Who Coaches HR?

Author: Kim Freeman

HR professionals often wear many hats, from onboarding administrator and employee engagement specialist to management liaison and compliance manager. Their duties frequently include professional development coaching for management and leadership as well.

So how does someone with a career in HR continue to make an impact when seemingly spread so thin? By taking advantage of career and executive coaching, just like any other key manager or supervisor.

"HR professionals have always been tasked with coaching mid-senior leaders without having coaching themselves, and this proves how pivotal it has become for HR pros to receive coaching," said Julie Turney, HR@Heart founder and CEO (chief engagement officer).

Why Coaching Is Important to HR Professionals

The need for extra care for overworked HR professionals is even more significant as the global pandemic continues. HR business partners, managers and chief HR officers (CHROs) toiled furiously to keep companies afloat during layoffs and shutdowns. Now they are working overtime to retain talent and implement new remote and hybrid work location policies. Keeping essential employees engaged and refreshed is critical.

Focusing on HR support through coaching is also necessary because of the increasing rates of burnout. According to a Deloitte survey of full-time professionals, 77 percent of respondents experienced burnout pre-pandemic - a statistic that no doubt included HR pros. Since COVID-19, burnout remains high, and, according to a survey, many directly blame the pandemic.

Not only does coaching benefit HR, but the return on investment (ROI) of professional development and leadership coaching is high for companies. Studies have indicated positive ROI from executive coaching, including:

  • Improved productivity;
  • Customer service improvements;
  • Increased retention;
  • Enhanced direct report/supervisor relationships;
  • Improved teamwork and co-worker relationships; and
  • Greater job satisfaction.

Barbie Winterbottom, CEO of the Business of HR, an HR coaching company, said businesses that provide HR coaching promote increased job satisfaction for existing HR personnel. A commitment to coaching also attracts the best talent when recruiting HR professionals, she said.

Besides addressing burnout and depression of HR professionals, coaching also supports career growth, according to Turney. "Career growth is not just about climbing the corporate ladder," Turney said. "It is also about expanding your knowledge and growing competencies in your role." Coaches can "future-proof an HR career by sharing information on professional trends and insights on HR tech that will help develop skills and competencies," according to Turney.

In years past, HR struggled to find a seat at the senior leadership table; but that is rapidly changing in the 21st century as organizations embrace people-centric strategies. Accordingly, HR pros must balance business needs with people policies.

"The role of an HR pro is no longer 'hire/payroll/benefits/fire,'" Winterbottom said, adding, "Those are tactical elements of a much broader strategic focus of people. In my experience, the education offered for those who want to work within the people space is focused on compliance, policy, litigation avoidance and organizational design. While these are necessary aspects of the work, it isn't - or shouldn't be - the end game of the work we do."

Instead, coaches like Winterbottom focus on helping those working in the people space to "build meaningful relationships, and to understand how to connect business goals to people strategy to drive desired outcomes."

Who Can Benefit From HR Coaching

While there is an argument that coaching can help no matter where someone is in an HR career, Winterbottom said that is not always the case. She said there might be those who are satisfied in tactical-level roles, such as payroll and benefits administration.

But for those entry-level HR business partners seeking career growth and evolution into people leadership, Winterbottom said having a coach can "significantly accelerate their growth and career trajectory while creating better experiences for the people of their organization."

The focus of HR coaching can depend on experience, career interests and organizational needs. Standard coaching needs vary at progressive levels of expertise.

Entry-Level HR Coaching

A new HR generalist may face many issues that coaching can help address. These include:

  • Understanding business needs and HR's role in meeting the annual strategic plan,
  • Using analytics and key metrics to advocate for policy changes,
  • Communicating effectively with stakeholders, and
  • Building HRM knowledge and expertise.

Mid-Level HR Coaching

Coaching for those in mid-career might be the most critical. Burnout is real, and few feel that more so than HR business partners or managers who are eight to 12 years into their career. Catching these professionals before they abandon their jobs is critical.

Mid-level HR professionals may need coaching on:

  • Physical, mental and emotional wellness,
  • Career pathing and development,
  • Proactive self-promotion of contributions to business success, and
  • Finding an expertise niche (for example, in HRIS, leave administration or talent acquisition).

Senior-Level HR Coaching

Turney advises that coaching plays a critical role during times of significant organizational change, such as mergers, acquisitions or reorganizations. Because senior HR leaders are typically on the front lines during these times, they may need coaching support.

HR executives in leadership positions benefit from coaching on certain competencies, including:

  • Quick and decisive action to keep up with business demands,
  • Strategic alignment of HR with company goals,
  • Leadership development, and
  • Succession planning.

