In most organisations, coaching is seen as a resource made available only to senior managers and executives.
The truth is, though, that coaching can transform the professional and personal development of smart, ambitious individuals in the early and middle stages of their careers.
Coaching is about transformation and personal change, and the best time to encourage and support change is when change is already underway: when a personal and professional life is emerging from new experience. When there is more to be learned than unlearned.
If it is our beliefs, values, habits and capabilities and indeed our sense of identity that define our performance now, and shape our path into the future, then the earlier in a career these things can be nurtured the better - for the individual, certainly, yet the benefits for the organisation are clear: they are reflected not only in obvious performance, but in initiative, resilience, self-assurance, fulfilment and ultimately in concrete results, longevity of tenure and, most important, mental health.
And in a world where stress is reported as a major contributor to absenteeism, depression and worse, the business case for early- and mid-career coaching is, I believe, clear.
I just did a quick check on HR Review: they are quoting staff turnover rates in the UK of something like 30% and more for 2023. I don't know how that stacks up with your experience, but it's the best I've got so let's take it as a benchmark (interested to hear your experience). It suggests you're likely to be looking to replace one in three of your people this year.
They also say that hiring a replacement will take an average of 45 days and cost around 25% of their starting salary.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Add in the HR resources you need to manage the process. Managers setting aside time for trawling through CVs and doing interviews instead of taking care of business. Operational activities delayed because the replacement isn't in post. Stress caused by others taking up the slack as best they can when there's a backlog anyway. Operational and management resources reassigned to bring the new hire up to speed. Customer service compromised. Sales compromised. Time-to-market compromised. The list goes on.
The true cost to the business makes 25% of the starting salary pale into insignificance.
So there are two sides to this: making sure you keep your best people so you don't have to replace them; and accelerating the integration of new hires so they start to deliver economic value as fast as possible. And that makes expansion more efficient as well as minimising the impact of turnover.
How to keep your best people...
I've always found Hertzbergs Theory of Motivation intuitively appealing in its simplicity, and it helps us to make sense here.
If you look at all the suggestions for retaining people, many seem to focus on things like hybrid and remote working, flexible working, pension, health insurance, parental leave and so on. The evidence seems to be that these measures reduce turnover by some 5% - relatively low, but unsurprising since, first, these are what Hertzberg would class as 'hygiene factors' (ie. their absence causes dissatisfaction but their presence doesn't increase motivation), and, second, they are easily matched by a competing employer. Hertzberg even classes 'status' as a hygiene factor.
More important, however, are things like recognition, responsibility, autonomy, opportunities for advancement, sense of achievement and opportunities for professional and personal growth. These are what Hertzberg would class as 'motivation factors': they are likely to increase commitment, productivity, personal fulfilment and engagement.
For your business to offer the support of an experienced, independent, external coach demonstrates a genuine and tangible commitment to the professional and personal growth of the individual. It is a recognition of their value and potential. It demonstrates the company sees a future of increased autonomy, responsibility and advancement. And working with a coach certainly ensures that achievements are recognised and celebrated.
You'll have noticed I say 'independent, external coach', and you're probably thinking 'well, you would say that, wouldn't you - you are one'. Well, yes, of course. Guilty as charged. But genuinely there is more to it than that. There's no doubt that internal coaches and mentors have a huge value, but there is always the nagging issue of conflicts of interest, confidentiality and vulnerability: that it's too risky to allow oneself to be truly open, honest and vulnerable with someone who works for HR or who otherwise has (or seems to have) a direct or indirect influence on their future in the business, no matter what assurances are in place, written or verbal.
The independent, external coach sidesteps these issues. There is a clear separation between loyalty to the business and loyalty to the client (which is something the external coach must navigate sensitively but firmly and objectively).
Just want to make clear up a potential confusion here! I generally use the word 'client' to mean the person being coached, as opposed to the person or organisation paying the bill (who would be 'the business' or 'the customer'). The only other word I could use is 'coachee' which I think is just dreadful so, if you don't mind, I will avoid it.
The agenda of the external coach is firmly driven by what is in the best interests of the client. Mostly that means supporting the client in developing their future where they are. From time to time, however, the coaching process might cause a client to see the fit is genuinely poor, and they would be happier and more effective moving on to something better suited. Sometimes this is even cited as a reason not to offer coaching. It's important to acknowledge and address this concern, so more on this later...
How to accelerate the integration of new hires...
Perhaps an obvious question when it comes to recruitment is 'how do we integrate this person as fully and as rapidly as possible?'.
There's always the obligatory induction training, of course, but that does little to settle the individual in to their new working environment, and there are of course many aspects where only line managers, peers and colleagues can help.
But a large part of a new hire's experience is the massive level of uncertainty entirely natural when inserted into an established team and (perhaps unreasonably) expected to perform from the word go.
Once again the support of an experienced, independent, external coach and mentor can be invaluable - especially when that coach has real-life operational experience.
It can be really hard to admit vulnerability to one's new managers and peers, or to someone in HR, and that can make it all too easy to struggle on when the best and most obvious thing to do is to ask for help! In many situations, the coach can provide that help. In other situations, the coach can help the client work out exactly what help is needed, from whom, and the best way to seek it. Either way, the individual gets what they need sooner rather than later and their productivity and effectiveness in their new role accelerates - and the individual, the team, the manager and the business benefit as a result.
And, of course, the support of the coach demonstrates a genuine commitment on the part of the business to the long-term professional and personal development of the individual, which, as we saw earlier, is highly likely to have a positive influence on longevity of tenure.
The hidden challenge...
I mentioned earlier that from time to time the coaching process might cause an individual to realise they are in the wrong place, and that they will, as a consequence, move on leaving the business with a hole to fill.
I also mentioned that this is sometimes cited as being too much of a risk and therefore a reason not to offer coaching.
It's important to acknowledge and address this concern, so let's do that now.
Here's the thing. That individual is in the wrong place, whether they know it consciously or not. They will be experiencing stress and anxiety as a result. Their operational performance will be compromised. Their manager will be frustrated. Their colleagues will be irritated. They will bring a difficult energy into the team and the workplace, which will affect the attitude, commitment and performance of the whole team and anyone else they interact with.
All this represents a significant, and very real, cost to the business.
Much better that such an individual is treated honestly and honourably, and given the support they need to either develop the ability to thrive and make a committed and positive contribution, or to embrace the reality that they and the business equally misjudged and be supported in finding the right thing so that, on the one hand, they can thrive, and, on the other hand, so the business can hire a better fit and realise the operational performance they planned for.
These things happen, and it's much healthier commercially and personally for the reality to be faced and navigated consciously, respectfully and elegantly, opening up the opportunity for two people to get the jobs they dreamed of, instead of one person being seen as under-performing and not living up to their potential.
"Jim is an outstanding person. He can change individuals' lives for the better and empower them both personally and professionally with what they need to take the next step in the right direction."