Can AI coaching guide HR leaders through high-stakes work situations?

Leadership success often hinges on more than strategy and competency. As economic and cultural pressures only seem to be increasing in 2024, HR leaders need support to balance their professional growth, a thriving workforce and business goals.

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When Gartner asked 175 heads of HR about their priorities for the upcoming year, the top response was leader and manager development. The CHROs also expressed a low level of confidence in the ability of their current rising managers to transition into vacant or newly created leadership roles. Only 23% said that individuals on their organization’s leadership bench were positioned to meet the company’s future needs.

This isn’t a new problem: Development Dimensions International, Inc. (DDI) indicates that one of the most concerning longitudinal trends surfacing throughout a decade of its research is the shortage of leaders to fill critical roles, with bench strength dropping 33% since 2011.

Companies with a strong roster of rising leaders haven’t left the work of building this population to chance, according to DDI. These organizations invest in developing high-potential and diverse talent in preparation for shifting business challenges. According to the firm’s research, the payoff is delivered in a threefold increase in their likelihood to be among financially top-performing organizations, alongside exponential lifts in employee attraction and retention.

According to Gartner, businesses need a new approach to building capable leaders, defining them as authentic, empathetic and adaptive. To cultivate these traits, say Gartner researchers, CHROs should work with their CEO to infuse these principles into leadership performance management.

Leadership deficiency is also reflected in McKinsey’s State of Organizations 2023 survey, which identified similar obstacles to effective development. The survey underscores that role modeling, inspiring team members and nurturing talent are essential to success. However, according to the report, only 25% of respondents find their organization’s leaders to be engaged, passionate and highly inspirational to employees.

A noble leadership purpose

Increasingly, organizations are looking to technology to drive their leadership development and coaching programs, says Laura Gardiner, a Gartner director analyst aligned to the HR practice.

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One new tool with academic roots uses a unique approach aimed at helping leaders reach positive outcomes and strengthen new habits. According to Hitendra Wadhwa, the platform’s founder and author of Inner Mastery, Outer Impact, achieving leadership excellence requires a profound focus on the inner life of the leader.

Wadhwa holds a professorship at Columbia Business School and is the founder of the Mentora Institute, specializing in leadership training and coaching. From a business perspective, Wadhwa noticed that a lack of on-the-job training for managers often prevents them (and the people they lead) from delivering their best at work.

He’s recently announced a new AI-driven platform called LiFT, which offers actionable coaching in real time. He says the tool is built to recognize that daily “micro-moments” hold potential for growth and development.

At the core of Wadhwa’s philosophy lies activating one’s inner energies and aligning them with a “noble purpose.” He emphasizes the importance of nurturing inspired organizations where individuals come together to pursue positive outcomes in high-stakes situations.

Hitendra Wadhwa
Hitendra Wadhwa

Through AI-driven tools and personalized coaching, LiFT is meant to help leaders navigate overwhelming demands and achieve their goals by leveraging insights from history’s most impressive leaders alongside scientifically validated techniques.

Drawing from breakthroughs made by classic visionaries such as Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln, Wadhwa highlights how exceptional leadership manifests in challenging or emotionally charged situations, resulting in what he calls “breakthrough performance.”

The LiFT program is designed to help modern leaders work through any situation, from difficult conversations to challenging decisions. The generative AI power built into the system will guide the user to define a desired goal, as well as share information on the background, stakeholders and timeframe of the challenge. A chatbot then offers a set of actions to apply, along with a calendar-driven plan. The person can also use AI as a “sparring partner” to initiate sample conversations, which the system will score and recommend a plan to improve trouble spots.

On-the-job leadership coaching

Achieving HR leadership excellence is not without its challenges. Wadhwa identifies three core snags that leaders often face: focusing solely on employee behavior over their potential, neglecting inner barriers to high performance such as emotions and thoughts, and viewing competencies as fixed rather than evolving traits. “Everything is changing. You can’t know everything. You can’t control everything. You need to move with agility,” says Wadhwa.

According to Gardiner, there has recently been an influx in the market of AI-based tools that aim to deliver some elements of the traditional coaching relationship. These tools have promise for HR leaders, but the context and their data training matter.

Laura Gardiner is a Director Analyst
Laura Gardiner, Gartner director analyst

“High-stakes HR situations that require up-to-date knowledge of current events, regulatory requirements or other external forces are unlikely to be a good use for this,” says Gardiner. “However, high-stakes work situations where an HR leader is looking for guidance on or practice with leadership behaviors—like handling difficult conversations—then they could be helpful.”

Several other platforms in this space have made recent product announcements, each with its own set of benefits. Skillsoft released its CAISY tool, offering a secure environment where employees can simulate discussions and receive real-time feedback on workplace situations.

Advisory firm WTW unveiled its Engage Coach AI assistant. Integrated into the company’s employee listening platform, this AI tool provides personalized advice and insights for managers based on employee survey data.

Leadership development platform New Level Work unveiled the Leadership Oracle, an AI-powered chatbot offering access to leadership development guidance drawn from the experience of the company’s network of executive coaches.

Investment in digital coaching is showing signs of growth, too—Cloverleaf, which offers automated coaching technology for individuals and teams, recently announced that it has gained an additional $7.3 million in funding through a Series A extension round.

Lack of a learning curve

Gartner’s Gardiner says that employee development, especially leadership development to build out the leadership bench, can certainly be enhanced with technology. “Coaching is an effective intervention that has been used for high-potential talent and executive leaders for many years; however, it is also an expensive option,” she says. She says it’s too soon to tell if AI coaches can provide the same experience as a human leadership coach.

Evidence will surface as more people get the opportunity to try out these new tools. Paul Ingram, a professor at Columbia Business School, was an early user of LiFT. He says that in leadership, sometimes the learning curve—meaning the more you do something the easier it gets—doesn’t apply. “Innovation may be more important for complex tasks than repetition,” notes Ingram. “Because every leadership situation is idiosyncratic, one risks falling into the complacency trap.”

He found that the LiFT system offers a knowledge transfer that can help leaders break a problem into actions and “build fluency” in those actions. He called this the power of “decomposition,” which shows leaders how to apply a set of competencies and actions identified as useful in the given circumstances.

Gardiner warns that HR tech buyers looking to implement these tools should consider the user dynamic and ask vendors what background training will influence the tool’s feedback. “It is too early to confidently say whether the quality of these interactions will meet expectations,” she says.

Jill Barth
Jill Barth is HR Tech Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist with bylines in Forbes, USA Today and other international publications. With a background in communications, media, B2B ecommerce and the workplace, she also served as a consultant with Gallagher Benefit Services for nearly a decade. Reach out at [email protected].