Peer Coaching for Executives

By Peters, Helen | Training & Development, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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Peer Coaching for Executives


Peters, Helen, Training & Development


Here's how a program at National Semiconductor helps employees pair off and create performance partnerships.

In 1988, Bob Noakes, a technical manager reporting to one of my peers, asked me to be his coach. He'd just completed an in-depth executive-development process that included 360-degree feedback. Though technically brilliant, Bob was often in conflict with others. This problem diminished both his professional contribution to the organization and his personal satisfaction with his work. Bob asked me to help him analyze his behavior and change it.

Specifically, he wanted to identify ways that he was contributing to his own and the organization's problems. I was flattered, and I wanted Bob to succeed. But I felt totally inadequate for the task. I had no idea where or how to begin. And I sensed that Bob was just as unsure. However, Bob's determination to change overcame my trepidation about my skills.

For six months, we worked together to develop a "context" for the coaching I would provide. We would, in a structured way, define, support, and accomplish Bob's personal goals. In fact, we more or less reinvented the traditional role of coach - a boss-subordinate model in which coaching is a tool for performance management and in which the manager defines the problem and "owns" the process. In such cases, employees are told what changes to make and, if they're lucky, advised how to make them. It's implied that a failure to change will negatively affect their rewards, promotions, and perhaps even employment. In effect, the boss becomes the sole arbiter of success or failure.

Because I wasn't Bob's boss, our relationship would be different. He decided what he wanted to accomplish, not me. He also defined what success would look like and how it would be measured. Bob was motivated to become a better manager and leader, not to score points with his boss. I felt as if my role was the same as an Olympic athlete's coach, who works for the athlete and empowers him or her to exceed previous levels of performance. As the athlete progresses, he or she may change coaches in order to gain new ideas for performing better. In the athletic arena, coaches can be hired or fired based on their ability to support the aspirations of the people they coach. The coach and athlete are peers, with different roles.

From this humble beginning, we developed a peer-coaching model.

Since my experience with Bob, I've had other opportunities to use and refine the peer-coaching model we developed. At my current employer, National Semiconductor, a computer-chip manufacturer headquartered in California's Silicon Valley, the model is being used along with a leadership model in an integrated development-planning and peer-coaching program on leadership behaviors.

With 22,000 employees worldwide and annual sales of more than $2 billion, National Semiconductor began as one of the fastest-growing stocks on Wall Street. But the slump in the chip industry in the eighties took its toll. By 1991, after five years of losses, the company was on the brink of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Then a new CEO, Gil Amelio, instituted a two-phase corporate transformation. The goal of phase 1 was to become viable. Within two years, downsizing, manufacturing consolidation, and product pruning brought the company back into the black.

360-degree feedback

Then phase 2 began. The theme: greatness. The goal: to attain $10 billion in sales by the year 2000. But the management and leadership skills that had brought the company through phase 1 were not the skills that would accomplish greatness. So, senior executives and the top 400 managers embraced a leadership model that reflected the goals and aspirations of phase 2. They also agreed to be assessed against the model using 360-degree feedback, though past experiences with 360-degree instruments told them that feedback wasn't enough.

Real change requires not only accurate feedback but also constant self-reflection, mentoring, and coaching.

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