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Transformation Through Coaching: NetApp’s Visionary Approach to Talent Enablement

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In the third and final episode of our exclusive resilience webinar series delivered in partnership with Josh Bersin Academy, our own Chief Programs Officer, Dr. Damian Vaughn, facilitated an enlightening conversation with two forward-thinking BetterUp customers, Robin Pelzman, Head of Executive Development at Biogen, and Larry McAlister, Vice President of Global Talent at NetApp. For deep insights and valuable takeaways, you can watch the entire on-demand episode here.

Both of these courageous leaders believe in supporting transformation at the core—for their people, their teams, and across their organizations. And they back these beliefs with action. Long before this pandemic and the movement to end social injustice were at a crescendo, they had the vision to leverage coaching to build resilience, agility, and adaptability into their talent and executive development strategies.

During our conversation, Robin and Larry both shared a wealth of wisdom. Indeed, they offer so many useful insights and actionable ideas, that we’re fortunate to be able to give each their own spotlight. Keep reading to hear the story of NetApp’s Talent Enablement transformation in Larry’s own words.

Q: Larry, you’ve led a ‘Talent Enablement’ transformation at NetApp, tell us the story behind that and where you are today?

“NetApp is going through a business transformation, and I was brought in to do the HR transformation. The company is on a mission to enable our managers and employees to have better relationships, to grow, and to have the best possible career and life.

To accomplish this, we needed to start by changing the baseline mindset at the company and raising the accountability of all employees and managers. For years, we in HR have put all these mandatory scaffolding and processes in place for managers, which has sent the message that the manager can’t lead people and—as a result—it created a dependence on ‘corporate’ to solve their problems.

When I came in I wanted to send the message to all employees that we were committed to helping them be better at their career, their work, and personal lives. That’s why I changed the name of my group from Learning & Development (L&D) to Talent Enablement and developed the “Thrive ecosystem,” which is meant to help develop high-performing teams and enhance our employee experience. And that’s where the real exciting work began.

First, we ripped out anything mandatory. We ripped out tracking activity, annual performance reviews and ratings. In Year One, we simply asked managers to focus on having quarterly conversations about the future of employee impact and growth.

Why? Because we recognized the most important relationship is between the manager and employee. And that relationship was being hampered by the nature of mandatory, compliance-based HR practices. Opening up those lines of communication is essential to re-building from the inside out, person by person.”

Q: What led you to choose coaching as a key enabler of the Thrive ecosystem?

 “I have to admit something: I used to be against coaching. I have had bad experiences with it. But, I came to realize it wasn't the coaching profession that was the problem, it was how companies were using coaches. ‘Go fix that person.’ they say. ‘They're bad,’ they say. ‘Make them better with a coach.’ As you can imagine, that is a recipe for disaster. And it’s the exact opposite of what we wanted here at NetApp.

When you use coaching in a positive, proactive way you can benefit the individual and the organization as well as be better prepared to tackle the unexpected. We wanted to build resilience, adaptability, and agility at the individual and organizational level and coaching is a major part of that.

Coaching gives you the opportunity to talk about your actual work while you're in the middle of your work. That's a rare opportunity. You know, if we ask someone for survey results, they have to stop, fill out a survey, and tell us something. With coaching you're actually working and solving problems at the same time that you're doing the work. It's as just-in-time as possible, with experts helping you grow, talking to you, and giving you a way to think about things differently.

With a talent enablement approach, our job is to make sure each employee gets an individualized personal experience. Because that’s the only way you really grow, right? It’s the only way you become your best self, not like somebody else, and it can’t be done with a cookie-cutter solution, like many traditional L&D approaches.

This is key to the Thrive ecosystem. Because it allows us to go from good to great, great to greater—because the best people are given what they need to get better and better.

BetterUp’s approach to coaching, gives each person this opportunity, if they choose to take it, to thrive and do the best work of their career at NetApp, no matter what ‘next thing’ they’re facing.”

Q: At BetterUp, we use an evidence-based developmental approach we call the Whole Person, meaning our methodology of coaching addresses the fact that well-being and performance are inextricably interwoven. With this in mind, what’s the impact of BetterUp coaching and the focus on the whole person for individuals at NetApp?

