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Oliver Wight EAME Blog

Coaching for business improvement

By Les Brookes, CEO at Oliver Wight EAME

18 January 2016

'’Coaching for business improvement needs a top-down/bottom-up approach. If those at the top don’t buy-in to it, take ownership of it and lead it, it will fail. If business improvement coaches Oliver Wight believe the leadership team hasn’t bought into the programme, they will walk away from the work.”

When a business decides to drive a significant improvement initiative through external coaching, it’s often not the actual mechanics of the process that becomes the challenge but the required level of change in the way people behave.

An improvement process defined by coaching experts will typically prove to be applied common sense; however it’s rarely easy to implement because existing behaviours are strong.

The biggest challenge in business is ‘change’ and the management of change to ensure success with new ways of working. Significant business change requires two levels of coaching, one for leaders and one for ‘process workers’. Coaching at the leadership level must support 'telling it like it is'; leaders do not want to learn that they are the problem but sometimes they are. A coach who is not able to confront this will be ineffective for the business. Only with a frank and open relationship, can the coach guide leaders to behave in the new way, which then shows commitment to the process workers to reach a desired outcome. Without this demonstrated buy-in at the top the process workers will not accept the change.

I would say that if the leadership team is not committed to make change both to their own behaviour and to that of their employees, the coaching is very likely to fail. If as an organisation, we cannot see this happening we will walk away, as we have done with even some of the best-known organisations. They were just not ready.

Coaching to establish a culture of telling the truth top-down and bottom-up is fundamental to getting accurate forward visibility of the gaps in financial performance, so they can be managed. The leadership has to be coached that it’s better to have visibility of the gap (rather than deny it) and their teams have to be coached that it is OK to tell the truth. The principle is that the sooner the business understands what the real picture is, the sooner it has the opportunity to close out the gaps successfully and manage expectations. In publicly-listed companies it is often the lofty expectations of shareholders, which prevents the truth being told and drives bias in plans, so this has to be managed too.

It can take time but once leaders understand the real financial benefits of proactively managing the financial gap and realise that they have influenced the outcome by their actions, the penny drops. This then transforms the process of budgeting from a series of negotiations and game of bluff based on spurious numbers, to a statement of the truth bottom-up combined with proactive management by leadership top-down to meet expectations.

It is also true to say that for some leaders, even if they recognise the financial benefit of what can be achieved through external coaching, when it’s time to commit some will still balk because of the scale of change required. This is especially true if the organisation is ‘doing OK’ and will continue to ‘do OK’ if it carries on as it is. It is an expensive decision to make because the hidden financial potential is in the alignment of behaviours within the organisation; depending on the size of the business this is typically measured in seven-figures.