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The Key to Unlocking Leaders’ Potential

By Damian Goldvarg
ICF President

 Every organization, regardless of size or scope, shares at least one common challenge: the task of crafting a strategy to leverage talent and nurture present and emerging leaders in service of a brighter future for the organization and its stakeholders. For a growing number of organizations, coaching comprises a central piece of the leadership-development puzzle. Defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF) as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, coaching is a service that is distinct from other personal or organizational support interventions, including therapy, consulting, mentoring, training and athletic development.


 Why are more organizations than ever integrating coaching into their leadership-development plans? Because it gets results: Ninety-nine percent of respondents to the 2009 ICF Global Coaching Client Study reported being “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with the coaching experience, and 96 percent indicated that they would repeat the process given the same circumstances that first prompted them to seek coaching. What’s more, coaching is a worthwhile investment in an organization’s future. Eighty-six percent of companies participating in the ICF Global Coaching Client Study said they at least made their investment in coaching back, while 19 percent reported an ROI of 50 times their investment and 28 percent reported an ROI of 10 to 49 times their investment.  

 The United Nations Secretariat has experienced firsthand the extraordinary benefits of implementing a coaching program within their organization. With more than 44,000 employees working in duty stations around the world, the UN Secretariat is a complex organization that’s been charged with adapting to an ever-changing global environment. The addition of coaching to the Secretariat’s already-exemplary Management Development Program has empowered emerging leaders within the organization to better respond to the daily challenges of their posts. Along the way, the organization has seen improvements in employee satisfaction, increased productivity and the first signs of a substantial shift in organizational culture—all of which add up to equal an impressive return on the Secretariat’s investment in coaching.

Leadership Development, Reimagined

 Training and leadership development have long been institutional priorities for the UN Secretariat, with managers required to enroll in the organization’s Management Development Program (MDP). In 2009, the UN Secretariat initiated a review and revision of the MDP, contracting the consulting firm EnCompass LLC to oversee implementation. According to Maria Hutchinson, Chief of the Learning, Leadership, and Organizational Development Section, Office of Human Resources Management, for the UN Secretariat, “As we reviewed feedback from previous MDP participants, several people indicated that they felt coaching would assist them in applying the new management approaches we were teaching [in the classroom].” Although coaching had been an optional MDP offering in the past, time constraints and skepticism toward coaching limited the number of employees who utilized the service. EnCompass’ reimagined MDP, on the other hand, has coaching at its heart.

 When a manager enrolls in the MDP, he or she participates in a 360-degree feedback process and uses the assessment results to develop a personalized list of goals and an action plan. Bookending the MDP are two intensive, residential workshops totaling six days in length. During the months between the two workshops, MDP participants commit to a four-hour engagement with a professional coach. Due to the Secretariat’s geographically diffuse nature, all coaching takes place remotely, via telephone, Skype or Face Time.

 As a coach and leadership trainer for the MDP, I experienced firsthand the power of coaching to connect classroom study and real-world experience. By putting the models they encountered during training into practice and working on development goals in a structured setting, participants enhance their leadership skills. Whereas a program based entirely on classroom training would have been impersonal and one-size-fits-all, the coaching component of the MDP acknowledged that every participant was a unique person with specific needs, goals, strengths and weaknesses.


Measureable Rewards

 Since the relaunch of the MDP, approximately 1,350 UN Secretariat employees have received coaching. The organization has experienced an 87.6 percent return on its investment in coaching—in other words, a $1.88 return for every dollar spent. In 2012, the UN Secretariat was awarded an International Prism Award by the ICF. The Prism Award honors organizations that have achieved a standard of excellence in the implementation of coaching programs for culture change, leadership development, productivity and performance improvement.

 Feedback from MDP participants and coaches shows that the 360-degree assessment process, classroom training sessions and coaching are impacting individual and organizational performance at the UN Secretariat. The MDP has empowered employees and made them more aware of their own abilities and capacity for productivity. My fellow coaches and I can attest to the strides MDP participants have made in their self-confidence, interpersonal skills, communication skills, team effectiveness, work/life balance and time management. These improvements are consistent with ICF findings on the benefits of coaching. In the ICF Global Coaching Client Study, 80 percent of coaching clients reported improved self-confidence. In the same study, clients reported improved interpersonal relationships (73 percent), communication skills (72 percent), team effectiveness (51 percent), work/life balance (67 percent) and time management (57 percent).

 Given these quality-of-life improvements, it’s no surprise that Secretariat employees have been happier and more engaged since the implementation of the new MDP. According to Hutchinson, “Increased staff satisfaction has been a significant outcome of the MDP. … Our managers really appreciate the way the organization has been willing to invest in them [through training and coaching].”

 Changing Perceptions

 Culture change is a slow process, but the gratitude that managers feel for the coaching experience is evidence of a significant shift that’s afoot at the UN Secretariat. As employees at all levels of the organization have directly or indirectly reaped the benefits of the MDP, the perception of coaching within the organization has changed. “Unlike in the private sector, where it’s perceived that people chosen for coaching are high-potential individuals people within our organization saw being selected for coaching to mean you’re not doing well,” Hutchinson says. (Keep in mind that when coaching was an optional aspect of the MDP, it was an underutilized service.) MDP participants took the coaching component of the program seriously, however. My fellow coaches and I were consistently impressed by our coachees’ focus on achieving stated coaching goals, their willingness to prepare for each session and their commitment to fitting coaching into their already-busy schedules. Their appreciation for the service being offered to them was apparent. In fact, coaching has yielded such powerful benefits for MDP participants that several managers who completed the program have since inquired into the possibility of reconnecting with a coach to provide support during a period of professional growth or transition. Hutchinson says she never expected managers at the UN Secretariat to ask, “Could I get a little extra coaching?”

 The success of the MDP has also benefited organizational culture in a way that no one at the UN Secretariat expected by fostering connection and collaboration within an organization characterized by entrenched bureaucracy and a silo mentality. Each MDP class includes managers from a variety of departments and global posts, each with very diverse responsibilities and experiences. However, according to Hutchinson, the interactions initiated by peer coaching—an activity that’s central to the classroom-based component of the program—have helped managers from across the organization recognize the challenges they have in common. As a result, when confronted with a project that might be beyond the scope of their department, they’re more likely to reach out to someone from another division who has the appropriate expertise. “The program brings people together and helps bring down institutional barriers,” Hutchinson says.


The UN Secretariat has not been immune to the consequences of the global economic crisis. However, so far the organization has been able to safeguard its commitment to management development and coaching. In fact, it appears that a coaching culture is taking root within the organization. Hutchinson has turned over the reins of the MDP to Staff Development Officer Carina Stern, and now directly oversees only the Leadership Development Program (LDP) for top officials within the organization. LDP participants are asked to commit to five hours of coaching in the midst of their training. Coaching skills have also been integrated into a supervisor-skills training program within the organization. Most importantly, leaders at all levels of the organization take what they learn from coaching back to their teams. “Managers participate in the MDP to better understand their role, and they learn that using coaching skills with their team is part of that,” Stern says. “Experiencing coaching firsthand only helps to reinforce its value.” Armed with the skills and self-awareness they acquire through coaching and training, the participants in the UN Secretariat’s revolutionary leadership-skills-development programs are unlocking their own potential as they help build on the foundation of a new coaching culture within the UN Secretariat that has the capacity to nurture visionary leaders who will—literally—change the world.



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