“The whole person approach is absolutely embedded in everything we’re trying to do at NetApp. Having the BetterUp platform and world-class coaches has been life changing for us. And I say ‘life’ deliberately because the value of coaching doesn’t only show up in the workplace. It benefits the individual at the core—allowing for growth at work and at home. It’s all connected.

That’s why we only offer this opportunity to those who really want to grow. Because working with a coach is like going to the gym, not the spa. You have to put in the work on those things you choose to work on. But if you’re committed to it, you’re going to grow in your work and in your life—and the numbers prove it.

Of the NetApp employees participating in BetterUp coaching, 93% said ‘it was a great use of my time.’ And a whopping 20% of the coaching sessions are rated, not just ‘Amazing”, but ‘Life Changing!’

We’ve heard numerous stories of agility, resilience, and adaptability from our employees who share ‘I have a better relationship with my daughter because of my coach,’ and ‘I had a death in the family and my coach helped me get through it.’ When I hear and can share these anecdotal stories, it means more than KPIs because it's someone's individual voice saying ‘I am better.’ And I know that if our people are thriving, we as a company are, too.”

Q: What impact have you experienced at the organization level? How has coaching enabled NetApp to be more resilient and agile?

“There are the obvious impacts: someone has become better at their job or achieved their goals much more easily, but more than that it starts permeating through the organization. Leaders are better at helping others succeed, so there's exponential growth. At the top level, we can show how engagement, growth, turnover—all the common KPIs—improve. But what we're really reaching for is ‘How does the company work better together?’ We want to see results that say ‘We're better together because we understand how to work in new ways,’ and a lot of this is thanks to coaching. This is especially clear to us with all the recent changes and challenges.

Right now, there’s a powder keg of issues we are all bombarded with every day in our lives—including uncertainty about the future, questions about returning to work, kids returning to school, and social injustices. These past few months, I’ve seen more tears in 1-on-1s and in meetings than I’ve ever seen in my life. The stress is compounding on people, particularly as we realize we’re not going back to normal. As a result, employee expectations are simply different now.

With the access to data and insights we have with BetterUp, we are able to understand what those expectations are and how they are evolving. We get high-level information about what is top of mind in sessions, what general challenges our employees are facing, and what they need the most support with, in addition to the outcome data. We can compare that with our pulse surveys to inform our whole talent strategy and guide us on what to take action on to move forward.

For example, we conducted a survey and watched the trend patterns on coaching session topics at the start and through the pandemic. We realized our people were telling us they were headed toward burnout. So, the week of July 4th, we shut down the whole company and said no one email each other. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback for responding in that manner. But to us, it just made sense for our commitment to helping the individual and organization thrive.”

Q: What’s next for coaching at NetApp?

 “At NetApp, we continue to build our Thrive ecosystem. We’re calling it ‘Thrive Anywhere.’ As in, anywhere you are in the world, whatever you’re doing, you can thrive. As a part of that mission, we’re making this the year of technology and BetterUp.

My vision for the future is that coaching is a benefit. You take your health benefit, your dental benefit, and your coaching benefit. That should be how you live your life. With the results we’re seeing, this is helpful for every single person in the organization.

We started with a hundred-person cohort. We’re in the middle of doing another with several hundred employees. Once I have the data from the second large group, I’m going to pitch for funding next year for coaching to be widely available in that “coaching as a benefit” way.

At NetApp, our mission has always been to help our customers achieve what matters most to them. This begins by helping our people do the same. With coaching, we see firsthand how it helps our employees not only build personal resilience, but gives them the support they need to lead with inspiration—driving team agility, innovation, and performance.”

To listen to the entire conversation and gain additional insights from Episode 3, you can access the on-demand session here.

To learn more about The Coaching Advantage and how you can build resilience, adaptability, and agility for your leaders and organizations, click here.

At BetterUp, we’re excited to partner with organizations that are committed to enabling employees to thrive in the face of adversity, including NetApp, Biogen, Salesforce.com, and Mars. To hear more about what these companies are doing, including actionable ideas and insights, watch all three episodes in our resilience series with Josh Bersin Academy.