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Coaching HR: Providing for Others

HR professionals can benefit from a service they provide for others.

Human resource professionals routinely arrange for coaching or career counseling for employees up and down the ladder in their organizations. But the time may come to do for themselves what they do for others. Career coaching can work for those in HR just as it can help others in various ways—sometimes to address a shortcoming, but more often to accomplish other purposes, such as to improve performance or gain career development insights that could help them reach the next level of responsibility.

“I think HR people, almost more than anyone, need to get an outside perspective or coach for their own career,” says Joan Moore, SPHR, president of The Arbor Consulting Group in Northville, Mich. “I think because we’re in HR, we’re sometimes too close to it. I find many HR people are not very good at getting that bigger picture, even at selling and marketing themselves.”

Moore says HR professionals often don’t appreciate “the value they bring both to an organization and in their career. So, I think it’s really helpful to have an outside perspective, someone who can help you see the big picture and help you market yourself and look at what you want to do and the most effective way to do it.” Robert Morgan, chief operating officer of Chicago-based Talent Management, a division of the global Hudson recruiting firm, says a career coach can help HR professionals learn how to improve their “personal brand” and be more effective as HR leaders.

Coaching’s Forward Progress

Although career coaching traditionally has been seen as an intervention for improving particular employees’ job performance, today it is used for wider purposes. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by Philadelphia-based Right Management Consultants, a global subsidiary of Manpower Inc., only 15 percent of responding organizations said correcting behavior problems was their top reason for providing career coaching for employees. The top reason, for 38 percent of the respondents, was to sharpen the leadership skills of high-potential individuals.

Gina Hernez-Broome, a senior program associate for the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs, Colo., adds that “one of the most touted benefits of career coaching has to do with developing effective working relationships within the organization.”

Marjorie Brody, who heads Brody Professional Development, a coaching and training firm in Jenkintown, Pa., is a certified executive coach who works with high-potential employees and leaders in major companies. What she does, she says, is “help people be more successful in their careers so they have more opportunities and options.” In working with individuals to help them develop stronger leadership skills, she says, she focuses on helping them work to close the gaps—the distances between where they are in leadership skills and where they need to be to achieve their goals.

Morgan, whose firm offers a program for coaching HR professionals, says one of his clients is an HR executive who “has an issue with not being perceived as a strong business leader.” The coaching program, Morgan says, will help that executive “repackage” how he presents himself and his ideas.

Causing a Little Discomfort

The key to achieving growth and development in a career coaching effort is to move the person being coached beyond his or her comfort zones, according to executive coach Judith Glaser, CEO and president of New York-based Benchmark Communications Inc.

Glaser, author of The DNA of Leadership (Platinum Press, 2006), says there’s a tendency for professionals in any field to “start to work in a zone of comfort around approaches and philosophies,” and that “is the place where learning stops.” Working with a coach, she continues, “reawakens us to stretch and begin to think in new ways and rejuvenates our way of thinking.”

Morgan expresses a similar notion. As an HR professional on the receiving end of career coaching, he says, you should expect to feel uncomfortable. “If you’re really comfortable during the whole process, it’s probably not that effective.” The relationship, he says, should challenge, stretch and help the HR professional grow. It should expose areas of both weakness and strength. “You’re not looking for a golfing buddy, but someone to help you develop professionally. So there should be some discomfort during the process.”

The Arrangement

Just as coaching relationships differ according to goals and other variables, so do details of the arrangement such as duration and the manner of delivery. “It could be on the phone; it could be face to face,” Brody says. “It could be three months, several times a month; [it could be] a year. It all depends on your objectives.”

Costs can vary also. In most instances, they are paid by the employer. Since the purpose of career coaching, Glaser says, “is really to expand your value to the organization and to ensure that you become a rising star,” most organizations will cover the cost.

Nonetheless, Brody cautions, if you put in a request for coaching, “you need to be careful that you don’t send the message that you’re interested in going somewhere else. Part of your selling job needs to be able to position the coach as a way of giving you more tools to add value within your current organization.”

Finding a Coach

It’s critical that the HR professional and the coach have a strong, professional relationship, which depends on selection of the right coach. The challenges for the HR professional involve knowing where to begin the search and how to select a coach.

Career coaching is a broad field, Morgan notes, and it “can encompass everything from a $9.95 CD you can buy to a $100,000 per year engagement.”

Brody agrees. The field has expanded greatly in recent years, she says, so HR professionals interested in finding a coach should choose carefully. “There are a lot of [unqualified] people who call themselves coaches.”

Titles may range from life coach to career coach to personal development coach. This variety and lack of consistency, Glaser says, can make it challenging to find the right fit. “You can’t always tell by a title what the approach will be, so it’s important to use some kind of screening process,” she says.

