepts, models and approaches is not the end game. The most valuable result comes from embedding the learning and then implementing what works to create a new normal for the leader and the environment they lead in.

The cost of this kind of coaching is not the same as typical executive coaching which can last for 6-12 months or more and typically includes qualitative interviews. Coaching in development programs is more focused. What works best, in terms of making a significant difference in the sustainability and implementation of learning, is 6-8 coaching sessions that ideally begin during the program and then extend for 4-6 months post program. That points to how development program coaching is far less expensive than the typical executive coaching engagement.

At this point, let’s say you are convinced that this is a wise move to integrate coaching into your leadership development programs. How then do you think about what coaching approach makes the most sense for your organization’s development programs? It’s best to start with an overall strategy for how best to deploy coaching in all of its forms, when to start coaching, how long to engage coaches, and whether internal or external coaches are the best fit. This is an area where Cambria can help you think about and implement the best approach for your organization.

There is no standard model for this work. Nevertheless, here are a few key elements that factor into the decision:

The complexity of the learning
The duration of the development program
The organizational level of participating leaders
The organizational objectives and expectations for each participant
The market and internal business challenges that could impact the attention of a participant once out of the program.

There are more elements, of course, and they all combine to determine how intense and how long the coaching should be.

One key consideration to make a priority: coaches should be oriented and briefed on the key elements of the learning. Absent this, coaches are “flying blind” – only aware of what the participants tell them about the experience. In this scenario, key lessons can be lost through forgetting, because the ideas didn’t resonate, or because the leader felt they were too difficult. The latter two reasons may be good ones to let something key drift away, but a coach, well-briefed on the program, can bring those issues into the discussions and help leaders potentially see different ways of applying what they have learned.

Perhaps here is the place to start: Look at your leadership development programs and the investment your organization makes in key leaders to accelerate and expand their learning. Then evaluate where and how coaching could advance the learning to ensure that leaders return from their development experiences with the support needed to capture the benefits of these investments.

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