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Helping Leaders Embrace Change Through Coaching

Thursday, January 24, 2019

As the new year gets underway, you’ve probably been part of at least one conversation about New Year’s resolutions (your own or someone else’s). While mapping out a plan for change can be exciting, the prospect of actually implementing these changes may be overwhelming, even scary. If change is a challenging or stressful proposition for individuals, consider what an upcoming transition or transformation can mean for a team, department, or organization.

According to the Human Capital Institute (HCI), 77 percent of HR practitioners and leaders report their organization is in a state of constant change. It’s also been widely reported that organizations’ change management initiatives fail at high rates. Yet, I was still shocked to learn that 85 percent of organizations can cite at least one failed change management initiative within the last two years. Both the human and the financial costs associated with a failed change initiative can stagger an organization, so why does it seem that organizational success is sometimes left to chance?

This puzzling dilemma prompted the International Coach Federation (ICF) to partner with HCI to conduct new research on how organizations navigate change. Our research confirms that leadership is one of the most critical factors impacting the success or failure of a change management initiative. While leaders at the highest levels of the organization devote countless hours to discussing change at a strategic level, many of them remain insulated from the “real” work required daily for those inside the organization.

When this disconnect occurs, critical context-setting conversations about the impetus for change might fail to reach those who ultimately will be tasked with implementing the change. An employee’s professional level in the organization can dramatically impact their personal experience of the change. Executives who are responsible for announcing the change initiative to the organization often fail to gain a deeper understanding about what it will be like for the individual who is responsible for a given task before, during, and after the change initiative.

Unfortunately, our research showed that leaders of most organizations that underwent a recent transformation have invested in only traditional learning activities to help employees move the change forward. Of the learning activities sponsored by leaders, more than half of all organizations surveyed indicated they offered very formal activities (such as classroom training, web-based training, and e-learning) to help usher in their change initiatives. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the “comfort food” approach to learning in the face of change yields underwhelming results.

So, what makes successful change leaders different?

Using specific talent and business outcomes as criteria, we identified a sub-set of respondents’ organizations as high-performing organizations (HPOs). These HPOs were much more likely to leverage less traditional, more collaborative learning activities for change management, such as one-on-one coaching and team coaching with a professional coach practitioner.

Our survey respondents rated the learning activities favored by HPOs highly in helping to achieve the goals of their change management initiatives. As the following table shows, learning activities with a coaching focus were far more likely to be rated “very” or “extremely” helpful than more traditional, formal learning modalities.

Table 1: How Helpful Are Coaching and Formal Learning on Change Management?
Of what was present in your organization, how helpful was the activity in achieving the goals of the change management initiative(s)? (Percentage reporting Very and Extremely Helpful)

Coaching Formal Learning
One-on-one coaching with professional coach practitioner
Work group coaching with professional coach practitioner
Classroom training
Access to manager/leader using coaching skills
Microlearning content
Team coaching with professional coach practitioner
Web-based training or e-learning

Source: HCI-ICF. 2018. Building a Coaching Culture for Change Management. Human Capital Institute.

So, all of this raises the question: Why would a credible leader rely solely upon formal learning activities to help their employees face change and hope for a favorable outcome? I believe most leaders would concede that one size cannot fit all, but it likely comes down to their individual mindsets about coaching.

Those who lead organizations with strong coaching cultures have already realized the impact coaching activities can have when navigating the sea of change. For many, activities like team coaching have moved beyond a “nice to have” and become an organizational imperative, which allows their employees to engage in a more collaborative and creative process for handling those dark and messy days that inevitably come with launching a major change initiative.

I believe people are more likely to support any work they were asked to help create. If this is true, organizational leaders should do everything within their power to effectively communicate the precise rationale behind the change and strive to empower individuals and teams with tailored support that will enable them to embrace and thrive in the face of change.

Be sure to check out the upcoming webcast Helping Leaders Embrace Change Through Coaching for more insights.

About the Author

Mark Ruth is director of research and education for the International Coach Federation (ICF). Since joining ICF more than a decade ago, Mark has been committed to developing and expanding the ICF’s presence as an industry thought leader. His department has unveiled more than a dozen global industry studies on the coaching industry since 2006. Prior to joining ICF, Mark served as Market Research Analyst for the National Tour Association, where he managed an economic impact study of the North American group travel industry.

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