More than one company has made LifeTrek coaching available to selected employees, at company expense, to manage stress, develop skills, improve communication, resolve conflicts, or achieve other business goals. Today we tell the story of one such company, who extended the offer of professional coaching to the top 30 people in the company. Several years later, the benefits of coaching endure.
Not every LifeTrek Coaching client is an individual looking to do better in their life and work. Sometimes, the client is a company or organization looking to do better by their employees. Over the years, LifeTrek has worked with people at the top of the organization chart as well as directors and middle managers, when it was thought that coaching could provide an exceptional return on investment.
Sometimes that return has been defined in terms of communication, conflict-resolution, and team building. We have been retained, for example, to conduct behavioral style assessments with follow-up coaching in order to assist team members to understand their dynamics and to work together better. Other times, that return has been defined in terms of developing a high-potential or an at-risk leader.
But today’s featured client, an engineering firm, defined that return in terms of employee morale, life / work balance, and ownership of policies, procedures, and decisions. Two years before LifeTrek Coaching was introduced to the company, the employees purchased the company from a long-time family owner as part of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Under this ownership structure, everyone has a vested interest in the company’s success.
The challenge was to translate that vested interest into new patterns of working together. Two years after setting up the ESOP, the old command-and-control assumptions were alive and well. The new CEO, who at 15% had the largest single share in the ESOP, was perceived as functioning in much the same way as his predecessor, when the company was a family-owned business.
How could the company begin to function with a new spirit of collaboration, synergy, and partnership? How could all the employees begin to approach their life and work from the perspective of employee-owners? How could the new ownership structure translate into new managerial practices? How could the transitional stress be reduced or relieved?
These were the questions that brought LifeTrek Coaching into the picture. It was hoped that coaching could assist people to step back, take stock, and think through what the changed dynamics meant, both for themselves and for the company. It was also hoped that such increased deliberation would lead to improved results for and relationships within the company. In short, it was hoped that coaching could assist the company to make the ESOP process work more fully and effectively.
We began our work by conducting a seminar during one of the company’s regular management meetings. Two representatives from LifeTrek Coaching presented material developed by Tim Gallwey in his book, The Inner Game of Work. We noted how employee-owners had even more reason to redefine work in terms not only of Performance, but also in terms of Learning and Enjoyment.
People were challenged to ask themselves three questions: Am I as productive as I can possibly be? Am I learning new things on the job? Are we having fun yet? As people considered their answers, they were invited to sign up for coaching. The company offered to pay 75% of the cost of coaching for any executive or manager who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity; the employee-owner would have to pay 25% through a payroll deduction.
The top 30 people in the company, in four states, were then interviewed by telephone to determine their interest in the program. About one third of them signed up for at least three months of coaching. Some continued for a little longer. And today, three years later, the effects are still being felt. The experience was positive enough that there have been discussions about making coaching available to executives and managers as an ongoing employee-owner benefit.
If that were to happen, this company would place itself solidly in the ranks of other progressive companies who understand that work is more than just productivity and life is more than just work. A coach can broker that conversation, for individuals, teams, and even for entire companies, until discernible (if not always financially measurable) benefits are achieved.
Today’s interview includes excerpts from conversations with three people, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and one of the Engineer-Managers (E-M) who took part in the coaching process. Through their eyes, you will get a sense of how coaching works in the workplace.
Q: How did you find out about LifeTrek Coaching and what made you decide to work with us?
CEO: I had met and worked with you through our Rotary Club, so I already had a sense of you as a person. We were on a committee together, so I knew we shared some common interests. Since I am originally from India, you had also used me for some cultural sensitivity training in another context, which meant that our trust level was high.
But it wasn’t until our Rotary Club sponsored a trade fair, and you had a booth to explain how coaching worked, that I thought about coaching as a resource for our company. Coming off of the recent ESOP conversion, we were under a lot of stress. The location of our headquarters’ office was in play, and financially we were under more pressure than ever.
