A number of developments have led to an increased complexity of the contemporary line managers’ task. Globalisation has resulted in the increase of virtual teams where managers have direct reports based in multiple locations - often with different cultural backgrounds. Equally, managers of co-located teams work across cultures due to an increasingly mobile and diverse workforce. In parallel, the expectation of the line manager to act as a coach to their team members has become prevalent and many job descriptions mention coaching skills as a key requirement. Apart from the informal use of coaching as a management style, many organisations implement formal ‘Manager-as-Coach’ programmes.
Global organisations that implement Manager-as-Coach programmes need to consider the special context these are set in: a challenging triangle consisting of the three dimensions ‘Manager-as-Coach relationship’, ‘coaching across cultures’ and ‘coaching virtually’. All three of these dimensions have to be mastered for a successful coaching outcome. Usually line managers are expected to master this task with very little appropriate support. The following questions spring to mind when considering the special requirements of this context: What are the coaching skills required for coaching direct reports remotely across cultures? How is the coaching best undertaken in terms of technology? What are the pitfalls to consider?
Although some research on managing virtual cross-cultural teams, virtual coaching and the Manager-as-Coach exists separately, line managing with a coaching style in a virtual and cross-cultural setting hasn’t been addressed specifically. In this 3-article series findings on potential issues and best practice from existing research and practitioner literature are combined to shed light on the coaches’ skills requirements. Further, recommendations how organisation that plan a formal Manager-as-Coach model can support line managers of dispersed multi-cultural teams are made.
In this article the definitions of virtual coaching are summarised, followed by a literature review with the purpose of establishing the skills requirements for remote Manager-as-Coaches.
A review of the academic and practitioner literature on virtual coaching results in the following list of terms that are used to describe coaching that takes place across a geographical distance. The list falls into two categories, firstly terms that focus on the geographical dispersion of coaching: virtual coaching, remote coaching, distance coaching, scalable coaching (Berry, 2005; Feldman, 2002; Ghods, 2009; Hakim, 2000; Rankin, 2010; Van Dam, 2008; Williams and Kaye, 2011); secondly terms that describe the communication channel used: online coaching, internet coaching, e-coaching, e-mail coaching, skype coaching, video coaching, telephone coaching, telecoaching and phone coaching (Ahrend et al., 2010; Clutterbuck and Hussain, 2010; Lewandowski, 2000). For the purpose of this article the term ‘virtual coaching’ is adopted to include all of the above definitions. Time is another dimension that varies for different forms of virtual coaching. Virtual coaching takes place both synchronously and asynchronously. Examples of the former are telephone, video and skype coaching where the coaching takes place at an agreed time. E-mail coaching is an asynchronous coaching example where coach and coachee are writing and responding to emails at different times. Lastly, the term ‘blended coaching’ is used by coaching providers to describe a mix of both face-to-face and virtual coaching.
Virtual Coaching research
Few studies on coaching at a distance have been undertaken, and the participant samples were based on executive coaching, not Manager-as-Coach relationships (e.g. Berry, 2005; Charbonneau, 2002; Dixon, 2012; Ghods, 2009; McLaughlin, 2013). A review of the virtual coaching literature by Gohds and Boyce (2013) found the ‘primary advantages are that it is practical, accessible and cost effective. Disadvantages include its level of complexity, such as the need for coaches to develop a trusting relationship, provide critical feedback and manage other interpersonal issues from a distance’ (p. 516). As sceptics of virtual coaching will ask for the evidence of the effectiveness of virtual coaching, key studies are reviewed in the following section.
A study comparing virtual with face-to face coaching (Berry, 2005) researched the impact of the working alliance of the coach and coachee on the achieved outcome (‘change’) from the coach’s perspective. For virtual coaching the working alliance was predictive of the degree of change achieved through the coaching. This was not the case for face-to-face coaching. Coach experience and number of coaching meetings were not predictive of the change achieved. This would suggest the importance of building the relationship for virtual coaching which mirrors the finding that virtual teams who focus on relationship building as well as the task perform higher (Caulat, 2012).
The largest empirical study on virtual coaching is a PhD thesis on distance coaching by telephone that included coachees (Ghods, 2009). It concluded that it is possible through coaching solely at a distance to develop and maintain a strong coach-client relationship that results in positive coaching outcomes. The majority of clients were satisfied with being coached at a distance and observed positive coaching outcomes that were confirmed by co-workers. The client-coach relationship in this virtual coaching programme had an impact on client satisfaction and coaching outcome, which is in line with findings in psychotherapeutic literature. Therefore coaches should focus on relationship building in distance coaching (Ghods, 2009).
Many managers and their employees working in a global context will be skilled in virtual working to varying degrees, as they are constantly building virtual relationships in their personal and professional lives. The virtual maturity of the organisation, the degree of the so-called ‘virtual organisation development’, will have an impact on virtual working skills of their employees and consequently on in-house coaching programmes (Reyes, 2009). The more virtually mature the organisation the higher the quality of the technical resources available for the coaching and the higher the virtual working skills of the employees and managers. Furthermore the virtualness, how virtual is the nature of an individual’s work, and their individual virtual competency will have an impact on virtual coaching (Wang and Haggerty, 2011). As the cross-cultural virtual Manager-as-Coach coaching pair not only has a virtual coaching relationship but also work virtually together in their day jobs, the coaching experience provides an opportunity for mutual feedback on individual virtual competencies and how to develop them.
