Hospitals, like other businesses, can get sick. In 2001, the Southeast Georgia Health System was on the critical list. It was bleeding to death from losses of $13 million per year.
Just 12 months later, under new management, the “patient” emerged from intensive care earning profits at the rate of $11 million annually. The miraculous recovery continued, and in 2004 this 356-bed medical system was designated the best large hospital in the state of Georgia.
In order to help sustain and expand this dramatic turnaround, Gary Colberg, the health system’s new CEO, brought me (David Herdlinger) on board in the summer of 2004 as the organization’s coach. He didn’t just want to shore up the low performers; his goal was to strengthen managers at all levels. So he asked me to coach his entire leadership team – all of the vice presidents, directors, and managers – totaling approximately 85 individuals.
The coaching of leadership teams is perhaps the most exciting frontier in the dynamic new field of coaching. This article explains how it works and why it is such an effective technique for increasing organizational success. But first, let’s talk about what coaching is and how it differs from consulting.
Coaching and Consulting
Coaching is one of today’s most talked-about trends in management. Articles in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, The Harvard Business Review, and numerous other publications have lauded the benefits of this powerful tool. Mounting evidence indicates that managers are more productive and successful when they have a coach in their corner.
Coaching is different from consulting. Consultants typically focus on projects with the goal of maximizing profitability. Coaches, on the other hand, focus on individuals with the goal of maximizing potential.
Consultants help their clients solve problems. Coaches don’t attempt to solve specific problems or give advice. Rather,they help their clients develop positive attitudes and productive skills that will enable them to overcome internal and external obstacles,so they can solve their own problems and achieve significantly greater success than they could accomplish alone.
Consultants have been around for a long time; coaching is a relatively new profession. And within the coaching profession,the most dynamic new development is the coaching of leadership teams.
Objectives of Corporate Coaching
When Gary Colberg charged us with the responsibility for coaching his management team, he had in mind the following four objectives:
- To strengthen the organization’s professional development and succession planning processes,so the health system would be in a better position to promote from within.
- To enhance the attitudes and skills of leaders, so they would be more productive in their current positions.
- To promote the personal and professional growth of leaders, so they would be better prepared to take on increased responsibilities.
- To enable leaders to evaluate for themselves whether they were in the positions most compatible with their goals and abilities.
Colberg expected that some managers, benefiting from insights gained through coaching, would realize that they were in positions that were too stressful, or that demanded time they’d prefer to spend with their families. These individuals could request transfers to other positions in the health system where they would find greater fulfillment.
He anticipated that others would become aware through coaching that they were not only in the wrong jobs, but that they were in the wrong organization. They would then be in a position to choose to leave the hospital to pursue work in other fields or in other healthcare settings.
Although these changes would be disruptive in the short run, Gary wisely perceived that the long-term benefits of having motivated people in positions that matched their skills, interests, and temperaments more than offset any short-term risks and inconveniences.
A Three-Phase Corporate Coaching Process
Together with Gary, we designed a coaching process with three phases. In the first phase, we led eight to fifteen participants at a time through eight group sessions over the course of eight weeks. The sessions provided useful information about communications and leadership. But just as importantly, they established the connection and trust that would be so essential to the success of phases two and three.
“I enjoyed the sessions,” said one director afterwards. “They taught me some useful skills, and they made me think about my life and my career – where I was and where I was going.”
During phase two, we conducted three private coaching sessions by phone with each of the participants who had completed phase one. Most leaders valued the opportunity to express personal fears, questions, and ideas, with the assurance that they would be respected and kept confidential. Although phase two was shorter than phase one, many saw it as even more valuable.
“I appreciated Gary making coaching available to us,” said a nurse manager. “No matter how much we like and trust the people around us, there are always things we keep to ourselves. We don’t want to burden others because they have their own problems. Having someone I could talk with on a confidential basis helped me sort through some thorny issues.”
In phase three, the health system offered the participants who had completed the first two phases the opportunity to continue their personal coaching by phone for as long as they wished. Because Colberg so strongly believed in the value of coaching, he arranged for the health system to offer the on-going individual coaching to leaders as a fully funded benefit.
The personal coaching typically entailed two scheduled thirty-minute phone calls per month. But participating managers were invited to call me whenever they had a decision or concern they wanted to discuss. Often these coaching calls simply confirmed actions they had planned to take. But not infrequently, participants became aware of issues and options they hadn’t considered, and they decided to change course.
Early on, we led the entire senior management group, consisting of the CEO and all eight vice presidents, through the eleven-week process. Once the members of top management had completed the coaching program and endorsed it, other members of the leadership team bought into it with enthusiasm.