The field of executive coaching is based largely on referrals and recommendations, so it can be useful to ask colleagues if they’ve had experience working with career or executive coaches and if they have recommendations. In addition, there are a number of organizations that can serve as starting points in learning about the availability of coaches and the services they provide. (For a list of such organizations, see "Career and Leadership Organizations.")

Morgan strongly recommends that HR professionals look for experienced coaches who have been HR professionals themselves. “While it’s imperative that an HR career coach has done the research on this topic and has a proven track record, it’s equally important that he or she understands what it’s like to be on the inside of an organization coping with the internal dynamics.”

In fact, HR professionals might approach the selection of a career coach in the same manner they’d approach the selection of an employee. “I would interview the coach and find out about the coach’s background, how they’re going to help you, what they’ve done and what their methodology is,” Morgan says.

Digging Deeper

Besides credentials and track record, there are less-tangible characteristics that you, as the HR professional initiating the coaching relationship, should consider.

For example, experts suggest you look for someone with whom you would have a personal chemistry—someone with whom you could feel comfortable establishing a professional relationship, confiding in, and sharing strengths and weaknesses.

“You have to like working or being with them, because you’re trusting your future to this person,” says Glaser.

And ultimately, some say, the coach should be someone whom you would respect and who would hold you accountable for achieving results.

In fact, the most important element of a coaching relationship, Hernez-Broome says, is the coach’s support. “The coach is really there to support you, not just in terms of reinforcement but accountability as well,” she says. “We hear that time and time again -- the true value is having somebody you feel accountable to for development.”

How the Process Unfolds

In the initial stages of a coaching relationship, it’s crucial for both parties to develop clear, specific professional and personal objectives for the person being coached, experts say. In fact, Morgan says, “When I enter a coaching relationship, one of the first things we do is set goals on what we’re going to achieve.” Those goals, he says, are discussed and agreed to by the coach, the person being coached and that person’s boss, if the company is paying the bill.

The desired outcomes of career coaching may be general, such as discovering specific strengths that can be leveraged to move into a higher position in the organization. Or they may be specific, such as acquiring stronger negotiation or consensus-building skills.

Glaser calls the beginning of a coaching relationship the “discovery phase.” During this phase, the coach “will be asking a lot of questions to learn what the HR professional aspires to, what current challenges they face, where they think their growth opportunities might be and where they might be confused about direction or what’s on the horizon.”

The discovery phase often includes formal assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or other personality inventories, 360-degree feedback assessments and other types of information, such as interviews with colleagues. All are looked at collectively to create an overall assessment.

Some assessment of the HR professional’s strengths and development areas would be a must, says Hernez-Broome, adding that a good coach would be able to assess the person according to his or her skills, values and expectations. The more varied the inputs, the more thorough the assessment can be, leading to the coach’s insights on the person’s strengths and areas that need improvement depending on the person’s particular goals.

With such feedback and assessment, the coach will work with the HR professional to develop a plan to achieve the agreed-upon outcomes. The plan might include specific assignments, Brody says. “I might have them read a particular book. I might do some observation or shadowing. Assignments vary.”

Thus, a client working to develop better negotiation skills might be shadowed by a coach who would assess strengths and opportunities for improvement, and who would provide specific feedback and follow-up assignments for future interactions.

Brody cites the example of one of her clients, who, after she shadowed him and gave him feedback, began using an acronym -- SUM (for “Shut up, Matt”) -- as a reminder to be less assertive in meetings so that others could have a say.

The Recipient’s Role

To be effective, career coaching cannot be a passive endeavor. Individuals being coached need to be committed to being honest, forthcoming and engaged in the process. “Hiding problems you don’t think are important to bring up is not going to get you your best return on investment,” Morgan says. “You need to put it all out there in terms of what you think the issues are and be open to feedback.” That’s not a simple undertaking. “I’ve coached people where they start to draw a line in the sand about what things they really don’t want to share,” Glaser says, adding that such a situation can be problematic. “We have to make sure that line is opened up big enough so the coach can get inside where the difficult issues are.”

Hernez-Broome agrees: “There’s got to be commitment. They have to be open to taking some risks and allowing themselves to be vulnerable to some extent. If you’re going to put yourself out in ways you’ve not done before, and you’re outside your comfort zone, it makes you more vulnerable. You’ve got to be willing to take that on.”

Says Moore: “It will be a lot of work, but you’re not going to get anything out of it if you aren’t an active participant.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

Web Extras

Online sidebar:
Career and Leadership Organizations

SHRM articles:
Mentors Who Make a Difference
(HR Consultants Focus Area)

Finding Value in Teambuilding
(HR Consultants Focus Area)

Personal Change Management: When It's Time for a Coach
(HR Careers page)


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