The 2020 Davos Interview: The Democratization of Professional Coaching

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The world of coaching has come a long way in 20 years, and the worlds of science and academia are in agreement that it has much to offer—not just in the boardroom, but all through an organization. At BetterUp, we’re taking coaching to a new level, offering one-to-one mobile sessions on a grand scale, developing new behaviors and mindsets for thousands of clients around the world.

Ahead of the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, award-winning journalist Andrew Wilson sat down with BetterUp CEO Alexi Robichaux to talk about the greatest untapped potential in any organization: its people, and how BetterUp is seeking to improve the state of the world and the future of the worker through the democratization of personalized, mobile coaching. Here’s how this important conversation unfolded.

ANDREW: Alexi, great to talk to you. First of all, we're talking about the world of work and how it’s changed. The old “40 years followed by a gold watch and a pension” scenario has gone. Now we're looking at a new way of people relating to their jobs and to their employers. Where do you think organizations should be focusing now?

ALEXI: Great question. I think the biggest thing you've outlined is this change from the currency with my employer being constancy and loyalty to a world where we know from LinkedIn's research the average tenure of a job is about two years. What we find is people are having to navigate new challenges and learn new skills. So learning agility becomes this “meta skill” that is really critical as you think about all the digital disruption we're seeing, the new types of jobs that have arisen in the past five years that just didn't exist 50 years before, and jobs that were here for 50 to 100 years that have disappeared in that same time.

So, what we see in our work and as we partner with companies, is folks are trying to focus their organizations and their people on being able to keep up with the pace of change, and actually stay abreast or ahead of that change.The skills that become really important to do this are ones like resilience, emotional intelligence, and ability to cope with change in new experiences.

ANDREW: The education system says it's running fast to produce these kinds of skills in today’s young people, but we've got people who are already in the workplace that need help developing these skills. Is this where BetterUp steps in?

ALEXI: Absolutely, yes. So, there's been a lot of advancements in primary and secondary education to advance these skills. But if you look at most employers’ assessments, and there's some wonderful research and organizations that do this, there's still a big gap between what we know are the most important skills for success today and where the average worker is measured against those skills.

So that's where BetterUp comes into play. We help employers invest in their people, first as human beings and second as employees. In other words, we understand that your performance as an employee at work is actually a derivative of how well you're doing as a human being.

Additionally, instead of being “command and control” where two or three inspiring senior executives need to lead through the next 50 years, what you actually have at the team level are frontline managers who are expected to come up with novel new ideas and creations—and they're not equipped to do that in a traditional job world.

BetterUp partners with companies to provide the necessary support on the skills development standpoint, but also to impact values formation and cultivate that mindset shift.

ANDREW: So it's a two directional crisis in a way, isn't it? Who needs help more: the companies or the employees?

ALEXI: When you break it down, the atomic unit of a company is its employees. There's not much left of a company when you remove the employees. What we find is the atomic unit of change is actually flipping the equation and focusing on helping companies by helping their people in alignment with the company's goals. When I've talked to most senior executives about their challenges, they have a strategy or they have a goal they want to go meet and they feel that their folks are either an accelerant or a decelerant to being able to capitalize that market opportunity.

ANDREW: Can you describe how the BetterUp model works?

ALEXI: At BetterUp, we partner with organizations typically undergoing transformations. So, we know companies across the globe are going from digital transformations to customer experience focused transformations. What we find is at the core of all those transformations is a new way of thinking and a new way of operating at work. And where we find that companies struggle is how they inculcate these new mindsets and these new skills and these new behaviors at every level of the organization.

Organizations are looking for ways to democratize access to training and support that are measurable, that are data rich, and that are efficacious. What we know from the research, and what we know from our own experience, is that executive coaching is one of the best ways to do this.

The kernel of BetterUp is providing a way to democratize access to what we know really works and that's a one-on-one relationship with the coach; to have someone who's an expert who talks to hundreds of people in a similar situation in life as me and can accumulate insight is critical. We know this from elite athletes, we know this from Special Forces operators in the military, and we know this from the world's top executives. Whether it's Eric Schmidt or Sheryl Sandberg, they will all swear to you the value of a coach.

ANDREW: So great, you’ve got a swim coach. They guide you through, they look at you, and they care about your progress. You take from them what they've got to say, and that relationship slowly builds. It’s a very personal relationship. What you're doing at BetterUp is scaling that up so much that one might think that it's more like a “supermarket” for coaches rather than providing that personal service. How do you keep that coherence to the whole project?

ALEXI: We like to think about our mission, our goal as a company, is to really provide this intimacy at scale. And what we find is the core of the experience is still that one-to-one relationship. In fact, this is where technology we think is an enabler, and actually can help in a more personalized way.

In my own experience, when I started shopping for a coach, it was a very lengthy process. It took me nine months. It took me doing a lot of sessions with coaches, maybe one or two sessions, a chemistry session to get a feeling. BetterUp, through a combination of our data analytics as well as artificial intelligence, gives you three matches which we have a really strong statistical reason to believe are a successful fit for you based on a host of everything from communication preference, to personality, to the types of issues and challenges you want to tackle with your coach.

ANDREW: Do you think then that this Learning and Development model is leaving behind the old model of the kind of the executive coach who goes to coach CEOs and turn them into just a meaner, more achieving, individual in the corporate world?

ALEXI: Absolutely. I do think there's an exciting change happening in the field of coaching. Historically, as you alluded to about 50% of coaching was what we would call remedial coaching, where if you were senior executive and you were assigned a coach.

It could be, “Hey, you're doing great we want to double down and have you do better.” Or, it could mean that “Hey, you're generating a ton of revenue for the firm and we're not going to fire you, but you do that at an inordinate human cost, right, and people don't enjoy working with you.” Well, what we’re seeing at BetterUp—and we’re really honored to be part of this revolution—is that coaching is following the evidence from strengths-based psychology, and really becoming focused on how do I help great performers continue to double down on their strengths and perform better.

ANDREW: So, with all we’re learning along the way now, where do you see the world of work going? What's the next decade or 20 years have in store for us?

ALEXI: There's a ton of transformation and change happening in the world of work, but one area that we're particularly attuned to and focused on at BetterUp, is related to investing in employees, and investing in employees on these human skills and capabilities.

We know employees want to feel like they matter at work and they want to feel like they're growing. In fact, the highest-rated need from employees is a sense of personal and professional development from their employer. So, more than pay, more than better benefits, employees are looking to develop and grow as human beings first in the context of work. And employers who make that investment, who are able to really scale this personalized development, what they get is the lion’s share of the profit in the economic upside which we know everything from a single act of exclusion on a team can damper team performance by 25 percent

At the same time, we know that folks who feel that their work is meaningful are 50 percent more likely to get promoted, and they have much higher retention and firm loyalty metrics. And so what we see is these skills related to imagination, resilience, self-awareness, inclusion, belonging, cognitive agility, emerge at the forefront of really what's going to drive economic impact, and what's going to drive performance in the modern world.

Watch the full interview