Is a pandemic the right time to train line managers in coaching culture?
In early 2020, that was the question facing leaders at Ericsson, the iconic Swedish telecommunications company, across the 11 countries in the Oceania, South East Asia and India market area.
Like many companies, Ericsson was anticipating a paradigm shift in leadership culture, with new behaviors, mindsets and skills emerging to meet new and often unpredictable needs of markets and employees. And with so many restrictions on the normal ebb and flow of commerce, the emphasis on developing home-grown leaders had never been as pronounced.
Ericsson had been planning for some months to do a massive leadership development and coaching skills program for all levels of leadership across the region. But when the pandemic struck, the 450 leaders who were the target for this program and the 9,000 employees they oversaw were suddenly forced to work from home.
Did it make sense to follow through with the training when managers and the people they were managing were so isolated from each other? Very quickly, Ericsson leadership determined that it not only made sense, it was essential.
“We knew for some time that we wanted to help our line leaders evolve into strong coaches,” said Priyanka Anand, Vice President and Head of Human Resources for Ericsson Market Area South East Asia, Oceania and India. “When the pandemic hit, it was clear early on that this wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. We also began to realize that helping our leaders deal with the stress and anxiety that their employees were going through was very important.”
In the past, many organizations would have looked at resilience or change management seminars when faced with an operational challenge like the pandemic. However, Anand said there was a strong sense that giving line leaders some insight into coaching culture might do more than just calm their nerves in the face of an unnerving situation.
The program that had been designed in part before the pandemic hit focused on five core goals, she said.
• Increase ability to make courageous and fact-based decisions.
• Increase empathy for different perspectives and approaches.
• Increase cross-company cooperation
• Increase capacity to execute decisions quickly
• Increase support for a “speak-up environment.”
Coaching culture, Anand said, was a clear path to connect all these priorities. “We wanted to evolve our leaders into being strong coaches,” she said. “To help their employees, we needed these leaders to be more empathetic. To do that, we needed them to know that they didn’t always have to give advice; sometimes listening is the most important thing they can do. And that helps create an environment where employees feel safe to speak up and express themselves.”
Linda Lindberg, Vice President and Head of Commercial Management for Ericsson Market Area South East Asia, Oceania and India, said the strategy behind using coaching culture to help line managers navigate the pandemic and support their employees was an attempt to “take leadership development to a more sustainable context.”
Ericsson performed a pulse survey in the spring to find out how everyone was holding up under the stress and strain of virtual work, Lindberg said. “The results showed that stress levels were up across the board,” she said. “We knew at that point that coaching skills would help them slow down, tune into someone else’s concerns while still allowing them the time to engage in some self-care.”
Although the goal of the coaching culture program was clear, the method for delivering the training was not going to be a challenge. Lindberg said that as a telecommunications company that was performing heroic work to keep people connected during the pandemic, Ericsson employees were very comfortable adapting to virtual technology. That meant they were equally comfortable working or learning in a virtual environment, she added.
“Digital investment has always been part of our DNA,” said Anand. “It’s always top-of-mind in our planning, and we’re always looking at ways of building our digital capacity. So, people adjusted to the virtual nature of the learning opportunities.”
More than 450 of the line managers attended a series of virtual “teaser” sessions. Then, the managers were asked to sign up for a series of intensive sessions on coaching culture and skills. Nearly three quarters of those who attended the teasers ultimately chose to participate in the program.
As well, participants were encouraged to participate in “coaching clubs” where they could practice their coach conversations. “Learning theories is okay but you really need to dive in and do it and put it into practice before it becomes part of you,” said Lindberg. “Those coaching clubs created a stickiness around the training. It helped us develop those internal muscles around coaching skills.”
The initial results from the program were impressive. A strong majority of the participants ranked their group coaching skills sessions very highly, Lindberg said. And seven in 10 participants reported that their performance had improved as a result of being involved in the program.
Ultimately, the coaching skills program served two major goals for Ericsson, Lindberg said. It provided line managers with the tools and mindset necessary to deal with the current virtual work environment. However, there were other, longer-term benefits as well.
“We have always talked about the importance of accountability in our leaders,” Lindberg said. “The best way to enable accountability is through coaching skills. When your leaders realize they are being accountable, it triggers some pride. It allows them all to own their results. And it allows them to grow as leaders and build bench strength for the company. It’s literally a culture where leaders are building other leaders, grooming and preparing them for future roles.”