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the power of coaching in the era of employee engagement.

the power of engagement in the age of the employee experience.

If we agree with Sir Richard Branson that your people are your greatest asset then it surely follows that you should provide them with the necessary environment to feel safe talking with you about what they need for a mutually beneficial relationship. These range from continuous learning opportunities to empathetic line managers and ongoing mentoring and coaching for them to get the best out of themselves, and ultimately contribute more to your business.

Sir Richard famously made the claim that employees should be considered more valuable than even customers in the hierarchy of importance. It’s certainly true that they provide customers with key interactions and they foster the culture, generate the energy and ignite the spark in their organisations. Think of assets such as intellectual property, brand, or best-selling product lines and how we protect and nurture them. In the same way, we need to consider how best we keep all employees that want to contribute and be part of the journey, engaged, motivated and loyal; zealously guarding them and helping them be the best they can be. Or, to co-opt a fashionable term, we need to focus on the employee experience.

For me, the relationship between employee experience with that of engagement and performance is critical to understand and prioritize – now more than ever. 

Engagement takes many forms. One obvious and time-honored attempt to develop loyalty and effort is the traditional compensation scheme, for which read salaries and bonuses. But money is also a dissatisfier and can lead to people feeling disengaged and of course, dissatisfied. Of course, financial compensation is important, especially at a time when the cost of living is spiraling out of control and inflation is rising weekly. But if we truly are serious in saying that our people are our best sources of competitive differentiation then we need to go much further than salary and bonuses. It has to be something more substantial.

Employee engagement is deeper. At a high level, it relates to involvement, shared values, awareness of common goals, and feeling able to do a good job. Working out engagement typically involves using tools such as sentiment trackers, ideas boards, and regular surveys to create dashboards that provide live insights into how people are feeling. But it also means proactive training and coaching based on needs and personality types. 

Consider great sporting stars such as Venus Williams, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar, or Michael Jordan: all had innate talent, but they would not have triumphed without people around them that could extract a little more. My personal favourite sporting pursuit is sailing, and the British sailor Ben Ainslie, who is the most successful sailor in Olympic history, often accredits his success to a chain of coaches who would inspire him and help him to correct faults. He also benefited from a culture of “marginal gains” whereby even minuscule details were addressed to help him to excel.

It may sound obvious that we should nurture people and help them to grow but the principle is often honored in the breach. While HR teams invest a lot in all kinds of learning and development there is a fear factor here. There is a concern due to the expense of training that it can sometimes feel that an organization is potentially investing in a person’s abilities with no corresponding guarantee that this will maintain their loyalty. “The specific, whispered fear you hear from senior leadership is that they are effectively sponsoring a rival employer by making people so ultra-employable that they become targets for headhunters. Why would I want to do that?,” one CHRO says.

Today, this attitude has to be confined to the rubbish bin of history. Organizations need to ask themselves is are they investing just in the skills they need, or are they willing to support the development of new skills, even if it has nothing to do with a new next role in your company. And, if so, how much are you willing to spend on this? 

Yes, it’s true that coaching is a speculative investment but the value of the best people with an engaged mindset that actively contribute to your culture is so high that in my view this is irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Or at least it should be.

This especially is the case in fields such as software engineering, data science, cybersecurity or other knowledge-worker areas where talent is most scarce and in demand, and where compensation packages come with a host of add-ons and attractions such as superb offices, free lunches, state-of-the-art tools, flexible working, gyms, healthcare, restaurants and more. But coaching is relevant for everyone.

By excluding 95 percent of the employees in an organization, HR is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, a bias, and most likely also limiting diversity and inclusion. Coaching is for everyone and businesses need to adopt this mindset, for the top talent and trainees.

related content: worklife coaching — democratized coaching to win the talent war

It’s all too easy for employers to view employee engagement and continuous learning as checkbox items on the extensive menu of logos, buzz terms, and memes to garland the corporate website. But there is so much more to it. 

In 2022, most companies measure and aim to improve their employee engagement since it’s highly correlated with turnover and with how much effort their people are likely to put into their work. It’s one of many possible results that stem from a good employee experience. 

But, what do we mean when we talk about engagement? To me, it’s cultural and about creating a dense web of positive human interactions, backed up by tools to provide deep insights into individual character. 

When people are evolving as human beings, they bring something indefinably more to their work. This means not just skills (coding in Python, for example) but something holistic and wise. People who learn in all directions become E-shaped individuals, capable of not just expertise but also experience, exploration, and execution. They often become leaders because they have so much to pass on and, even if they don’t have senior job titles or people manager responsibilities, they are the people to go to in a crisis, the guiding hands and the heart of the organization. 

Perhaps this sounds a bit loose, so let me provide an example. I once met with a lady who was always learning languages, almost obsessively. She took classes and also was keen on any opportunity to travel with work or in her free time. She was fluent in five languages and capable of social interaction in perhaps another five. I thought of this at first as a hobby and perhaps one that had gone a little too far.

 But she opened the company’s Spanish and Italian offices, became a source of trusted counsel for graduates who were coming to the Netherlands to live for the first time, knew more employees than even the CEO, and became a close contact for HR. I’ve just looked her up and discovered that today she is helping to translate for Ukrainian refugees. 

Her languages were skills but they had also fed into a person who engages deeply, has reserves of empathy, an understanding of cultural differences, and an attuned sensitivity to what motivates people. She left the company after 12 years but remains perhaps the most active alumna on her previous company’s extranet.

When we talk about engagement and the employee experience then, we need to understand that this is not a transactional process whereby we systematically incentivize people by giving them ‘stuff’ such as the latest iPhone, sending them off on one-day courses, or making offices look like wine bars or cafes.Instead enable people to grow by providing learning platforms, skill analysis, gig opportunities, etc. If people can’t relate this to their personal situation, their worklife issues, and their goals and ambitions, then the engagement will remain low. The overall experience goes much further and involves people giving of themselves, being vulnerable in a selfless way where there is not always a clear or predictable outcome.

At RiseSmart we have external coaches who encourage us to open up and build relationships with them where we share not just tips on how to get promoted, deal with difficult colleagues, or negotiate a pay rise, but much more. Some line managers and HR people might be good coaches, however, it can sometimes be more in a specific job-related perspective, not in terms of encouraging career development or progression. There are also obvious issues with employees sharing their worklife dreams and issues with managers. Reality shows that an independent worklife coach brings a lot of value to the table by being truly independent and offering a safe space.

If we delve deep, listen and invest in our employees with coaching, then quite often the resulting outcomes help build trust, comfort, and value between the employee, manager, and sometimes the wider team that helps bring people together in ways previously unimaginable. There are a lot of intangible and unquantifiable positives that can far outlast an employee’s time with a specific organization.

In this sense, coaching for engagement can’t be relied upon to deliver a specific ROI and it certainly can’t be gamified. But it goes way down deep and acts as a positive vibration, the ripples of which can be seen many years down the line. We see worklife coaching bringing a higher return on investment than typically coaching or mentoring. Higher engagement leads to higher productivity, less attrition, and filling more jobs with internal talent. 

We are seeing a major shift now in how learning, development, and engagement are being dictated by talent, which in turn is helping organizations benefit, it’s just not in the linear fashion they are previously used to. 

To close out this piece, it's worth considering another Branson quote: "Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to”.

Organizations that encourage coaching for all are futuristic, warm, and engaging places to work. And, when coupled with modern HR tools, such as surveys, temperature checks, and other mechanisms, it is possible to see changes in terms of helpful behaviours, respect, and action, which benefits the talent and the organization alike. Who doesn’t want that in 2022?