In Conversation- Developing a Leadership Coaching Culture

In Conversation- Developing a Leadership Coaching Culture

Global Head of Talent, Laura Ovenden shares her experience of implementing a leadership coaching strategy at a time of accelerated growth

In this article, we'll explore the remarkable journey of Laura Ovenden, a seasoned talent professional renowned for her ability to craft game-changing talent programmes for emerging and fast-growing businesses.

We discuss her collaboration with Dr Amanda Potter to implement a leadership coaching strategy that propelled C-Suite leaders from local prominence to global influence. And, how in just a few years, this partnership not only expanded the organisational footprint from 350 to 1200 employees but also reshaped the very essence of leadership within the company.

What was it that made the most sense about our approach to Executive Coaching?

At that time, we were rapidly expanding and seeking to foster a coaching culture as our organisation grew. It was clear that we needed a strong coaching proposition. Our primary focus was on developing leaders in C-suite and C-suite minus one positions within a highly technical field.

The leadership coaching proposition had to be robust and align with the credibility of senior leaders while addressing the need to navigate ambiguous situations.

Amanda came through a recommendation and Zircon Management Consulting proved to be an excellent fit.

While I had engaged with different coaching companies for various levels, finding the right blend of approach, personality, and style for senior levels was challenging. Many of the providers had a more ‘cookie-cutter’ coaching offer, but Zircon stood out for its bespoke and tailored Executive Coaching programme.

Amanda, my initial contact at Zircon, possessed a unique blend of scientific rigor, coaching credibility, and leadership presence. Her pragmatic approach, combined with warmth and humor, made her well suited to guide leaders through challenging situations.

Zircon's research-led methods, experience, operational capability at a senior level, and credibility in building relationships made it the perfect choice. In a field with numerous firms, Zircon emerged as one of the few really good players.

How did you set objectives and desired outcomes?

To complement the leadership coaching programme, the qualitative 360° proved invaluable at the senior level. With it, we could be far more targeted and tailor the coaching to specific needs based on the objective feedback of multiple colleagues.

We could say “Let’s do a deep dive on this and get the perspectives of your key stakeholders, and then work on this with your coach.”

The insights from these in-depth assessments and stakeholder perspectives proved to be deeply impactful and valuable.

Taking the initiative to conduct in-depth assessments and gather perspectives from various stakeholders proved to be a far more considered and impactful approach.

What was the best example of impact for the leadership team?

I've always tried to employ coaching to assist individuals in progressing toward a coaching-oriented leadership style.

We had identified individuals through the C-suites succession planning process. Through coaching, they were able to navigate pivotal questions like where they were in terms of their aspirations and what they were genuinely looking for. There were a lot of “A-Ha” moments for people.

Some chose to take the next step, while others made informed decisions aligned with their unique paths. Consequently, our business fostered a highly engaged and motivated workforce, as individuals felt empowered to follow what was right for them at the time.

We kept talent in the business, confident we could provide the support for those individuals to progress and develop the skills they would need to step into their new roles.

Recognising that old adage “that what got you here won't get you there.”

The situations that you deal with and the team you work with would look very different at a more senior level. It's a lot more about strategic peer relationships and broader collaboration. The expectations of how you need to show up and step into your role evolve quickly and leadership coaching helps individuals adopt the mindset they need to keep up.

How did you ensure the business got the most value from coaching?

I've typically worked in financial services, so it's all about measurement and value.

In every coaching assignment, there is the chemistry process with the individual, and then objective setting with the individual and their manager to agree on desired outcomes.

We define, very deliberately, how we are going to know if it's been worth the investment, what the value is that we want from this, and how and when we will know. Planning check-ins with the individual and tracking against set objectives along the way is an integral part of the coaching programme.

As seniority increases, results become more tangible at a business level. The value is seen as a measurable increase in leadership bench strength and operational performance. Through succession planning, we could get a picture of who would be ready in one to two years or three to four years.

As we moved people up the readiness scale, we started testing them out for those next roles in a safe, experimental way. We could give them opportunities to run a project and gain experience at the next level with coaching to support them. The coaching programme increased their readiness and gave us a stronger bench so that capable people were ready to step in when roles became available.

Looking back on your career, what challenge are you most proud of overcoming and how did you go about it?

I once had the opportunity to work with a fascinating organisation undergoing significant change and complexity. This particular firm when I joined was relatively small, consisting of about 300 to 350 individuals primarily based in London.

They had ambitious plans to expand globally and diversify their offering, both through organic growth and acquisitions. But as I arrived to set up the function, the organisation lacked structured talent, performance and learning programmes.

It was an exciting journey to collaborate with the leadership team in crafting a talent strategy from scratch. I worked closely with managers and leaders to coach them in adapting to the growth, while building and integrating their teams. The goal was to cultivate a culture of high performance while fostering a strong coaching ethos, providing meaningful career paths for employees across the board.

Our focus extended beyond mere growth; we aimed to create an engaging workplace where employees wanted to stay and have fun while delivering business results. This involved developing agile processes and tools that could ensure a talent development proposition that enabled us to achieve that kind of progress.

And I witnessed remarkable growth. From its modest beginnings, the company expanded to over 1200 employees within just a few years, fueled by its aspirations to diversify. Nothing is overnight. But by taking the right approach to talent and performance we were able to create an integrated capability and learning culture, empowering a high performing business.

Is there any person or organisation that you follow because what they do inspires you?

I love to read widely and find HR so fascinating as an industry. It’s such an interesting time at the moment. I love reading the Zircon content, Forbes and Harvard too and I get alerts from Oliver Wyman Digital and Bloomberg Technology which provide great insight into what’s going on across the tech sector globally.

Josh Bersin has produced some great research over the years around HR Technology and AI including really interesting work on Systemic HR. I’ve also found David Green's articles on using HR analytics to add business insight really fascinating.

Lastly, is there anything within our industry, be it a buzzword or attitude that you would like to consign to history AKA Bin 101?

I'd say it's the perpetuation of stereotypes based on age. Referring to individuals as say 'Lazy Millennials' or any other generational label is unproductive and unhelpful.

Fundamentally, we’ve got 5 generations now in the workforce. There’s value in what we all bring to the table around critical issues such as navigating sustainable change, building productive and engaging cultures, and addressing practical leadership challenges. We can be more effective when we can find a common purpose rather than defining what is different or bad.

With a far more positive language, we can get the most from this wonderful diversity of all these generations working together.

Let's just look at this in a slightly different way.

First Published: 15th April 2024

Last Updated: 2nd May 2024

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Beth Turner
Head of Learning and Development UK/UAE : Robert Half

Amanda’s delivery was even more engaging and focuses on how she wants the audience to feel. The very poignant stories she told really set the scene, and the end story took the session from informative to extremely inspirational and hopeful.  Having set her stall out as someone who definitely has suffered from Imposter Syndrome early on in the session, to then demonstrate at the end that she categorically now doesn’t (in that area) was very powerful and gave a real sense of belief that we can change and challenge the messages we tell ourselves.

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