Enhancing business outcomes by developing coaching skills in Leaders

Sean Kent (Freebridge) @SeanMKent , David Young (BT), chaired by Gill White (CIPD) @gillwhite4


Sean Kent opened by saying that Freedbridge and BT are very different organisations, but they have a lot in common in their coaching journey:

  • Both had senior team buy-in
  • Both recognised the importance of coaching ‘in the moment’
  • Both recognise that what they’ve created is sustainable and has created a momentum of its own.


Freedbridge are a housing association based in West Norfolk, formed in 2006. On formation, the vast majority of their housing was not up to the required standard and they didn’t have the organisational culture they wanted.

When managers went on a coaching course, they came back with a very positive view of coaching with feedback such as;

  • “Coaching techniques allow you to empower your staff to find their own solutions”
  • “Coaching has made a real difference to the way in which I manage my staff on a day to day basis”
  • “I have seen the change in my team who now demonstrate confidence through making decisions and taking responsibility for their own area of work”
  • “Coaching has improved working relationships, removed obstacles and helped clear the way ready for identifying goals and how to work towards achieving them”
  • And Sean’s own view was converted from being skeptical to seeing the positive impact (which a worry about how to find the time)

Sean talked about how some staff felt that they weren’t getting to use their coaching skills enough, but then realised that they were using them to positive effect with their clients (tenants). All of Freedbridge’s managers are now trained as coaches, along with potential future managers and staff who are interested in coaching. 25% of Freedbridge staff are trained as coaches, and this has had a big positive impact on their culture.

Interestingly, Freedbridge noticed a reduction in their external training spend and realised that this was because coaching was being used to meet development needs identified in individual development plans. It is inspiring to hear how coaching has been part of a really positive culture change at Freedbridge and they are seeing the results in many ways (including Sunday Times best places to work and their internal staff surveys).

Sean spoke about using Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to Think’ and about how that has been a huge help in their Board development. It has helped in personal coaching, but it has also helped with management and Board meetings. Board meetings have been restructured to have an hour on normal business and then an hour of ‘Time to Think’. The positive impact of this was picked up in a Board review by an independent assessor; “The introduction of the Time to Think sessions has been of great advantage to understanding issues and then developing strategy”.

Freebridge has seen significant positive impact:

  • Increase in staff satisfaction (including with managers)
  • Customer satisfaction has increased
  • Freebridge have been placed (number 62) in the Best Companies Times top 100 list
  • They’ve increased their number of decent homes



David Young then talked us through BT’s journey, introducing their purpose ’To use the power of communications to make a better world’ and it was interesting to see their strategy on one page.

For BT, being a healthy organisation means that they focus both on their performance AND their health. (Interestingly, they are the only company in the FTSE 100 to achieve costs reduction + increased cash + improved EBITDA in every quarter in the last 24 quarters). Research showed that strong leadership correlates with strong overall health but BT recognised that their default leadership style (authoritative) was the least likely style to deliver healthy leadership outcomes and no longer served them well.

BT looked to make challenging leadership their default style, which required:

  • Aiming high
  • Coaching people to succeed
  • Creating energy

BT did some experiments to measure the impact of challenging leadership, and some that it led to increased performance (and the personal bonus scores!) of leaders who had been through the programme.

The BT leadership development journey started with modules on leading self, leading others, and challenging leadership in action (with all modules comprising pre-work, workshops, and team learning). BT developed their own programme. Step one is the need for personal awareness, purpose, and authenticity. The need for insight is then followed by highly facilitated reflection and practice in small peer groups, and then identifying personal blockers to change and how to overcome them, before then applying the new leadership behaviours through coaching. BT have been using Immunity to Change as a key part of their programme.

BT have developed a coaching model called TRAIN

  • Target – What are you aiming for?
  • Reality – What is happening today?
  • Alternatives – What are your options?
  • Implement – What happens now?
  • Next – What happens next? (and how to keep the momentum going)

The BT coaching pathway is to have the basic concepts of coaching online and available to all employees. Some people do full coaching accreditation, and then a subset will develop into executive and team coaches. What underpins the BT approach to coaching; helping people to think and the feedback from staff has been hugely positive.



(This was live-blogged during a session at the CIPD L&D show 2015 – I’ve tried to capture a faithful summary of the highlights for me but my own bias, views – and the odd typo – might well creep in.)

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