The State of Coaching in the Workplace in 2023

We interviewed 20 Senior L&D executives about their approach to coaching. Here are 8 things we learned.

How are 20 senior L&D leaders approaching the need for coaching?

The skills required of leaders to effectively coach their teams have changed dramatically over the last few years. As part of our ongoing work at the cutting edge of L&D, Blueline recently conducted a survey to take the pulse on coaching. We wanted to learn more about top companies’ current L&D challenges, specifically around corporate coaching. 

KEY TAKEAWAY: Everyone we interviewed readily agreed that coaching was important in their organizations, but there’s a lot of work to be done in order to cultivate a coaching culture. 

Who we interviewed

We selected a representative sample of senior L&D executives from 20 Fortune 500 organizations and multinational companies across various industries: academic institutions, automotive, airlines, communications, consumer foods, engineering, financial services, food services, defense, healthcare, pharma, transportation, and oil and gas. 

8 common themes we heard during our interviews

1. Nearly all executives identified coaching as a priority within their organizations

“Leaders need practice, and they need to see good models of coaching.”

“Coaching is the #1 need in healthcare.”

“Coaching is needed to help decrease turnover, retain and engage staff, and encourage career growth.”

“We’re working on coaching to upskill leaders—but in the flow of work to support continuous learning.”

2. Giving feedback is a skill gap for many leaders

When we started these interviews, we were initially focused on the topic of coaching, but as we spoke to the executives, we quickly learned that they were also concerned about their leaders’ ability to provide effective feedback and have difficult leadership conversations. New leaders and mid-level managers often struggle with performance-related coaching and feedback for a simple reason: everyone wants to be liked. The fear that the coachee will feel hurt by critical feedback leads many to sugarcoat the important messages they need to deliver. Leaders need to learn to provide timely feedback that is both candid and respectful.

“Coaching and feedback are lacking because they're not skills needed in every activity. Globally, leaders need to be better skilled at providing feedback and coaching.”

“Employees want more actionable feedback; candid, kind feedback for performance.”

“Coaching and feedback are inherently intertwined and are a priority.”

3. Offering advice is not the same as coaching

Leaders need to be reminded that it’s not their job to have all the answers and that giving advice does not have the same transformative effect as coaching. Coaching takes time and patience, allowing individuals to come to their own conclusions (on which they’re more likely to follow through). It’s important to equip leaders with the relevant skills to cultivate a coaching culture that includes regular interactions and feedback.

“Some believe they are coaching by giving advice, but [coaching] takes a lot more patience.”

– Susan Hendrich, Hershey

“A  coaching culture must be built on a foundation of trust; ultimately shaped and cultivated through a relationship focused on inspiring true greatness in others.”  

– Adam Kennerley, Jacobs

“Helping leaders learn to coach is at the heart of leadership. Our goal is to help our leaders be coaches; questioning instead of telling, or just being silent and listening.”

– Jim Smalley, Tokio Marine America

4. There’s a crucial link between career development and retention

During these interviews, we were reminded that the Great Resignation is a significant challenge for many organizations, and retention of top talent is top of mind, even in the midst of layoffs. Executives know that career development conversations are critical to retaining top talent, but they’re not always happening. One key reason: leaders simply don’t know what to say.

“We need honest, effective career conversations, but leaders don’t know how to have them. They don’t have the muscle, so the skill is lost.”

"Career conversations are important because a key goal is to decrease turnover. We’ve reframed these as ‘development opportunity’ conversations because they should be positive and focused on where the team member’s interests are and then what it will take to get there. They will inherently recognize the gaps if any."

“Another priority is career development. Retention is a high priority; the Great Resignation is real.”

D.J. Netz from Lockheed Martin says that leaders need to take an active role in retention and check in on their employees, asking questions like: “Are you happy?” “Motivated?” “What obstacles are holding you back?”

“Leaders have struggled with these conversations because they’re afraid people will want to leave. But if you don’t have the conversation, they will leave anyway. People will leave if you’re not growing them; leaders don’t need to own their development, just be guided through it.”

“Leaders struggle to retain and keep people motivated. They need to quickly upskill employees and make them happy enough to stay instead of just using the role as a stepping stone.”

5. We need to embrace inclusivity

We also heard that leaders need to be inclusive in their conversations and look for opportunities to hear unique perspectives, as opposed to falling into the habit of only hearing the one that speaks the loudest or only listening to the one that looks/acts like you. Leaders need to seek and encourage other ideas and perspectives, and many organizations we interviewed identified the importance of training leaders to navigate potentially difficult conversations related to diversity and inclusion.

“First-level leaders need to understand how engaging in difficult conversations related to diversity impacts the business. Supervisors should be trained to have these conversations because they have a direct impact on your business and how you perform.”

6. The challenges of the hybrid workforce persist

Most executives agree that today’s hybrid workforce has made leadership more challenging than ever.

“Hybrid is making relationships harder. It was different when everyone was remote, or everyone was in the office; now, engagement is suffering.”

“Mental health has become a big challenge. We’re seeing a higher number and more intense issues today; folks are struggling coming out of the pandemic. It’s become more of an emphasis for the leader to recognize the issues and how and when to approach to get help for the individuals…. It will take time and practice.”

In response to the challenges of the hybrid workplace, Lockheed Martin has mandated 30 days of education on hybrid leadership using a blended approach of webinars, live Q&A sessions, and micro-learnings.

7. Record-setting work hours in a hybrid environment don't solve the age-old problem of finding time for training

Many industries are pressed to find the time for training. Beena Varghese from HCA says that training is “absolutely valuable. But in the end, it will be about time and budget; time is the big challenge in healthcare.” Unfortunately, coaching falls to the bottom of the priority list for time-poor leaders. Mark Reilly from McDonald’s says: “Restaurants don’t have time and need smaller bits of learning.” When it comes to finding time to coach, managers in restaurants are very time-poor, and becoming a coach may take more time and be more painful, so they end up just telling people what to do.

8. Using scenario simulations is a powerful way to develop empathy

At Chevron, Mike Chuchmuch reports that the company is using scenarios designed for their most senior technical leaders to be more effective in their coaching approach. “Senior leaders need to grow empathy with earlier career folks and walk in their shoes,” he said.

According to Kohei Wada from UCI, leaders would benefit from scenario training that simulates:

  • Developmental conversations in terms of growth and development opportunities and longer-term career goals
  • Maintaining regular dialogue with team members: how is your work progressing, how is your career progressing, and how are you doing as an individual?

We listened, and we’re poised to help

Thanks to the insights from these interviews, we’re adapting our offerings to meet organizations where they are today, helping to take them where they need to go in the future. We’re embracing and exploring our ability to create robust asynchronous scenario simulations that challenge individual learners to contemplate choices that cause them to identify best practices, root out common failure points, and weigh short- and long-term implications against key metrics. Our realistic, interactive, and true-to-life immersive learning experiences offer space to play in the gray and put learning in context, equipping leaders for the new world of work. Delivered asynchronously, learners will be able to access the content at their own pace and convenience, wherever they may be located.

Watch this space for exciting developments from the Blueline team! In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch to tell us about your challenges and L&D needs. We’d love to hear from you!