CEO’s Letter: Personal Coaching is the Next Wave of Democratization of the Workplace

By Elliot H. Clark

As a society, we have had to wrestle with the concept of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It wasn’t all that long ago that companies were concerned about the engagement of executives and labor force turnover was considered irrelevant. Some organizations barely measured it and researchers had to rebuild the statistics using payroll records.

One area where we continue to see a disparity between leaders and employees is in development. HR budgets millions for the multi-billion dollar industry of executive coaching. Here’s the weird part -wait for it -we seem to invest in behavioral coaching mostly for people who are ALREADY executives.

For the rank and file employees, we think in terms of “training.” Most of that training curriculum is skills-based development. Some is more oriented to critical thinking skills, but still about day to-day task management functions. Not to generalize too much, but a great deal of behavioral based training is related to harassment, discrimination, and sensitivity-related topics. For high potential management level employees, there may be programs for development. Pre pandemic, these were often internal conferences or seminar-style programs, held in person to address goal setting and achievement and management development training.

The more personalized “coaching” services were by and large reserved for executives, and were designed to address what was happening to the learner and how their personal responses were (or were not) productive to achieving their desired outcome as a leader. The learner would sit with a coach in an almost therapeutic counseling session and describe interactions. Many of the best executive coaches come out of the psychology profession, but moreso from the organizational development side than clinical or mental illness side of psychological practice.

Today, we have considerable research on behaviors and behavior modification training -and this has been codified. Kevin Kruse, who I worked with at Kenexa, is a best-selling New York Times author and has been a leader in the online training community. He has a new firm called LEADx and has written a feature in this issue on micro-coaching (see page 36). In short, Leadx and other firms like it have automated areas of the coaching process using artificial intelligence, chatbots, and other interactive tools to make coaching available to the “sub-executive” level. This is an important trend and one which is, in my opinion, long overdue.

HR leaders know from engagement surveys that the relationship between workers and front line supervisors is paramount. Management training on effective communication is offered by many training service providers to large and small corporations. The recognition service providers now offer management training to front-line managers in order to make recognition more authentic and impactful. These programs are often seen as “management training,” but the questions of “how do great leaders develop?” and “how do great leaders behave?” is left to the chance of who can rise to the level of becoming a leader. At that point, they get “coached” on leadership behaviors.

While it is true leadership attributes may be “born,” they can also be taught, and the earlier that process begins, the more likely that great leader will emerge. When the day-to-day coaching process is more evidence-based, the approach will be more organized and more pervasive than traditional “mentoring.”

The Guttenberg printing press democratized knowledge by speeding the recreation of books and dropping the price dramatically, helping to usher in the Renaissance. The internet democratized data and information in the next great leap that occurred in our lifetime and gave voice to individuals in new ways. Technology can now democratize leadership development with platforms for “pre-executive” coaching and help provide a better development path for future leaders and a better employee experience for our workforces.

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