Many leaders at all levels elected to continue with the phase-three individual coaching. “My access to a personal coach really helped me navigate through a stressful work situation,” said one director. “You challenged me to look at some things differently, and your questions helped me to see for myself what I needed to do. I’m sure I wouldn’t have handled some difficult situations as well without your help.”
Corporate Coaching Creates Unique Opportunities
Because corporate coaches have access to leaders at all levels within the organization, they are often able to serve as a catalyst for the “cross pollination” of useful information. For example, sometimes we will possess knowledge about people or situations that may be blind spots to the individuals I am coaching. During private coaching sessions, without breaking confidentiality, we may use questions to help these individuals see issues from different perspectives, so they can formulate the most appropriate actions.
When given permission to do so, team coaches can help promote teamwork, trust, and morale by passing on compliments. For example, when a vice president told me that he was very pleased with the performance of a manager, we asked if we could pass on the compliment in our next coaching session with the manager. The vice president enthusiastically said yes.
In a similar way, a corporate coach sometimes can defuse potentially troublesome issues. For example, a manager told us during a coaching session about a concern she had with a new administrative system. Given the organizational structure, it would have been difficult for her to address this concern directly. So we asked, “Would you mind if we alert the leader responsible for that area that some people have expressed concerns?” She readily agreed, and because of her input, the leader was able to address the concerns before they became problems.
In order for team coaching to work, every member of the leadership team must have a high degree of assurance that we will not violate confidences or promote anyone’s agenda, including my own. At the Southeast Georgia Health System, much of the foundation for this level of trust was laid during the initial eight sessions of the coaching program, when we first connected with the participants.
But corporate coaches must constantly strive to build connectedness and trust. If they ever betray a confidence or violate anyone’s trust, their credibility and usefulness would instantly cease.
Commitment Indicates Organizational Health
Understandably, some organizations would be reluctant to give anyone the freedom and access that a corporate coach requires in order to be effective. No matter how trustworthy and professional the coach is, it’s natural for the CEO and other senior executives to be somewhat nervous about allowing an “outsider” to serve as a “change agent” to the entire leadership team on a continuing, confidential basis.
The Southeast Georgia Health System’s commitment to this team coaching program was evidence of organizational health. Healthy organizations welcome openness and change because they’re focused on achieving excellence. Unhealthy organizations tend to foster secrecy, protectiveness and fear. Self-assured CEOs give people the freedom to be the best they can be. Executives who lack confidence tend to feel threatened and attempt to control.
Because coaches are “outsiders,” they offer an objective, detached perspective that is extremely valuable to the organization and to the individuals being coached. Participants are more willing to open up to someone who is not involved in the organization’s day-to-day operations.
Some people ask me how a coach handles negative gossip if it occurs during private coaching sessions. For example, what if managers criticize fellow workers or even their superiors? Don’t confidential coaching sessions tempt people to engage in this type of gossip?
Actually, the opposite is true. At its core, coaching is about encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their lives. If clients attempt to engage in criticism, gossip or blame-shifting during coaching sessions, we encourage them to take a step back. We ask them questions such as, “Are you taking personal responsibility in this situation? Do you think your comments are helpful or hurtful? If the roles were reversed, how would you want this situation to be handled?”
Coaching promotes teamwork and professional excellence by cultivating personal responsibility. When people accept responsibility, gossip and finger-pointing disappear.
Moving Up, Moving On, Moving Forward
As a result of the coaching process, some leaders at the Southeast Georgia Health System did indeed ask to be transferred to less-demanding positions within the organization. Other leaders over time assumed greater responsibilities. A few leaders self-selected themselves out of the organization.
The great majority of those involved in coaching simply became more successful in the positions they already held. In all instances of which we are aware, both the individuals and the organization benefited.
“The money we have spent on the coaching program has been and continues to be one of our best investments,” the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer said recently. “Virtually all the people we hire have had training in their specialties, but very few have benefited from training in management. A big part of every manager’s job is making decisions and dealing with people. Our coaching program fills an extremely vital need.”
Medical professionals long ago recognized that providing personal, supportive care to patients accelerates the healing process. More recently, many business professionals have made an equally exciting discovery: personal support for managers promotes the health of organizations. And the most effective method of providing individual support to organizational managers is through executive coaching.
Want to know more about this inspirational story? The complete story of this amazing $24 million turnaround is documented in the David Herdlinger’s book, Healing a Hospital, available online at www.healingahospital.com.