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Virtual Coaches Give Managers Leadership Advice at Scale

A woman is standing at a train station looking at her phone.

​Chicka Elloy wanted to give midlevel managers in his company access to the same kind of valuable coaching advice often provided to executives. But Elloy, senior director of strategic talent management for BCD Travel in Atlanta, knew it would be difficult to find internal coaches with the time and expertise to commit to regular coaching sessions and that doing so at scale would be a challenge.

Elloy opted instead for the mobile coaching app Pluma to give emerging leaders and others below the executive level access to certified coaches. These coaches now serve as advisors and sounding boards to help BCD leaders navigate their toughest management challenges and career decisions.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coaching in a Business Environment]

How Mobile Coaching Works

BCD leaders receive 16 weeks of coaching delivered by Pluma-certified coaches through video chat and instant messaging. The process begins with a 360-degree assessment of leaders' current performance followed by goal setting with coaches, Elloy said.

"The 360 gives our managers a good starting point for coaching conversations," he said. BCD leaders might then set goals like learning how to deal with conflict, how to manage employees who once were their peers or how to best chart their own career paths.

Between sessions, coaches provide BCD leaders with customized content such as articles, exercises or videos made available through Pluma's partnership with Harvard Business Publishing.

Pluma's 200 coaches must meet standards including a minimum of 10 years of operational and managerial experience, 250 hours of paid professional coaching experience, and technology training in Pluma's platform, said Alexandra Connell, co-founder and CEO of Pluma.

She said Pluma's coaching services are geared toward the "big middle" of organizations—those leaders below the executive level who don't often have access to experienced coaching advice.

"We define that group as anywhere from the first-time manager all the way up to senior-level people a few steps below the C-suite," Connell said. "We don't think coaching should be limited to small groups of people in an emerging-leaders or high-potential program. There should be wider access in organizations."

Connell said first-time managers tend to benefit the most from the coaching platform. These managers might be leading people who once were their equals or others like scientists who've never before worked in a corporate environment.

"These managers are learning and grappling with working through others for the first time in their lives," she said. "They're no longer measured just on being an individual contributor, and some struggle with that transition." Other managers might seek out coaching because they're making a leap from leading a small group to managing multiple company units in different locations.

To ensure confidentiality, the video-based coaching and instant messaging occurs on the Pluma platform and not on client systems, Connell said. "We want managers to feel like this is a confidential third-party experience. So, while there is single sign-on to the system, users are not operating on company servers when sending messages, content is encrypted, and there's a guarantee that video sessions won't be recorded," she said

At the conclusion of the 16-week program, Pluma provides clients with before-and-after 360-degree assessment data of leader performance and a sentiment survey gauging how managers felt about the coaching process and whether they believe they've experienced any behavioral change as a result.

"It provides a valuable third-party assessment of where our leaders start in the process and how coaching sessions may be helping them improve," Elloy said.

Power of Scalability and Accountability

Another company using a mobile coaching platform is JLL, a commercial real estate services firm based in Chicago. Adam Massman, vice president and director of learning and leadership development at the company, uses a platform from vendor BetterUp to deliver coaching to high-potential front-line and middle managers in the company.

Two common topics addressed in the video-based coaching sessions are dealing with change and creating a compelling vision, Massman said. "Both are pressing and critical skills for leaders at those levels given our company's high growth rate," he explained.

Coaching sessions last between 30 and 50 minutes. "Most of our leaders choose 30 minutes because they have demanding schedules," he said. "We've found that longer learning or coaching sessions often get canceled or overlooked due to pressing client needs or business priorities of those managers. We need coaching and learning to meet our employees where they are, not where the learning and development team is."

The just-in-time nature of the platform also allows managers to schedule quick coaching sessions to prepare for looming management challenges, presentations or other scenarios, he said.

Massman believes this type of coaching can be more effective than traditional learning courses because it is scalable and highly customized and because managers feel accountable to coaches whom they develop a close relationship with over time.

BetterUp has a global network of 1,600 coaches who offer support in 30 languages, said Deb Wolf, chief marketing officer at the company. Artificial intelligence algorithms match managers with the coach most likely to work best with them based on the managers' learning preferences and goals, she said.

Frequent topics of BetterUp-delivered coaching sessions are effective communication, managing new teams and reducing stress, Wolf said. "Our data shows interesting variance across groups of leaders," she added. "For example, women leaders are 25 percent more likely to focus on work/life balance in their coaching than male leaders, and newly promoted managers are 35 percent more likely to struggle with time management compared to experienced managers."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.


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