While there are lots of good coaches around, there are a lot more, who are mediocre or worse. Few HR functions have the internal competence to assess coach competence, and standard methods of evaluation, such as client feedback, how very low validity – indeed, the level of challenge within a coaching relationship may be inversely related to the client’s comfort level!

A common response has been to appoint a coach provider organization. Typically, these organizations will claim to be able to provide a consistent quality of coaching, to meet all the client company’s needs, from their coaching pool. In practice, the evidence of coach assessment centres – evidence-based interventions that compare coaches against common standards of basic and more advanced coaching competence – shows that these claims are typically wide of reality. Average coach competence plummets dramatically with the size of the coach pool. We have observed that almost none of the major coach providers has demonstrated a sufficiently robust process to ensure that their coaches are among the top 20%, from which client organizations would expect them to draw. World class coaches rarely need to be part of a large pool; rather they tend to be independent practitioners, who work with small, loose bands of peers. So, when HR employs a single coach pool provider, often on the basis of a slick sales presentation, it is essentially throwing both quality and money out of the window.

Companies, which have acquired greater insight into executive coaching, are increasing their reliance on internal executive coaches. Where these are professionally trained and supported with strong supervision, the average competence appears (and we wait for empirical studies to demonstrate it one way or another) to exceed that of the average externally resourced executive coach. But they still need a proportion of externals. So two main strategies have emerged. The first is to appoint a pool of providers and to be very clear about the quality of coaches they are expected to provide. Then HR professionals, who have been trained in coach assessment, interviews a small number from each provider, who the provider perceives to represent their best. This process also allows the company to establish “business fit” – the chemistry that suggests where and in what circumstances a coach might best be used. Even with all this preparation and guidance, however, a significant minority of the coaches put forward prove severely below par. It seems that providers sometimes fail to distinguish between experience and competence – just because someone has a lot of hours of coaching behind them, doesn’t mean that they are any good at it!

The second strategy is to hire an intermediary, who has deep credibility in coach assessment, to bring together a customized pool of coaches. Implicit here is the expectation that this pool will be appropriate to the specific organization — for example, in terms of sector knowledge, or understanding of the business challenges. The role of the intermediary includes:
• Working with HR to establish the kind of coaching needs and scenarios likely to occur. How much of an emphasis, for example, will there be on skills, performance, behavioural and transformational coaching respectively?
• Designing a set of coach specifications to meet the company’s specific portfolio of needs and reviewing this periodically
• Identifying potential coaches and assessing them against the criteria. Typically, this would involve a three-stage filtering process: paper application, telephone interview and intensive panel interview. While there are good, low-cost methods for managing these processes, they are as yet not widely used.
• Determining with the organization, the fee bands for different types and levels of coaching. (Generally, a skills coach needs less capabilities than, say a behavioural or transformational coach.)
• Briefing coaches and their line managers, or supporting HR in doing so
• Matching coaches and clients. (This also involves helping internal HR professionals identify and categorize client needs.)
• Giving coaches comprehensive briefings before each assignment
• Providing constant, high quality professional supervision and continuous professional development. Some companies now supervise internal and external coaches together, to provide cross-learning and to integrate their coaching resources more effectively.
• Regular reassessments of coaches (every two years or so) to ensure that they remain world class. (With new knowledge and greater numbers of coaches in the market, the bar is constantly moving upwards.)
• Evaluating the effectiveness of coaching assignments, using customized 360 degree and other valid instruments
• Helping the company link its coaching strategy with its business strategy

This is still a relatively recent approach, so the evidence base for good practice is still being assembled. However, from my observations and discussion with both companies and providers of coach panel management services, a number of lessons emerge:
1. A mix of coaching approaches is essential in meeting the wide variation of coaching issues that arise and the kaleidoscope of client personalities. (Some coaching pool providers have a closely defined methodology that they expect all their coaches to adhere to. If such inflexible approaches are ever appropriate, it will be in a limited proportion of cases and the panel manger will need to take great care in deciding if and where to deploy such resources.)
2. While the intention of the company may be to free itself from the detail of managing a coach panel, it should not abdicate responsibility. A partnership arrangement, in which the panel managers educate internal HR people, allows the company to build its internal competence in coach management. The company can then take the whole process internally, as and when it wishes.
3. Having a steering group is helpful in ensuring that the panel manager and the organization are fully aligned. Typically, a panel may include members of HR, the panel management team, and representatives of both coaches and coaches. One of the roles of the steering group is continuous review of how the process is working.
4. Once established, the coach panel needs to be marketed to the HR community (and, if appropriate, to the audience of potential coachees, as well). This helps to promote the value of executive coaching.
5. The size of the pool needs to be large enough for “requisite variety”, but not so large that coaches only see a trickle of work and therefore lose interest. This has been the case with some panels, particularly where the organization has not been marketed effectively. Ideally, each coach should receive an average of two or more assignments a year. Continuity of assignments is also important in keeping them up-to-date with the business.
6. World-class coaches need and expect to be respected and valued. They do not like to be treated as a commodity. (With typical coach pools, this is less of an issue, because many of the coaches are more likely to be grateful for the work!) Sometimes panel manager find themselves in the invidious position of mediating between coaches and an organization, where these expectations have not been respected. Educating the client organization in how to get the best out of their coach panel is a key part of the manager’s role.

As with so many aspects of coaching, good practice in managing external coaches is constantly evolving. There’s a lot to learn on both sides – by organizations and coaches alike. And that makes the quality of intermediation between them all the more relevant and important.

© David Clutterbuck, May 2012

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