Coaching Apps Bolster Development Initiatives

As the Great Recession ravaged the global economy, one segment managed to emerge relatively unscathed: the tech sector. Sure, there were times when dark clouds hovered over Silicon Valley, but they never unleashed the torrential downpours that washed away profits for the majority of businesses. Truth be told, Silicon Valley hasn’t suffered a major downturn since the dot-com bust of 2000.

This “recession-proof” reputation has led a growing number of recent grads and other elite talent to seek their fortunes in California. Yet, visions of transforming the world, coupled with that legendary millennial wanderlust, have created a “very challenging environment in which to attract and retain the best,” according to Scott Englert, director of talent development, learning and performance at Symantec Corp.

Digging deeper into its retention woes, Symantec’s HR team discovered a dissatisfaction with the lack of development and career-growth opportunities at the cybersecurity giant. Seeking a better way to develop its people, especially those identified as high potentials, Symantec set out to improve its leadership development capabilities by adopting a technology-enabled coaching platform from San Francisco-based BetterUp.

Built around a “whole-person” philosophy, BetterUp’s approach is grounded in behavioral science and guided by a Science Board featuring the likes of Josh Bersin, Shawn Achor and other thought leaders from the worlds of psychology, business and academia. Together, they ensure that BetterUp’s coaching strategies are supported by the latest research in learning theory and positive psychology.

“The traditional, outdated way of thinking about talent is there is this highly functional self that we bring to the workplace and everything else gets left at the door and only shows up when we go back home,” says Gabriella Kellerman, CIO of BetterUp. “In reality, we are that same person all day, every day and we can’t function in the workplace separate from our thoughts, our emotions and our overall wellbeing.”

Whereas traditional leadership development delivered essentially “the same intervention” to each participant, Kellerman says, technology allows for greater scalability and personalization, empowering organizations to meet talent where they are and give them exactly what they need to develop and grow. Employees being granted access to a coach are asked to complete a 15- to 20-minute assessment, which helps match them to three different coaches from which to choose.

“That gives the employee the agency to say, ‘I prefer more of this direction or that direction,’ which is really important for getting a sense of buy-in,” says Kellerman. “It empowers a deeper level of connection because they have chosen this person.”

The relationship begins by setting goals based on what’s important to the employee, then settles into a pattern of weekly formal coaching sessions that continue for one full year. Between the sessions, coaches assign various resources, such as videos, podcasts and articles, which the employee may choose to review — or not. Perhaps most helpful is an unlimited texting option through which employees can receive real-time guidance via 24/7 messaging through the BetterUp app.

Englert notes the initiative is still in its “early days,” as Symantec’s first 42-person cohort is currently engaged with BetterUp’s platform. However, he strongly believes this “modern approach to coaching” is far superior to Symantec’s prior “legacy-oriented program,” which provided just three months of traditional “let’s meet for coffee”-style coaching.

“Being able to scale coaching using the virtual platform and all the various collaboration and communication technologies enables us to reach a lot more people in a more cost-effective manner,” says Englert. “They love to use these great talent and diverse perspectives and thought leadership to help them think differently.”

BetterUp is far from the only provider offering leadership-development platforms. Korn Ferry, Everwise, Coursera and a host of other companies have developed similar offerings. While he agrees that such offerings “are a great thing to have in your L+D toolkit,” Thomas Davenport, a former Willis Towers Watson consulting director currently working as an independent consultant, stresses that they cannot stand alone. Rather, they must be part of a “multi-vector strategy.” He also cautions organizations not to fall prey to their “seductive appeal” and mistakenly believe they can merely “run everyone through any particular platform’s program and declare victory.”

Instead of looking at the available platforms with the goal of picking “the best one,” Davenport urges HR leaders to begin the process internally by defining the problem to be solved, then determining which platform offers the right amount of customization, not only for the organization, but for the individuals who will be utilizing it.

For his part, Marc Effron, president of the New York-based Talent Strategy Group, is skeptical this new round of tech-based offerings will deliver on HR’s expectations.

“There’s nothing wrong with using technology to make traditional leadership-development solutions like coaching more easily accessible,” says Effron. “The challenge is that every wave of technology for the past 30 years has promised that it would revolutionize development, and none has.”

Effron encourages HR leaders considering such platforms to first examine the utilization rates of their organization’s existing online learning material. Typically, he says, utilization is shockingly low–just 2 percent to 5 percent–leading him to caution, “Packaging the same content into more entertaining formats or apps isn’t going to increase the number of people using it.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]