Coaching Across the Enterprise: The Agilent Technologies Case
by Brian Underhill

The Business / The Organization

In 1999, Hewlett-Packard announced a strategic realignment to create two companies. The spin-off company, Agilent Technologies, would be comprised of test and measurement components, chemical analysis, and medical businesses, while HP retained the computing, printing, and imaging businesses.

When Agilent launched in November 1999, the organization declared three new corporate values to represent the company: speed, focus, and accountability. Agilent also kept the original HP values that made Hewlett-Packard famous: uncompromising integrity, innovation, trust, respect, and teamwork. 

The Partnership

While HP utilized coaching, efforts were generally uncoordinated, and coaching was not strategically integrated with the company's leadership development initiatives. Multiple vendors and individual practitioners provided different coaching approaches at varied prices. As a result, Agilent had a desire to create an outstanding "corporately recommended," strategically-integrated coaching program with a preferred pricing rate, using a single vendor. 

In February 2000, Dianne Anderson, Agilent's Global Program Manager, set out to design a corporate coaching solution for the company's senior managers and executives (approximately 750 people worldwide). She collaborated with Brian Underhill of Alliance for Strategic Leadership (A4SL) to design and deliver the new coaching program. This new program would be named APEX (Accelerated Performance for Executives).

The Challenge

Agilent laid out the parameters for a new coaching program that could address multiple objectives, such as:

  • Global reach: Agilent has facilities in more than 60 countries. The APEX program would need to effectively serve leaders with coaches near these sites. Awareness of local cultural nuances would be critical and local language capability would be preferred.
  • Senior leader focus: Candidates for APEX participation would focus on vice presidents, corporate officers, business unit leaders, general managers, directors, and functional managers.
  • Accountability for results: APEX needed to prove its value for Agilent. In return for the company's investment in them, participants would need to demonstrate positive, measurable change in leadership effectiveness as seen by direct reports and colleagues.
  • Flexibility and user-friendliness: APEX had to be user-friendly from beginning to end. A simple menu of options was created, suitable for a range of budgets and varying levels of interest in the coaching process. Priority was also placed on creating a program that made it easy to initiate a coaching engagement and administer payment for coaching services.

The Approach

Several months of design ensued to meet these objectives. Brian Underhill of A4SL and Dianne Anderson of Agilent Technologies worked together to outline the structure of several coaching options and draft a general program description. They developed a process for administering and scoring an initial 360 degree survey and a follow-up survey. A4SL then determined certification standards for APEX coaches and established procurement standards to smooth the contracting process.

Agilent then began the internal marketing process for the APEX program. They developed pages for Agilent's corporate intranet containing the program description, pricing, coach bios, and contracting information. Throughout the process, Agilent made it clear that APEX would be a behaviorally-based executive coaching approach, focusing on improving leadership behaviors on the job. APEX would not be used for career planning, life planning, strategic planning, or remedial coaching.

Finally, A4SL established a global coaching pool, emphasizing locations of Agilent's key global facilities. Since inception, the coaching pool has grown to over 67 coaches worldwide. Each coach participates in a telephone orientation and receives a 60-page orientation package. Agilent hosts quarterly conference calls to keep coaches informed on corporate news, to learn about the coaches' challenges in working with Agilent leaders, and to provide a forum for peer-to-peer learning.

The Process

Following a brief initial interview with the A4SL Coaching & Consulting (C&C) program manager, executives who are qualified for the program receive a set of bios of two to four coaches, based on the participant's needs, style and location. The participant then conducts telephone interviews and chooses his or her own coach. This provides a greater sense of ownership in the process and greatly reduces coach/client mismatches.

In the course of the coaching relationship, the participant receives assistance in two general areas: the overall feedback process (an initial 360, one or two mini-surveys, and de-brief and follow-up with feedback raters/providers), and content coaching to help the participant become more effective in a specific target area (e.g., listening skills). The actual APEX coaching process is comprised of in-person visits and regular, ongoing phone or email contact.

The Value Delivered

APEX results to date (as demonstrated by aggregated mini-survey data) are exciting. Mini-surveys are a critical part of the process. Each individual leader's key stakeholders complete mini-surveys of short (three- to five-item) questionnaires. Raters are asked, among other things, to measure improvement in the leader's overall leadership effectiveness and specific areas for development. Additional written comments are also requested.

Mini-survey results show that over 78% of key stakeholders felt that APEX leaders had improved in their overall leadership effectiveness (Figure 1). Nearly 77% felt that leaders had also improved in their individually selected development goals (Figure 2).

In virtually every organization in which A4SL C&C has delivered coaching services, one lesson is universally the same: the leader's regular follow-up with key stakeholders correlates with perceived improvement in leadership effectiveness.

In the course of the continuing program, A4SL has received specific feedback from both stakeholders and the program participants themselves. Dianne Anderson states, "The APEX program has been very well received by senior leaders and HR professionals alike...and the participants in the program have experienced considerable growth in their leadership effectiveness."

Brian O. Underhill is a specialist in the design and management of large scale executive coaching initiatives. He is a founding member of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership and CoachSource. His clients include Agilent Technologies, CalPERS, Dell and Johnson & Johnson. Read more about Brian in the WABC Coach Directory. Brian may be reached by email at

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