But internal coaches can overcome these obstacles. At GE Capital, the internal coaches were HR professionals who were given time to work with their “coachees.” Coaching was treated as an important part of their responsibility to the company and was not seen as an add-on “if they got around to it.” Moreover, the coachees were given a choice of internal coaches and picked coaches they saw as most credible. Finally, each internal coach worked with a leader in a different part of the business. They assured their coachees that this process was for high-potential development, not evaluation. As a result of this thorough screening process, client satisfaction with internal coaches was high and results achieved by internal coaches (as judged by co-workers) were very positive.
Inside or outside, we discovered that the mechanics of the coach–leader relationship were not a major limiting factor. Our fourth finding was that feedback or coaching by telephone works about as well as feedback or coaching in person.
Intuitively, one might believe that feedback or coaching is a very “personal” activity that is better done face-to-face than by phone. However, the companies we reviewed do not support this supposition. One company, Johnson & Johnson, conducted almost all feedback by telephone, yet produced “increased effectiveness” scores almost identical to those of the aerospace/defense organization, which conducted all feedback in person.
Moreover, all the companies that used only external coaches similarly found little difference between telephone coaching and live coaching. These companies made sure that each coach had at least two one-on-one meetings with individual executive clients. Some coaches did this in person, whereas others interacted mostly by phone. There was no clear indication that either method of coaching was more effective than the other.
Although sophisticated systems — involving some combination of e-mail, intranets, extranets, and mobile connectivity — are available, follow-up needn’t be expensive. Internal coaches can make follow-up telephone calls. New computerized systems can send “reminder notes” and give ongoing suggestions. However it’s done, follow-up is the sine qua non of effective leadership development. Too many companies spend millions of dollars for the “program of the year” but almost nothing on follow-up and reinforcement.
Companies should also take care to measure the effectiveness of their leadership development initiatives, and not just the employees’ satisfaction with them. Our results indicate that when participants know that surveys or other methods of measuring program effectiveness are slated to occur three to 15 months from the date of the program, a higher level of commitment is created among them. This follow-up measurement creates a focus on long-term change and personal accountability.
Although measuring outcomes would seem to be second nature for most companies, the success of leadership development programs has conventionally been assessed through the satisfaction of the participants. This metric is of limited relevance. Among the companies in our study that offered leadership development training, virtually all participants came away highly satisfied. At the aerospace/defense contractor and Johnson & Johnson, the average satisfaction rating among more than 3,500 participants was 4.7 out of a possible 5.0. Executives loved the training, but that didn’t mean they used the training or improved because of it.
Learning to Learn
Of even greater import is this: Continual contact with colleagues regarding development issues is so effective it can succeed even without a large, formal program. Agilent, for example, produced excellent results, even though its leaders received coaching that was completely disconnected from any training. In fact, leaders who do not have coaches can be coached broadly by their co-workers. The key to changing behavior is “learning to learn” from those around us, and then modifying our behavior on the basis of their suggestions. The aerospace/defense contractor and the telecommunications company used very streamlined and efficient training processes and “reminder notes” to help leaders achieve a positive long-term change in effectiveness, without using coaches at all.