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Every organization defines talent management differently, yet most people we interviewed recently observed that their organization did not implement it particularly well. No matter how much debate there is about the term ‘talent management’, no matter how many systems are set up, and no matter how long leaders deliberate who’s a high potential and who’s not, this inescapable fact remains: The most important part of talent management is in the hands of the managers themselves — the talent needs coaching.

While some organizations still debate the importance of coaching in performance management, for some organizations, this is a no brainer. A senior manager of employee relations at a California-based biotech firm observed, “Coaching really expands people’s capabilities and therefore the capability of the organization. It’s that link to business results that is often overlooked.” Savvy line leaders have also figured out that the alignment and development of their team members through coaching is essential to their personal success — perhaps even their survival. One manager at a high-tech company in Ireland warned, “Faced with steep growth, if you haven’t developed your team, you get stuck with the work.”

Coaching is great… in theory

Coaching, however, appears to be difficult to do well — or do consistently. Although the large majority of managers like to coach, employees say they would like to receive more coaching. Employees often have to ask for the coaching they do get and, most disappointing, they don’t always benefit from the coaching they receive. Our research indicates that less than 25% of employees who receive regular coaching realize a significant impact on their performance or satisfaction.

What gets in the way of coaching?

Lack of confidence is an obstacle, according to the senior manager of employee relations we spoke to. “Managers get stuck in the rut of thinking that employees prefer to be left alone, and since many don’t feel comfortable with the conversation anyway, they have coaching conversations only if the employee initiates them or only at performance review time.” BlessingWhite’s research confirms that managers feel ill-equipped to coach. When we surveyed leaders of expert employees like software developers, scientists, and engineers, only 46% of respondents rated themselves as extremely or very effective at coaching or developing their people.

Overemphasis on systems to assess and manage the talent in lieu of coaching conversations is another common concern. Talent management tools that identify and catalog skill sets help ensure that the right people are in the right place at the right time to meet business needs. Yet our research indicates that the ‘talent’ doesn’t necessarily want to be ‘managed’ or moved like chess pieces without regard to their career aspirations or personal needs.

What makes a difference in coaching?

Setting expectations and holding managers accountable.

Leaders in HR and the line agree that organizations need to put teeth into their employee development processes. Our interviewee at the biotech firm emphasized, “Executives who evaluate the performance of their direct reports not just on results but also on how well they develop their people, build an expectation for management excellence. Too many managers are tasked with and rewarded for so much individual-contributor work that it is not realistic to expect they will prioritize coaching to the top of their to-do lists.”

Getting up-close and personal.

Many managers mistakenly believe that the role of coaching in performance management should only focus narrowly on work tasks or the organization’s needs. They discuss project timelines, for example, but never ask how employees feel about the work, what obstacles they are facing, and what kind of coaching will help them most. Since every employee is motivated by a unique set of personal values, talents, and goals, one leader cautioned, “In the end it’s down to the quality of personal relationships. Leaders have to know people in the business at more than a superficial level.” That means leaders need to establish unique coaching partnerships with each member of their team.

Engaging leaders at all levels.

Leaders who don’t know where the organization is going or don’t know why they themselves come to work each day won’t have the information, focus, or energy to successfully coach their teams.

When coaching works

UBS Global WM&BB has taken a very proactive approach to developing coaching skills among leaders at all levels. “Our culture is necessarily very results driven, but our senior management recognized the importance of leaders at all levels working to help others succeed if we are to achieve the long-term sustainable growth we want,” explains Anita Bisculm, Executive Director, Learning and Development Center/Leadership and Management Programs. “Some of our managers are really seeing the benefits of taking the time to coach people. One explained to me that he has 12 direct reports and each needs coaching as an individual, but he finds it very fulfilling seeing his people achieve what they set out to do.”

Bisculm’s comments underscore the benefits that can be reaped by committing to a coaching culture. The payoff cuts across individual employees, leaders at all levels, and the organization’s bottom line.

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