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Coaching from the Inside

Peer-to-peer coaching can be a powerful (and inexpensive) tool for employee development, but programs without specific guidelines or a clear link to the business may be a waste of time, say experts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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Looking for an alternative to outside-coaching services? A number of companies are, and some have turned to a much less-expensive option: peer-to-peer coaching.

According to a recent study from the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity (which goes by "i4cp" for short), one-quarter (27 percent) of U.S. companies have a peer-coaching program in place. Of those companies, 42 percent said they've seen positive results from their programs "from a high to a very high degree."

Fifty-six percent said the programs are used to improve employee engagement, while 54 percent said they're used for addressing specific workplace problems. It surveyed 250 companies of varying sizes.

i4cp defines peer coaching as a partnership between two employees in which both parties coach each other on business- or career-related matters.

"Many organizations got interested in peer coaching this past year as a cheaper alternative to bringing in outsiders from coaching firms," says i4cp senior research analyst Holly Tompson. "As the economy starts to rebound, it will be interesting to see how many stay with it, not just because it's cheaper, but because it works."

Not everyone is sold on the concept.

Half of the survey respondents do not have one, nor do they plan to implement one. Nearly 60 percent of the companies without peer-coaching programs said other initiatives had higher priority, while 32 percent cited a lack of knowledge about the concept and its benefits. 

To be successful, Tompson says, a peer-coaching program should have goals that are specifically defined, participation should be voluntary and participants should receive some training and be held accountable for results.

"Not everyone likes the idea of metrics, but knowing that there's some metric out there waiting for them keeps the participants on task," she says.

Steve Trautman, a Seattle-based consultant who's worked with companies such as Microsoft, Nike, Qualcomm and Electronic Arts on their coaching and mentoring efforts, says programs that are focused on softer areas such as "building relationships" are a waste of time, for the most part.

"At some companies they'll say 'Let's get all the women engineers together so they can mentor each other,'" he says. "Well, that's not very practical. What are they supposed to say to each other: 'I'm a woman, you're a woman, let's hang out'? That's like a bad dating service."

Successful peer coaching is built around the completion of specific tasks or the acquisition of certain skills, he says.

"Give a new engineer a list of five or 10 skills she needs to acquire, match her with a more experienced engineer, and give them a timeline for her to master those skills," he says. "The participants don't even have to like each other for the coaching to be successful. If they develop a good relationship as a result, that's simply a bonus."

Tompson agrees: "Our survey revealed companies that are very specific about what they want from peer coaching are much more successful."

Trautman says peer coaching can be quite useful for achieving a variety of HR goals.

As part of the onboarding program at Electronic Arts, new hires were matched with peer mentors and given a list of 20 skills to master within 20 days. The typical ramp-up time to productivity for new hires was cut by 50 percent as a result, he says.

At an Arizona copper mine, a peer-coaching program was credited with reducing injury and turnover rates among new employees, he adds.

At Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, new nurses have been paired with mentor-coaches since 2002, says Karen Carroll, the hospital's nursing information systems manager. The program has undergone a few tweaks along the way, she says, particularly with regard to its structure.

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"It used to be highly formalized, with us assigning a mentor to a new nurse, but that proved to be too confining," she says. "Now the new nurses choose their mentors and the subjects they want to focus on."

Approximately 100 to 150 new nurses go through the program each year, says Carroll.

At Gensler, an architecture and design firm based in San Francisco, Director of Talent Development Janine Pesci works with employees who are interested in peer coaching.

"We found there was a desire to use peer-to-peer coaching and networking for exchanging ideas and experiences," she says, adding that the firm has 32 offices scattered throughout the United States and around the world.

"I think it enhances the feeling among employees that they're valued members of the company," Pesci says.

Peer coaching has proven especially helpful for technology training, says Pesci.

"We're moving to a three-dimensional design platform and, although we provide a lot of formal classes on the new tool, most of the learning is taking place on a one-to-one basis, in which a more-experienced user and a beginner will work together on mastering it," she says.

The level of formality and structure built into peer coaching varies from office to office, says Pesci.

"We haven't done any formalized companywide training on this to date," she says. "I think that's one of the challenges if you want structure -- you worry people will get too wrapped up in the rules and so forth. At the same time, you can't help wondering if formal guidelines would help."

Indeed, formal guidelines and specific, business-related objectives are requirements for success with peer coaching, says Trautman. 

"When I talk to people I almost never find that the participants of these 'softer' coaching programs have had a broadly positive experience," he says. "Sometimes relationships click, but the norm is, HR makes lists of people who want to participate, they get the people together and the thing ends up dying on the vine."

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