People were really feeling the heat, and it was easy to develop a bad attitude. Even though we were now all employee-owners, many people still viewed the world through a victim mentality • as though someone was doing things to us, instead of we were now controlling our own destiny.
It was my hope that coaching could make the ESOP more than just a piece of paper • for me and for everyone else. It was my hope that coaching could make everyone feel and act more like owners.
Q: So your goal for coaching had less to do with improving productivity than with improving attitude?
CEO: It was both. Bad attitudes generate lower productivity. Even though we may not be able to measure the connection in dollars, there’s no way to say the connection doesn’t exist. The attitude we have on the job makes a huge difference to both our own individual performance and to the performance of the team. Toxic attitudes can ruin a company.
CFO: And you can either bring those attitudes in from home or you can develop those attitudes on the job. Under the old regime, before the ESOP, this was a fear-based organization. The CEO was the boss and you did what he wanted • or else! The idea that we could now stand up for ourselves and speak our minds, that we could make recommendations and even set limits on what we would and would not give of ourselves to the company, that was a radical idea. We’re still learning how to do that without getting defensive.
It was equally radical to talk about what we bring to the job from our personal lives, outside of the office. Under the old regime, your personal life was of no consideration. You just did what you had to do, regardless. Now, through the ESOP, we had the opportunity to start acting like owners. That meant we had to get our whole lives together in order to be our best, on the job.
I know that that was an important part of my own goal for coaching. I wanted to take an integrated look at my entire life, both work and home, in order to paint a better picture. Fortunately, LifeTrek Coaching came from that orientation and was able to provide the perspective as well as the structure to make that happen.
E-M: In our work together, we probably spent as much time on the work • life balance issue as any other. When either one demands too much time or attention, they both suffer. When there is a happy medium, I can be at my best.
Q: Were there any noticeable differences in the company, because of the coaching initiative?
CEO: I certainly saw some differences in a few of the individuals who signed up for coaching. There was less whining, and more of a winning attitude. There was also less frenzy about these individuals. They were more able to focus on the work we had to do, without as much overworking and burning up. I think it was very helpful.
E-M: One of the practices that I developed while we worked together was going for a walk around the building at my lunch break and at other times when I needed to settle down and collect myself. I continue that practice to this very day. The secretary laughs, because she knows the more times I go around the building, the rougher the day.
You also challenged me to look at my morning habits, before coming into the office. I came to realize that how I start the day has a big impact on how the day goes. We even talked about things like how much coffee I was drinking. It was great to come away from our coaching sessions with the homework of trying out new strategies and interventions.
CFO: The whole coaching process made us more sensitive to the dynamics of learning and enjoyment in the workplace. Productivity is fine, but what are we pushing for? What are we here for? As CFO, I’m the financial number-cruncher in this organization, but if all we pay attention to is the bottom line then we’re missing out on many other important realities and opportunities. There is a spiritual side to life, even among engineers, that we dare not ignore.
One of the things we talked about a lot in our coaching sessions was the brain drain associated with all the stuff that builds up on our to-do lists. For those of us who participated in the coaching, I think we all got better at clearing away the clutter of unfinished business. Your name for that clutter was “tolerations,” because we were tolerating stuff rather than dealing with it. You assisted us to get rid of the clutter, both literally and figuratively, in order to do better.
Q: When coaching was offered to the organization, the CEO opted out of having his own coach. Why? And was that a good idea?
CEO: The reason I did that was two-fold. First, it just wasn’t a good time for me personally to work with a coach. There was a lot going on. But second, and even more importantly, I wanted the other employee-owners to see this as a benefit to them. The former owner was great about taking his perks first, and leaving the leftovers to everyone else. I wanted this to go to everyone else first, knowing that I would have a chance to pick up coaching later, when the time was right.
CFO: Unfortunately, that was not the message that many people took away from the CEO’s decision not to work with a coach. In many people’s eyes, it was an “I’m OK, you’re not OK” message. It was as though everyone else needed coaching, but the CEO did not. That was not the best message to send. In addition, if the CEO was working with a coach at the same time as the rest of us, there might have been more opportunities to develop and share a common language as to changes we wanted to make in the organization.
