By one recent estimate, U.S. companies spend around $700 per employee on corporate training each year; by another, that figure may be closer to $1,200. But training programs don’t always get high marks. When McKinsey researchers asked employees a few years ago whether they thought training programs helped their companies perform better, only one out of four said yes.
I’m not surprised to hear that, and you shouldn’t be either. Why not? Think of your grandmother. Let’s say she wants to teach you all about late Victorian stamp collecting. You humor her, of course—but philately doesn’t really interest you, so you feign interest and try to look engaged. You’re just not really there.
Sorry, corporate training expert.
Unless you’ve exclusively hired people who are on fire for learning, your employees won’t actively absorb your training—it’ll be stamp collecting to them. Workers won’t learn what you want them to learn or perform as well as you want them to perform until self-improvement becomes an all-consuming lifestyle, both in and out of work. And that’s a really hard thing to do. It takes more than just a couple of mandatory in-house seminars with some out-of-house consultant.
It takes coaching.
Why Coaching Is Different
Now, I realize I’m biased here because I’m a coach myself. But hear me out. I have a client, Allie, who’s a medical professional. She’d nearly given up on her job when she came to me. Her life outside of work was filled with distraction. She went out when she didn’t really want to, and tooled around on dating apps and social media to fill her time. And the lack of progress in her personal life was carrying over into her professional life—she’d nearly flatlined.
Allie woke up and went straight to her apps and messages—no time to gather her thoughts or plan for the day. Then after scrambling to get ready, she’d mindlessly shuffle off to work where she did everything she could to make time fly—idling on Instagram, texting, reading articles online. She was never fully present at her job.
So I suggested a few ways to work more mindfulness activities into her day and cut out the biggest-ticket distractions. First, we eliminated the low-value stuff that kept her from making good use of her time. Sayonara, Instagram. Later, Facebook. The dating apps were history, too. In Allie’s newfound free time, she committed to habits and routines that would boost her knowledge, increase her confidence, and bring her closer to her goals—we worked on meditation, visualizing, affirmations, journaling, exercising, and note taking.
Allie also committed to overhauling her morning routine: “Win the morning, win the day” was her new mantra. So she penciled in objectives to meet her long-range goals for both work and play. And instead of reaching for her smartphone or another distraction, she got in the habit of checking off her goals for learning and creating things. For the first time in her life, giving 100% to every minute became Allie’s top priority.
Before long, Allie was surprised to find herself opening up with her coworkers and feeling more focused and energized. “I feel bad when I see my teammates just zoning out on their phones,” she told me. “Because now I’m focused on connecting with my patients and coworkers whenever I can. And that makes me really good about myself, and about being at work. Everyone else is missing out.”
Here’s the thing: No matter how intensive your company’s training program might be, it’s just not equipped to help your employees change their habits in and outside the office. Maybe you have a seminar geared toward “team building” or “communication,” and that’s great. But it’ll never be enough to adjust the ways somebody thinks about and approaches their career—the assumptions and behaviors that inevitably condition how they go about their jobs, day in and day out.
Making Coaching Pay Off
Unlike most training programs, coaching isn’t a one-off deal. To make a new habit out of anything—especially a lifestyle—you’re looking at a month per employee, at least.
I spend one hour a week with clients for a minimum of eight weeks in order to help them commit to more goal-oriented attitudes and high-value routines. That timeframe lets me guide them, hold their hands when necessary, and gradually give them more responsibility for self-coaching. Each person’s process depends on trial and error—and lots of revising.
Few businesses really consider contracting a battery of outside career coaches with their training budgets, opting for a recurring consultant instead. So they wind up with a training company (or a training company’s boring software program) that gets an entire department in the same room once or twice to run through an exercise that’s meant to be “transformative” but usually isn’t. Coaches get to know their clients better than the leaders of any seminar-style programs ever have a chance to.
In order for in-house coaches to be effective, they’ll need the time to develop those working relationships with employees. If you bring in a coaching consultant, they’ll likely be able to handle more employees than you think, possibly in the neighborhood of 50–100 employees in waves of 30 at a time, which would work out to roughly six one-hour sessions daily, five days a week. Depending on your budget and time constraints, you can work in one- or two-month cycles of weekly coaching before scaling back to one session per month, per employee.
It’s not as outlandish as it sounds, and considering how much companies are already budgeting for training programs, the likely costs aren’t dramatically higher. Experienced coaches typically charge between $100 and $300 per hour for normal sessions, but most will cut their rates for bulk work, and those fees will include weekly email support.
Smaller businesses (around 30 employees and under) can get away with two months of full-time coaching, followed by a part-time longer-term plan. Companies with 50–100 employees can double that time frame, and enterprises of over 100 employees will want to consider multiple coaches—just make sure you’re getting professionals with similar philosophies who can work from the same plan.
One obvious concern is cost. But considering that you spend a comparable amount on less-than-effective training already, getting it right could dramatically improve your workforce. Plus, since so many employees will seek out career coaches on their own when they’re dissatisfied, offering this service in-house can be a huge draw for potential hires and an incentive for your existing team members to stick around. Employees who communicate well, help each other more, think creatively, and don’t ditch you for another employer after one or two years are worth their weight in gold.
All that’s left to you is finding the right coach. Pick one small team in your organization and try a coaching pilot program with them for starters. Meet your prospective coach in person, and vet them as intensively as you would any company-wide training consultant. Introduce them to upper management. Get a full grasp of their coaching outline and philosophy, and make sure it makes sense to you before you sign a contract. And pay special attention to their personality—are they easygoing? Can you relate to them? Do you feel comfortable around them? The coach that’s right for you will make you and your employees feel at ease and inspired.
Because they’re concerned with changing your employees’ long-term habits, a coach can prove way more effective than any program or seminar you can throw. If you really want to invest in your company, invest in your employees’ self-improvement.
This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.