Introducing a coaching culture of supportive, people-centered conversations is a challenge for any organisation. But at Aramco Overseas – an affiliate of energy company Saudi Aramco headquartered in Europe – the idea came about at a time of business transformation in an evolving industry.
Aramco Overseas has around 350 staff across the continent, offering supply chain, technical, recruitment and support services to its parent company from its Netherlands headquarters, and other UK and European sites, including London. A dedicated L&D function was established in 2014, to increase its existing work in the area: shortly afterwards, it identified coaching as key to accelerating learning and ushered in a new focus on professional development.
“Previously, we did offer staff training but when colleagues returned to their day jobs we were unsure if learnings were being applied,” says Nasir Alajmi, former head of HR at Aramco Overseas, who oversaw the shift. “We also needed to focus on people conversations. Far from remedial coaching, this involved focusing on employees’ strengths and career aspirations so that they can unlock their potential.”
Coaching began with the upskilling of HR employees, thanks to a learning programme introduced in conjunction with the CIPD, which showed managers how to shift conversations from being instructive to empowering.
“If we really wanted to lead as an organisation HR had to start having coaching-type conversations from the outset,” says L&D consultant Ivonne Tummers. “You can tell people they should have certain conversations, but if you’re not having them yourself, then it doesn’t work.”
Soon, Aramco had introduced a range of coaching options, from career, peer and team coaching through to executive coaching and key skills for managers. To date, more than 100 employees have joined the programme, and almost 40 mentoring relationships are underway.
“By the nature of what we do, we can be quite conservative and we’ve had feedback around the need to show vulnerability,” says Michelle Lowe, head of L&D. “It’s been a challenge for some managers but the results have been great. It’s supporting a shift in behaviours.”
It’s also changing the role of HR in handling difficult conversations, she says: “Whereas HR was previously seen as the department that needed to steer such situations, managers now feel more empowered to take the lead.”
Surveys suggest coaching has been warmly received– respondents report an uplift in the coaching skills deployed by both managers and peers, and there are opportunities to use their new abilities in their day-to-day roles. Most importantly, says Lowe, conversations across the board are becoming more facilitative and silos are being broken down as more internal moves take place.
“The way conversations have changed the most is around careers,” she adds. “It puts employees in the driving seat of their own development and there have been an increasing number of career moves.”
Challenges remain – particularly around performance management, where ratings can feel anathema to the coaching culture. But the change the L&D team has introduced can hopefully influence broader change, says Lowe, who adds: “Coaching doesn’t seem like a ‘special’ activity any more. It’s just part of how we do business.”