Coaching: the performance management tool of the future at AstraZeneca

The concept of coaching in the workplace has often been relegated to the top brass—but in recent years, as the employee-employer relationship reshapes and employees push for more autonomy in the workplace, demand is growing for company-wide coaching cultures, experts say.

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Such an approach can have both personal and organizational benefits: A report in Harvard Business Review found that employees were 44% more productive after receiving regular coaching, while the Institute of Coaching suggests that coaching can improve employee performance by 70%.

Those are outcomes biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca wanted to realize when it started pivoting away from annual reviews and traditional performance ratings toward “real-time coaching conversations and performance development,” says Helen Basford, global capability lead, Coaching & Feedforward, at AstraZeneca.

Helen Basford
Helen Basford

“Regular coaching discussions happen throughout the year and help our employees explore and assess what behaviors they can continue and what they need to adapt,” says Basford, who notes that formal quarterly check-ins also allow employees and managers to together assess goals, progress and impacts.

It was a shift that employees themselves called for: Basford notes that a “crowdsourcing campaign” driven by employees “showed that the performance management approach was backward-facing, bureaucratic and too focused on outputs.”

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Importantly, she emphasizes, the retooled strategy that started rolling out in 2020 now has managers—who have access to a range of development tools to improve their coaching abilities—focusing on employee contributions, not performance.

“Our new approach means that employees can take greater ownership of their own development and focus on the impact they make rather than a performance score, which can be demotivating,” she says.

And it’s already paying off: A survey AstraZeneca conducted earlier this year found that 88% of employees said the revamped performance management approach has helped them improve skills, learn new skills or has led to a new development opportunity.

Building the capability

To build the organization’s coaching capability, AstraZeneca partnered with EZRA Coaching to connect managers and leaders with professional, externally certified coaches—who help improve communication skills and enhance leadership development, among other focuses.

Managers have access to coaching-focused workshops, peer sessions, masterclasses, webinars and more to develop their skills. They can also utilize an AI-powered simulation to practice development scenarios and assess their own coaching capabilities. AstraZeneca also created “Manager as Coach” and “Leader as Coach” development programs focused on helping participants bring a coaching mindset into the “everyday flow of work.”

All of the offerings, she notes, are underpinned by the International Coaching Federation competencies and designed to “unlock more value from thousands of everyday conversations, to systemically maximize individual contribution,” Basford says.

See also: 6 must-haves for continuous performance management as Q4 reviews wane

The ROI of coaching

Jennifer Fickeler
Jennifer Fickeler

Jennifer Fickeler, head of the Coaching Center of Excellence at EZRA Coaching, who helped AstraZeneca develop its coaching programs, says organizations that embrace a coaching culture can see “dramatic increases in the way they retain their employees, as well as in the level of employee engagement.”

Basford says those assessments are coming to fruition at AstraZeneca.

“Our new approach has driven employee engagement, and we have seen a 45% shift in positive mindset towards performance development,” says Basford, noting that 85% of employees now say their manager provides regular coaching.

That has redefined the relationship between managers and their employees, she says, and given employees a new level of autonomy—which she says will be key in helping both individuals and the organization meet the challenges of the future of work.

“By empowering employees to prioritize their development … our people can perform at their best in the face of new challenges, adapt to the complex needs of the future and continue to push the boundaries of science,” she says.

And as employee expectations around performance management continue to heighten, Fickeler says, the need for managers and leaders to embrace a coaching mindset is going to grow.

“We’re seeing a shift from the annual performance review to continual feedback—having more goal-setting conversations throughout the year—which lends itself to that coaching approach,” she says. “We have to enable our leaders and our managers to have those coaching conversations—to be inquisitive, to create psychological safety and empathy. Because it’s no longer what people want to wait until the end of the year to get a bunch of feedback.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].