Business essentials: The mystic art of 'coaching' meets the ancient science of acupuncture

Can a college specialising in Oriental medicine persuade its staff and students to find the answers within?
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The Independent Online

"Coaching" is the latest corporate buzzword. A number of businesses are looking at the training method that promises to help staff improve their effectiveness.

Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that 99 per cent of employers think coaching can deliver tangible benefits to both individuals and organisations. Unlike mentors, coaches don't need direct experience of a job. Instead they will work through a new project with an employee, or help them overcome a problem such as lack of confidence in a certain skill. But rather than telling people what to do, coaches tend to use leading questions to make individuals think for themselves, such as "What do you think should be done?" or "How would you tackle this problem?"

The London College of Traditional Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine ( LCTA) is one of a growing number of not-for-profit businesses that is interested in the approach. "We believe a coaching environment is conducive to people taking responsibility for themselves and being in charge of their own development," says its principal, Susanna Dowie, who would like everyone involved with the LCTA to embrace the idea - from management and faculty to students and patients. Ideally, she wants to get to a stage where instead of going to management with problems, employees come up with their own solutions.

The question, though, is whether people can let go of their expectation that someone else will have the answers. "We want to know how we can convince people that coaching works, and we want to achieve this in a low-key way. What we don't want is for them to think this is a brand new management idea that we're filtering down from the top."

Ms Dowie has already called on the services of an independent coach. After promoting a number of employees to management positions recently, she decided to introduce coaching skills into their training.

The next step was to encourage teaching staff - who are also clinical practitioners - to use coaching with their students. "This is particularly challenging because most of our students are mature and were brought up being told something was right or wrong and that they were either good or bad at something. An education system where coaching is used is about as different from that as is possible. It's about getting people to identify weaknesses and strengths on their own and then take responsibility for the direction their learning needs to go."

Ms Dowie also wants students to graduate with coaching skills of their own so that they can use them with patients. "As part of the undergraduate programme, we already run modules that look at the relationship [between] practitioners [and] patients. After all, Chinese medicine considers this to be as important as the technical skills.

She knows old habits will be hard to break: "You do encounter resistance in some places and entrenched ideas about how to do things in others." So the question is how to ensure that coaching becomes part of the culture.

www.lcta.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Sam Humphrey, Independent coach and consultant

"So far, the organisation appears to have focused on changing individual behaviour. I would advocate looking beyond this and identifying what team and organisational changes could be implemented to remove obstacles and build on the progress made to date.

"Alignment is the key to making change stick. Are the leadership team giving and receiving coaching - that is, leading by example? Are reward and recognition practices sustaining the desired behavioural change? Are people attracted, recruited, inducted and developed in a way that is consistent with this new culture? Are success stories being shamelessly publicised both internally and externally? Are people being measured on their own behavioural change as well as their results?

"In my experience, effective cultural change retains the best of the old as well as introducing the new. Therefore, the business should consider if there are times when telling people the answer is the right thing to do."

Simon Williams, Independent coach and consultant

"Coaching improves performance by fostering awareness, responsibility and self-belief. Like singing or riding a bike, the basic skills are simple: expertise comes from practice, not from the classroom.

"Ms Dowie should find some coaching advocates among staff, faculty and students. They should be respected individuals who will carry a positive message to their peers. Bring them together for one or two workshops with an experienced facilitator, where they can learn the basic skills and begin to put them into practice. A good model is groups of three: each in turn coaches, is coached and observes, with the observer giving feedback.

"As these advocates spread the word and demonstrate the value of coaching, the college should find informal ways to recognise and applaud coaching skills. In this way, it will steadily evolve into one of the college's core values."

Liz Hall, Editor, 'Coaching At Work' Magazine

"Culture change takes time and patience, but Ms Dowie could start with one particular group and then work towards having a critical mass of people working in this new way. It is not just about helping individuals to learn coaching skills; it is vital that they be given the opportunity to practise again and again.

"Ms Dowie should think about creating situations where individuals can apply these new skills and talk at length about their experiences. In addition, as people are developing a coaching style, they too should experience being coached. In this way the learning becomes deeply embedded and coaching becomes the way things are done."

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