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Coaching's Impact on Leadership Competencies at the City of Vancouver

By Carollyne Conlinn, MBA, MPH, MCC

The Business/The Organization

The City of Vancouver employs a staff of approximately 9,200 to provide services to the 650,000 residents of the City. There are approximately 650 managers in multiple departments who carry out the daily operations to provide a wide range of services from housing the marginalized to planning complex transportation routes through the City's busy residential and business sectors.

Within two years, the City will be hosting the 2010 Olympics, which will stretch the capacity of leaders to deliver world-class hospitality to international visitors to the Olympic Games. The environment is dynamic, and leaders operate under the constraints of public scrutiny and stretched resources in a labor market that is already struggling to meet the recruiting demands.

The Partnership

The City determined the need for executive coaching as part of its leadership capacity building, believing it was important to develop leadership strength from within the organization.

Coaching firms were invited to present proposals for how they would provide a pool of coaches to address the diverse needs of senior managers across the City's diverse portfolios.

Key considerations in making the selection were:

  • Coach qualifications and experience
  • Company's experience and systems with coaching contracts
  • Comprehensive evaluation protocol
  • Demonstrated understanding of the City's needs

The Challenge

Coaching results were evaluated against ten categories of behavioral competencies as part of a larger leadership development design.

  • Personal values
  • Adaptability
  • Innovation and initiative
  • Understanding others
  • Collaborating
  • Coaching and developing others
  • Communication
  • Service orientation
  • Planning and organization
  • Decision making and accountability

The key priorities for the City's continued success were to increase leaders' capacity for innovation and decision making within a municipal government environment. As well, coaching was seen as a process by which to prepare individuals for increased levels of responsibility and to serve as a retention strategy for high performers.

While all managers at the senior level had participated in a four-day leadership development seminar, the effect of individualized coaching had not yet been tested as a customized approach to development. Individuals were selected by their general managers to participate in the pilot. Although the human resources project leader had provided clear guidelines for criteria and communicated the goals of the pilot, the translation of information was not uniform throughout the organization. As a result, some individuals were recommended for the pilot without understanding its purpose. In the same manner, ten managers in a control group were selected by their managers to participate in the pilot by responding to evaluation questionnaires at the beginning and end of the pilot without being coached.

The Approach

In order to establish consistent understanding of the coaching pilot, a four-hour, in-person orientation session was held, during which coaching was defined, and all participating coaches were introduced.

At the same time, all participants completed a communication-style assessment to be used as the basis for pre-screening potential coach matches. Each participant was provided with two coaches to interview with the understanding that if there was not a good fit for the client, other coaches would be offered. All clients selected one of the coaches they had met during the orientation meeting. They then scheduled ten hours of telephone coaching over the subsequent six months.

The coaching firm was responsible for managing orientation, coach-client matching, reporting hours used back to the City's project leader and administering the evaluation process at the beginning, middle and end of the project.

While each coach developed the specific agenda with the client, they shared similar values and perspective, as they all work as a faculty team at Royal Roads University's Graduate Executive Coaching Certificate program. More information about the training curriculum offered at Royal Roads University is available online at www.royalroads.ca.

The Value Delivered

Leadership Competency Improved

At the end of the six-month coaching pilot, self reported results by participants and the control group indicated improvements in all ten behavioral categories by the group that was coached over the control group.

The greatest improvements by participants pre- and post-coaching were in:

  • Understanding others
  • Decision making and accountability

The greatest improvements by participants over the control group were:

  • Decision making and accountability
  • Communication
  • Innovation and initiative

Several of the coached managers were promoted or given increased responsibilities during the six months. At the end of the six months, retention rate for participants was 100 percent. At the end of twelve months, only two managers had left the City, leaving retention at a high of 87 percent. Specific rankings by participants and control group in all behavioral categories are outlined in Table 1.

[Click on picture for larger image]

In addition to the evaluation questionnaire, brief structured interviews were conducted with the participants, their managers and the coaches to gather more qualitative data for evaluation purposes. Coaching researcher Liz Reyer distilled key themes from the interviews, which were:

  • Positive impact on communication: more use of direct language; the ability to listen better; and the ability to target messages to audiences more clearly
  • Increased confidence and assertiveness: being proactive; communicating without second-guessing
  • Clarified next right steps for career changes: identifying passion; taking away the pressure of moving forward as a "should;" more strategic about career choices.
  • Moved from burnout to life balance: shift attitude toward self and work; taking the heat off, so felt less likely to leave
  • Direct work benefits: evaluating important vs. urgent; analyzing risk, taking on problems rather than skating around them; delegating with greater trust in others

Some positive comments from participants about coaching:

"The City gets a director who is more confident and as a result, more proactive, change-oriented, and emotionally and psychologically energetic."

"Helped me see beyond my current business unit to the whole City."

"[Coaching] helps work with others, communicate and have more harmonious relationships. Offers pragmatic steps, not just psychoanalysis."

From managers:

"Substantial value to the City; high returns in terms of [employee's] deep-seated and personal changes, which may have been needed in order for the City to recognize [the employee's] capacity."

"It is expediting [the coachee's] ability to gain credibility sooner. If this saves four to six months of salary, it's Can$30,000 to Can$50,000. This is based on improved productivity and retention."

From coaches:

"[Coachees] found ways to frame their approach to leadership issues more successfully."

"Multiple employees were considering leaving the City and stayed instead."


The coaching pilot at the City of Vancouver demonstrated the value of coaching in an environment where it had not been previously tested. The use of a control group with similar characteristics to the group being coached demonstrated a significant impact on improving behavioral qualities of emerging leaders. As a result of the pilot, the City has continued to offer coaching to emerging leaders as an integral part of its long-term strategy to build leadership capacity for the future.

Carollyne Conlinn, MBA, MPH, MCC founded Full Spectrum Coaching to offer coaching services to companies. She also created the Excelerator Coaching ProgramTM offered through Royal Roads University and the Great Question GameTM, facilitated internationally to introduce a coach approach to business. Find more information at www.greatquestiongame.com. Contact Carollyne at carollyne.conlinn@fullspectrumcoaching.com and learn more about her in the WABC Member Directory.

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