Coaching in small businesses: DIY or bring in a professional?

Is business coaching effective? Robert McHenry weighs up internal coaching versus employing external help.

Coaching is an effective way to promote learning in businesses of any size. Employers who support coaching report higher levels of employee engagement and commitment and faster rates of talent development. Nine out of ten organisations use coaching by line managers and six out of ten supplement their internal initiatives by employing professional business coaches. Ratings of the effectiveness of coaching are slightly higher for professionals than for line managers. All these statistics come from the CIPD.

So, when and why should you ask your internal managers to coach versus bringing in a professional? The DIY route will build internal expertise, control training costs, deliver coaching to more employees and have it done by people who have knowledge of the organisation. Your manager coaches will benefit too because coaching, like teaching, is a two way process and most often results in improved management skills on the part of the manager/coaches.

Bear in mind that, while becoming increasingly popular, internal manager coaching is a fairly narrow form focusing, as it should, on improving employee performance and technical skills. You will also have to invest at the outset in training your managers to coach. If you do not, there will be issues of credibility and even trust and confidentiality among your workforce. Your managers might also have corporate blind spots and that can frustrate the employees they coach.

External, professional coaching and mentoring has been a huge growth area in the past five years and there is undoubtedly confusion in the market place about how to choose a coach or mentor. My recommendation is to select one who:

  • Is professionally qualified in a helping discipline (registered occupational or clinical psychologist) and/or someone who has worked for at least ten years in a relevant organisation at a senior level.
  • Will allow you to talk to recent clients (not necessarily coaches) about the impact of their work.

External coaches will be relatively expensive and lack internal knowledge of your business, so why should you hire them? You would do so if you do not have the time or the skill base to undertake coaching in your business. You would certainly need them if it is necessary to tackle a stubborn habit or personality problem that an otherwise excellent employee displays. External coaches can also bring a fresh perspective to an organisation and it is a good idea to contract with them to share these perspectives during or after their coaching assignment (without revealing the contents of their coaching with individuals).

As an owner of a small business, you might be tempted to try coaching or mentoring yourself. If you are, just as for any manager coaches, it is essential to get some basic training first. And remember these ground rules:

  • You have to be prepared to devote the time to it and commit to a regular slot with each coachee/mentee
  • If you are coaching, it is important not to tackle a broad agenda: focus on a particular skill or specific need
  • Be prepared to make your coaching sessions two-way; good coaching is not about telling people what to do
  • If you are imparting a skill, having someone watch you perform a range of tasks rarely works; they have to practice the skills themselves under your supervision
  • Position the initiative properly with other staff.

As a small business owner myself, I can thoroughly recommend both an internal and an external coaching initiative. It is more effective than classroom teaching for influencing the development of ‘soft’ skills. But for a coaching initiative to thrive, it must have the buy-in of senior management and there needs to be reward and recognition given to those managers who coach or mentor. They will need adequate resources such as training, uninterrupted time and an acknowledgement that their scheduled coaching or mentoring sessions take priority over impromptu meetings or other ’emergencies’. It also helps if the coaching initiative is part of a clear strategic intent such as succession planning or a determination to retain staff by promoting from within. And you must accept that coaching is one of those investments small businesses have to fund without cast iron guarantees.

That doesn’t mean you have to do it without evaluating it. I am sure that if you do, you will become convinced that it has been time and money well spent. Over the past decade, my own company has returned at least ten times its outlay on the training of internal coaches and fees for external coaching through the savings it has made by skilling and retaining people some of whom have been promoted to senior positions.

Further reading on coaching

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Business coaching

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