To accelerate growth, industrial supply distributor W.W. Grainger Inc.’s senior executives knew the company needed to evolve its culture from conservative to agile, from U.S.-centric to global and from departmental silos to cross-functional collaboration.
To help meet this challenge, in 2008 the company identified five performance drivers that defined the behaviors needed for success: wow the customer; make the team better; have a winning attitude; drive for best results; and have leaders who lead the way and build teams. Through member feedback and discussions with leaders, Grainger senior leaders identified front-line managers as the strongest drivers for team member engagement and discretionary effort. In 2009, the company launched “Leader as Coach,” a five-part leadership development program that helped prepare managers to align their teams to company goals — the “what” — and the performance drivers — the “how.”
During the last three years, more than 1,900 of Grainger’s leaders around the world have participated in the 10-day interactive, leader-led curriculum. The program has helped increase engagement levels for the company’s 21,000 team members and enhance their performance. Not only have existing leaders participated, but new managers participate within their first six to 12 months on the job.
Developing the Program
The Leader as Coach program delivers shared expectations around coaching for all leaders, a common coaching language and tools, and higher goal attainment over the course of the program. To achieve this, it provides leaders with tools to enhance self-awareness, improve listening and enhance feedback conversations to enrich performance.
To ensure the program was applicable to Grainger team members, the learning and development team relied on external talent development and coaching experts, engagement surveys and industry research and benchmarking with other Fortune 500 companies through on-site visits and program evaluations. The team also interviewed Grainger senior executives and a cross-section of other leaders throughout the organization — selected based on their reputation for great coaching — to understand the program’s expectations and desired outcomes.
Early in the process, the team opted to develop a blended learning approach to meet leaders’ varied needs. Today, learning methods such as formal, informal, face-to-face, virtual classroom, e-learning and on-the-job experiences are central components of the program design. To deliver the learning methods to diverse leaders, the team created a Lead the Way online portal as a one-stop-shop for leaders to access tools and resources.
From 2008 to early 2009, the learning and development team conducted a series of internal interviews with Grainger team members working in different departments such as sales, customer service, warehouse distribution, product management and internal support services such as marketing and finance. These interviews plus engagement survey research suggested the most effective way to deliver the curriculum would be through the leaders themselves. As a result of leader-led development, top leaders experience the program as learners, participate in a train-the-trainer certification and deliver the modules to their managers. Then, the leaders coach and reinforce the concepts and skills with their managers on an ongoing basis.
Five learning areas are critical to drive higher engagement and performance levels in coaching:
• Leaders’ understanding of the expectations for their roles as coaches.
• Communications skills that drive more effective coaching conversations.
• A simple, systematic, time-saving coaching process.
• Concepts and skills to create a safe and trusting environment.
• Knowledge, skills and tools to grow and sustain high-performing teams.
These focus areas became the five modules for the Leader as Coach program (Figure 1). Four of the modules were leader-led, while the coaching process was delivered by the company’s corporate trainers.
To launch the program, senior executives stressed the importance of talent management in a video that was part of the registration process so participants could see leadership endorsement for the program before the training. Leaders for the U.S., international and global supply chain areas also videotaped messages that shared examples of the best coaching conversations they had experienced and highlighted the importance of coaching and the expectations they had for themselves and their leaders as the coaching journey began.
The Role of the Leader as Coach is the first leader-led module. Leaders guide their managers through discovery learning to link coaching to the company’s strategy. They define good coaching, identify the leader’s role in coaching and develop plans to eliminate any barriers to coaching. This module develops a clear understanding of the expectations for all leaders to commit to the coaching journey and a common grasp of the coaching roadmap.
The second leader-led module is Effective Interpersonal Communications, with leaders guiding managers on how to construct clear and concise messages, how to apply active listening and questioning techniques, and effectively giving and receiving feedback.
The third module, Coaching for Performance, is instructor-led and focuses on the Grainger coaching model. Key elements include how to keep team members focused on the right things to profitably drive Grainger’s business, identifying and closing performance gaps, partnering with team members and conducting coaching conversations.
Partnering for Results, the fourth leader-led module, emphasizes how leaders can create an open, trusting environment for their teams, how to overcome challenges to that trust and role-play several coaching scenarios where trust must be gained before team members are receptive to coaching.
The final leader-led module, Effective Teamwork, focuses on pulling everything together to optimize the coaching process and extending the coaching conversation to enable managers to lead high-performing teams. This includes recognizing the characteristics of a high-performing team and stages of team development, identifying how team dynamics can affect team performance, and providing a model for teams to create goals and solve problems.
By the end of the program, leaders can adjust their coaching approach based on individual team members and situations, set performance standards, clearly communicate expectations, monitor progress with candid, constructive feedback and demonstrate their strong commitment to developing people.
Lessons Learned: A Business Unit Perspective
The ownership and drive demonstrated by many Grainger leaders and teams were a critical component to the programs’ success. For example, the customer service team, which includes Grainger’s U.S. branch network, e-commerce and call centers, uses the Leader as Coach program to reinforce a consistent coaching process across multiple teams.
“When the Leader as Coach program launched in 2009, we knew we didn’t have consistent coaching within customer service, and it was impacting the level of service we provided to our customers,” said Eric Nowlin, vice president of customer service at Grainger. “We convened a special team to help figure out how we could become more consistent and effective coaches.”
This team went beyond the learning material that focused on skill and knowledge building and focused on all aspects of closing the customer service coaching performance gap by addressing support systems, tools, the physical environment, organization systems and incentives. It kicked off each module with a central meeting of all the team’s people leaders and showcased a direct alignment of their business strategy to the current module.
In terms of support systems, the team developed a playbook and a change management discussion guide, and established a peer networking and mentoring approach. Leaders delivered this information through a Coaching to Wow intranet site launched in 2009 and used LEAN continuous improvement methodology to find solutions to workload barriers. Finally, senior leaders set expectations for the business unit and provided recognition and rewards for demonstrated behavior and successes.
The team treated this as a process, not a one-time event. Customer service continues to use the Coaching to Wow site to customize work in Leader as Coach and supplement the company’s Lead the Way online portal. In addition to core materials such as playbooks and discussion guides, customer service people leaders use the Coaching to Wow site to share resources such as team-building games and coaching scenarios.
In 2011, Grainger examined program results using existing and newly developed evaluation processes. Grainger worked with an external agency to develop and distribute a survey to leaders who had direct reports and completed at least one module of the Leader as Coach program. More than 500 people completed the survey, which answered two key questions: “Is the curriculum providing value for the business?” and “Is it providing the knowledge and skills necessary to improve coaching, and in turn to enhance the performance of each team member?”
Findings showed the curriculum successfully transferred knowledge and skills that were immediately useful on the job:
• 78 percent of respondents said the training helped them better understand expectations around coaching and teaching.
• 89 percent of the respondents noted they were able to apply what they learned in the training within one month.
Further, within five to six weeks, 96.6 percent of participants applied the training on the job. The Leader as Coach program has substantial positive impact on training team members to communicate more effectively, understand expectations around coaching and teaching, and prepare for and conduct coaching conversations.
The survey also identified some inconsistent tool utilization, and some participants still noted challenges finding the time to thoroughly and consistently apply the skills. Grainger’s learning and development team is working closely with various teams to address the issues through action plans.
During the last two years, the company has increased its focus on talent management, improved its leaders’ coaching skills and defined clearer links between individual, team and business goals. “We achieve sustainable, profitable growth when we focus on talent development and excellence, from the top down,” said Joseph High, senior vice president and chief people officer for Grainger.
John Lawson is director of learning and development at W.W. Grainger Inc. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.