Internal Coaching of HR

When considering coaching resources, look internally first. If the right managers and supervisors are in place, coaching on an informal basis should already be occurring. And at some organizations, depending on the size and competencies of the HR department, there may be formal coaching offered to employees, managers and leaders.

Businesses with coaching programs need to integrate HR personnel consciously, and HR may need to advocate for itself in this regard. For organizations without structured coaching, HR can initiate a program, including one for themselves.

Opportunities for internal HR coaching include:

  • Peer-to-Peer. This type of horizontal coaching is like being "taken under the wing" of a more experienced HR co-worker and goes beyond just on-the-job training. The coaching can be informal or structured, as when coaching is part of annual goal-setting. With this approach, even those new to HR may coach others, based on their expertise, such as new technologies. By spreading out the coaching responsibilities, everyone contributes and grows from and in coaching competencies.
  • Team-Manager. Vertical coaching between HR and managers is standard given the nature of supervisory roles. But those in managerial HR positions need to focus on coaching HR team members in the same way they work with other department managers to coach their staff. Like the cobbler's kids who have no shoes, HR bosses too often overlook their own. Yet HR leaders play a critical role in the career and performance coaching of subordinates.
  • Executive-Leadership. For high-level HR executives, the internal options for coaching may depend on the leadership team. Some businesses have CEOs who enjoy being the coach for all senior executives so that all work in a manner consistent with the company's strategic plan. Larger organizations may pair senior executives with leadership team members to promote professional and career growth. For example, the CHRO may coach the CFO on team performance and accountability, while the general counsel coaches the CHRO on legal compliance processes.

When it comes to coaching for HR at any level, getting stakeholder buy-in is paramount. Some HR professional development needs are similar to other departments', but individuals in HR handle unique issues that involve other employees and management. They likely need coaching in areas their co-workers outside of HR do not. For instance, many need help with handling the emotional fallout of ending someone's employment.

What to Look for in an External HR Career Coach

When selecting a coach from outside the organization, Turney advises choosing one who has worked in HR. She recommended selecting a coach who understands career pathing, listens well and is non-judgmental. "There are moments you will want to share hard things, and you want a coach who can handle that without judgment," Turney said.

At times, even an organization with an internal training department may lack the expertise needed to coach HR. And, as Winterbottom counsels, external coaching for HR can be beneficial to build trust. "They trust me because I am there just for them, and I can see through the chaos they live in every day because I have been there," she said. "I can deliver candid feedback and push them harder because they trust me more."

Organizations should seek external HR coaches who have:

  • Experience in HR, not just legal compliance. Yes, the ever-changing employment law landscape requires HR attention, but the job is so much more than policies and procedures. Coaches who have worn the many hats of HR can train, mentor and guide from experience.
  • An HR coaching/consulting business. HR experience is a must; not every HR pro can be a coach. Look for solid credentials (coaching and subject-matter certifications, for example) backed by client references.
  • Good reputations in the HR and business community. Do a basic internet search to see the prospective coach's press, presentations and events. Do not forget to poll your network, such as through professional social media channels, when asking for referrals.
  • A combination of data-driven analytics and people skills. In future-ready organizations, all the soft skills related to employee engagement and welfare must be quantifiable so that leadership understands the importance of HR and provides the necessary funding.
  • A record of producing results. Ask for ROI details for past and current clients.

Senior-level HR executives often can coach managers and business partners if they have the time, expertise and inclination. However, an outside resource offers flexibility, neutrality and services for high-level HR executives. "An HR coach who has done this work with a successful track record can help you navigate the how of the work so you can achieve the what of the work," Winterbottom said.

Providing an outside expert can also decrease the anxiety HR teams have because, according to Winterbottom, they can "lean on, ask questions, and gain the perspective of someone who has no stake in the outcome."

"I am not tied up in the politics of the organization or worried about stepping on toes. My sole focus is to help that individual or team achieve their goals and grow their skill sets," said Winterbottom, who spent 25 years in corporate HR before starting her HR coaching business in 2020.

Unlocking HR's Potential Through Coaching

W. Timothy Gallwey, the author of books on personal and professional development, offers this definition of coaching: "Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them."

When organizations focus on the needs of HR professionals by providing coaching, the ROI includes better engagement, productivity and retention. In addtion, HR becomes a strategic partner that is necessary for an organization's long-term growth and success.

As businesses compete to attract and retain the best talent, reduce burnout and engage employees, robust coaching for HR professionals can be a game-changer.

Additional Resources

How to Align HR Strategy With Business Strategy

Investing in Leadership Development

Professional Development for HR

Training and Development: Federal