The technology available for virtual teams and virtual coaching has expanded with the widespread use of webcam coaching and the arrival of High Definition Video (HD Video). An annual international executive coaching survey found that in 2012 for the first time in-person coaching had fallen, HD video accounted for 4% of all coaching and webcam coaching for 15%. With high quality video becoming more available and the experience being described as like being in the same room as the client, it is expected to overtake other coaching delivery methods (Sherpa Coaching, 2013).
A recent study on telephone coaching also focused on the experience of the coach. All coaches found the experience comparable to face-to-face coaching with three coaches judging it to be more powerful, which is mirroring findings in the mental health literature (McLaughlin, 2013).
A study researching virtual executive coaching found that considering media preferences and the people fit of the coaching pair (the so called ‘coach-client-media fit’) impact on client satisfaction (Charbonneau, 2002). The coach-client-media fit comprises of:
- the fit between coach and their preferred medium
- the fit between the coachee and their preferred medium
- the fit between coach and client as people
This is in line with findings that virtual teams that consider personality and media preferences perform higher (Jonsen et al., 2012). While the coach-client-media fit model is useful in terms of understanding what influences coaching outcomes, several issues should be explored further how to manage coaching situations that don’t allow for the coach-client-media fit. Interestingly a study on executive telephone coaching found that there is no correlation between the personal preference and the satisfaction with the medium (McLaughlin, 2013). Further, the relationship of coach and coachee in managerial coaching is fixed. There is no choice to facilitate a people fit as the coaching pair is defined by their job roles of manager and direct report. Lastly, knowing about the preferred media for the coaching pair doesn’t necessarily mean it is possible to use it. There are still many locations in the world where high-speed broadband is not available and not all organisations make the latest high quality video conferencing systems available to their employees. In the executive coaching context it has been argued that coaches need to be adaptable in their technology use to stay relevant for and meet the needs of clients who might be more technologically minded (Dixon, 2012; Reyes, 2009). This points to the responsibility of virtual Managers-as-Coaches who have their coachees as internal clients to stay up to date as new technology for virtual coaching is emerging. This is particularly prevalent as new generations entering the workforce are likely to have more experience than their managers using these new tools.
Although virtual working mediated by communication technology has been used by organisations for the last 20 years, it is still considered second class (Caulat, 2012). Panteli and Chiasson (2008) propose that all contemporary organisations work virtually as well as face-to-face. Virtual communication takes place also between people who reside in the same location, for instance by instant messenger, email and telephone. Therefore a comparison of the traditional and virtual way of working is not necessary as the purely traditional way of working in-person exclusively doesn’t exist any more. This argument can also be applied to the cross-cultural managerial coaching context, as it can be assumed that the luxury of face-to-face coaching solely is unlikely for cost reasons. Vice versa it is fair to assume that coaching pairs with a reporting line will rarely work virtually only and probably have face-to-face meetings at some point. So instead of a focus on comparing virtual coaching to face-to-face coaching (which probably is rarely exclusively one or the other in the context examined) a focus on understanding the characteristics of virtual coaching and the skills required by coach and coachee for successful virtual cross-cultural relationships would be more beneficial to the reality of modern working and coaching practices. This will help cross-cultural managers who coach their direct reports virtually to master their task. Very likely this new knowledge can also give new insights for the traditional face-to-face way of working, for example the effects of empowerment on the coaching relationship as discussed in the previous article.
As the virtual coaching literature is limited, the virtual coaching field can learn from the established literature on virtual teams and virtual leadership. Caulat (2012) proposes that learning to become a virtual leader involves learning, re-learning and unlearning skills: learning to tune in and to work with silence, re-learning the basics of communication and unlearning bad habits such as not giving virtual meetings the same focus and status as face-to-face meetings. Starting virtual teams with a face-to-face meeting has been shown to benefit trust building and has become best practice for virtual teams (Hakim, 2000; LaBrosse, 2007; Reyes, 2009). In virtual-only coaching programmes, although client satisfaction with being coached solely at a distance was reported, the first session required most adjustment to the virtual setting (Ghods, 2009). Therefore a focus on establishing the relationship is an important part of virtual coaching. A study researching executive coaching using video by Dixon (2012) confirmed this and recommends to allow for time and strategies to support and accelerate the building of rapport and trust.
In summary, the selection of the coaching media needs to consider the preferences of both the coach and coachee. Special requirements for the coach include relationship and trust building skills virtually, further adaptability when working with current technologies and keeping abreast with emerging technologies. A manager’s virtual working skills might be fit for purpose for general work-based communication, but not for coaching. These skills need to be assessed against the coaching context, developed, refined and consciously put to practice.
For more specific information on how managers can coach successfully remotely across cultures see:
Article 1: Manager-as-Coach
Article 2: Coaching across cultures
For references see the full version of this article
By Claudia Filsinger, an Executive Coach with the Executive Coaching Consultancy and lecturer in Business, Management and Coaching at Oxford Brookes University Business School.
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