E-M: I agree that it would have been better for the CEO to participate. I think it sent the wrong message. On the other hand, the coaching was helpful in its own right and I did appreciate the company providing us with that benefit. I wish it were still available today.
Q: What would lead you to make coaching an ongoing part of your Employee Assistance Program?
CEO: We would have to recognize the benefits. If coaching makes people more productive, engaged, and happy, then it is worth the money. When you worked with us before, even though it was only for a few months, it generated new ideas. One of the things we do now, for example, is that every office has a “Fun Czar” who plans events to build rapport, camaraderie, and spirit among the group. We took seriously the new definition of work as being about performance, learning, and enjoyment.
E-M: To really take that definition seriously we have to think beyond “Fun Czars” organizing lunch-time or after-hours activities. We have to figure out how to make the work itself more enjoyable and less stressful. That takes a different level of communication, trust, and control than we are often able to muster. It takes setting boundaries so our clients, and our own ambitions, don’t run us ragged. We need to know and to focus on what we do well. If coaches can assist us to do that, then they are worth their weight in gold.
CFO: There’s no way to measure the ROI (Return on Investment) of coaching in terms of dollars. It is an intangible, almost by definition. It has to do with how people conduct, carry, and feel about themselves both at work and at home. But just because we cannot measure the ROI in dollars, does not make those things unimportant.
Often we get ourselves in a position where our problems seem monumental, as though they were an impossible mountain to climb. But a skilled coach, bringing an outsider perspective, does not see those problems in the same way. He or she is able to break things down into bite-size pieces. We begin to make progress, one step at a time, where before we were just overwhelmed. If you want your organization to keep moving forward, there are going to be times when coaching is an essential resource.
Q: So when is the best time for a company to bring in external coaches to work with their employees?
CEO: Whenever the organization is under a lot of stress. New leadership brings stress. New ownership brings stress. New customers • or the lack of customers — bring stress. Those are the circumstances when people need to avoid the natural tendency to get so caught up in the stress as to have no time for reflection and planning.
In my case, I rely on a number of associations to get that kind of feedback. We now have an active Board of Directors, a majority of whom are external to the company, which meets quarterly. I am also part of a group of small business owners, we call ourselves the Brain Trust, that meets monthly. These associations are essentially coaching tools for me, as I lead this company.
CFO: I agree that coaching can make a positive contribution to stress management. LifeTrek worked with us right before 9/11. Given I am originally from Iran, that event was particularly traumatic. How could people do such a horrible thing? And what implications would that have for me, personally? The spiritual reading, daily habits, and journal writing that I started through the coaching process served me well in the wake of 9/11.
Coaching can also make a positive contribution to long-range planning. Everyone needs the benefit, from time to time, of an outside perspective. When the only people we talk to are each other, we can easily get tunnel vision when it comes to our plans. But when we have an outside perspective, forcing us to think through our goals and strategies, we end up with better, smarter actions.
Q: Are there any down sides to coaching?
E-M: Not in my book. First, it is completely confidential. So you don’t have to worry about what you are saying. It’s a great place to bring your half-baked ideas. Second, it is completely non-coercive. Your coach is not your boss, so you don’t have to worry about your coach telling you what to do. That’s just not their role. Finally, it is completely client-driven. The coach is not working his or her agenda; the coach is working your agenda. So you can bring whatever you want to the table, personal or professional, without fear of rejection.
CFO: That was my experience as well. LifeTrek Coaching brought a holistic perspective to business coaching. We never forgot that the company was paying 75% of the bill, so we never lost sight of our business objectives. But we also never lost sight of me, as a person, with patterns, plans, and preferences that went far beyond those objectives. By dealing with the total package, I was able to do better and to feel better all the way around.
Coaching Inquiries: Who assists you to do better and to feel better? Do you see opportunities at work where coaches could make a difference? How could you be the catalyst for change?
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Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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