Imagine the first day of a new job. The IT department sets you up with a new computer, the HR department gives you an employee handbook, and your manager hands you the contact information for a career coach.
Why, you might ask, would you need a career coach? You’ve already found a job, and hopefully it’ll be some time before you need to look for a new one. However, this type of coach is less concerned with figuring out your next step and more interested in helping make the most of the step that you’re on.
Once reserved for c-suite executives, coaching as an employee benefit is getting democratized by a small but growing number of companies. The employers who offer it are using it to help workers answer questions they have about their career paths and to handle the daily office tensions that are all too often swept under the corporate rug.
A host of new career-coaching-as-a-service providers are starting to crop up as companies seek out impartial support for their employees that neither a manager or HR department can provide at scale. Bravely, founded last year, already has a number of high-profile customers for its service matching workers with an external career coach. Its clients include the productivity company Evernote and the nonprofit Venture for America. There are a few other startups like Loris.ai and nonprofits like Empower Work aimed at addressing similar issues of workplace health, but the career-coaching-as-as-a-service industry is still nascent.
Hireology, a Chicago-based startup that builds hiring software for small businesses, began offering employer-sponsored coaching to its 200 employees in the past year. Many are just starting their careers.
“For a lot our employees, Hireology is their first or second job out of college,” says Julie Brinkman, the software company’s chief operating officer. “We’re pretty lean on the HR side, but we still want to give them professional support.”
Hireology, which has raised $26 million since its launch in 2010, enlisted the help of Bravely, which charges businesses an annual fee that varies depending on the size of the company. The coaching is free for employees.
It may seem counterintuitive for employers to pay for their employees to seek career advice from an outside adviser. After all, what if the coaching leads people to a decision to find a new job, a new field, or a new employer?
But companies like Hireology believe helping workers understand their motivations and address their insecurities is ultimately good for business—even if employees decide they would be happier working elsewhere. As careers become more fluid and less linear, a coach may be the support workers didn’t know they needed.
Coaching: It’s not just for senior management anymore
When coaching first came into vogue in company settings in the 1970s and 1980s, it typically was reserved for high-ranking executives to help them develop as leaders. Career support for lower-rung employees, if it was available at all, usually came in the form of apprenticeships or rigorous training programs designed to launch careers and catapult people up the ladder from one promotion to the next.
Corporate cost-cutting gutted those programs, though, leaving workers to sort out their own career paths. By the time millennials entered the workforce, employees came to either expect or even prefer less predictable routes to the top.
“We have a very different working world than we used to,” says Rachel Lockett, who runs career development at Pinterest and coaches private clients on the side. “People are at a job for two to three years rather than decades. While managers are responsible for you in your current role, they’re not responsible for helping you craft a career trajectory.”
In the post-career-ladder age, where people bounce from job to job and company to company, workers assume more of the responsibility for taking charge of their career. But at the same time, the war for talent, particularly among startups and big technology companies, has employers eager to show a willingness to invest in their employees’ growth and development. Coaching, as Hireology has discovered, is a compelling way to invest in talent at all levels of a company.
Though Hireology pays for the coaching provided through Bravely, the coaches’ interactions with Hireology employees remain confidential. Employees sign up with their personal email addresses, and Bravely does not communicate any information back to Hireology management beyond how often the service is used. This helps avoid the double bind of some HR professionals who might want to act in the workers’ best interests but are ultimately obligated to the interests of the company.
“We’re not here to solve the problems of an organization,” says Toby Hervey, Bravely’s co-founder and CEO. “We’re here to help employees start a conversation about what’s on their mind.”
The service is not only useful for people who aren’t content in their jobs or chosen fields. Bravely can provide as much value for satisfied workers who could use a little help steering their ambitions. But it’s ultimately up to companies to create a culture where employees feel comfortable speaking their mind and up to employees to put what they learn from their coach into practice.
“What I’ve seen with disengaged employees is they’re often in the right role or at least tangential to the right role,” says Lockett. “But they need to understand why they do what they do and how they can grow if they’re not growing in the moment.”
A good chat
Wanting to better understand the power of personalized coaching, I recently decided to give Bravely a whirl. I set up an appointment online through the company’s app, which felt much more like booking an appointment at a spa than a professional development training. (Because Bravely is an employee benefit, normally your company would have to subscribe before you can sign up.)
I spent the majority of the 45-minute call with my coach reflecting on my values and how I’d been feeling about the last few weeks at work. The session provided a nice change of pace from how I usually think about my job; with so many new inputs in a given week, it’s rare to take a step back to process. At the end of the call, my coach suggested we role play a conversation asking for a raise from my manager.
It all felt very low-stakes—like a conversation with a barber who happened to have two decades of experience in HR at a giant company. Though my Bravely coach didn’t name specifics, she had spent her entire career working in HR for a corporation that employed “tens of thousands of people.”
Heading back to work that afternoon, I somehow felt lighter. I got to express some of the professional anxieties I hadn’t yet put to words.
But ultimately my experience with coaching taught me that seeking out support is less about resolving any particular issue and more about imbuing my career with the same intention with which I hope to live my life overall.
In Daniel Pink’s New York Times bestseller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he asserts that money doesn’t motivate us to do our best work. Rather, it’s a sense of mastery, autonomy, and purpose that propels us to perform at our best.
If coaches can help employees feel more empowered in those ways in their role, employers are increasingly willing to foot the bill.
The AI will see you now
It isn’t just startups that are seeing the value in coaching for the masses. One of the oldest employers in the United States is rolling out a program to help workers stake out a path to advancement at the company. And with 18,000 employees, it needs a career coach that can serve the masses.
Citizens Financial Group, the New England-based regional bank founded in 1828, recently started working with IBM (paywall) to offer its staff a virtual career coach. MyCa, as the system is called (short for My Career), is powered by IBM Watson’s artificial-intelligence technology. It uses a chatbot to get to know an employee’s experience and aspirations before suggesting job opportunities within the company that might be of interest, and explaining the requisite skills the employee would need to develop in order to land the position.
“We’re trying to shift the way people think about careers,” while keeping them current on fast-changing job skills and requirements, says Susan LaMonica, the chief human resources officer at Citizens. “Say a branch manager wants to become a private wealth consultant. MyCa can help them understand the technical requirements of the role, where’s the gap, and how they can go about learning the new skills.”
Helping employees plot a career path makes particular sense for a company of Citizens’ scope; the potential to hop from a job in branch banking to a role in commercial lending and then on to a position in asset management means that employees can ostensibly try out different careers under the same company umbrella.
There’s a risk, of course, that outsourcing the task of coaching to an AI program will make employees feel all the more detached from their employers. More likely, though, the program is doing the kind of work that managers everywhere are generally either too busy or not trained well enough to do themselves. If that’s the case, then the AI program is additive, and not a faceless substitute for work currently handled by humans.
“Now that careers are much more fluid,” LaMonica says, “we want to help people understand the skills and experiences their colleagues have today… so they can stay relevant in this new world economy.”
In the workplace of the future, that might be the most important employee benefit of all.