I became an official manager of people in 2017. At Deloitte, my current employer, this comes with a substantial shift in responsibilities. I began getting included in a lot more strategic discussions with our executives. My performance metrics started to include business development metrics (sales, marketing pieces, etc.) and my corresponding expectations for time spent on client projects on a day-to-day basis went down. This is all fairly comparable for how most professional services firms work as individuals move up in rank.

But with Deloitte, there’s something new added: I also picked up the title of “coach.”

A coach is a person a skip-level above you whose responsibilities are aimed at guiding you and championing you in your career. A coach has several responsibilities:

  • to mentor their coachees
  • to represent their coachees well during annual performance reviews
  • to keep their coachees in line with the strategy of the business
  • to expand their coachees’ networks to other leadership
  • to make sure their coachees don’t accidentally step into problems due to inexperience
  • to slap their coachees’ wrists when they fall out of line with compliance
  • to help them grow their careers

This role (in my opinion) is the single greatest talent-growth differentiator we have. Every organization should have a program like this.

Interlude: a brief word on the environment

For some of our coaching structure to make sense, there are two key pieces of structural context you’ll need.

First, Deloitte is a professional services firm, not a product firm. We sell projects: doing taxes, or writing a research report on Belgian pastry law, or building a nifty dashboard for some arcane mainframe software. Most staff will work on 3-6 projects in a performance year, which means it’s entirely possible they may have just as many different managers. That’s different than most organizations where you have a pretty firm idea of who your boss is for a whole year.

Second, our annual performance reviews are decided by a group of our partners, not by an individual project manager. Sure, those project managers weigh in, but the decision is made by partners.

And, finally, Deloitte is a supermassive company with a lot of people spread out over the entire world. What I am describing below is my own experience in my own little corner of the company; to be honest, I’m nearly certain that the experience may differ across regions and countries.

With that context - let’s talk about coaching.

Everybody gets a coach

Everyone has a coach on their very first day. You don’t have to know anyone, you don’t have to even have an idea about your future path yet. Your first coach is assigned to you. That assignment is somewhat haphazard: it will typically be someone in your division and someone who’s running a little light on coachees (so the average coach has six coachees, but one coach recently had two people leave for another job, they’ll be first on the list for the new crop).

Naturally, this matchup might be suboptimal at first. It’s pretty common for a coach/coachee to get to know each other and realize their personalities aren’t a good fit, or that the coachee might be looking for a mentor with a similar (or different) background to their own. Because of that - coach switches are free! You literally email an address that’s on your own personal HR dashboard and say “I want to change my coach to this new person,” and it’s changed. There’s no review process, there’s no approval… it’s just done.

This assigned-but-changeable relationship gives us two perks: it gives the new folks an anchor point into the culture from the beginning, while giving them freedom to adapt as their knowledge and experience with the company grows.

Your coach represents you at your performance review

Recall our peculiar context: annual performance reviews are group settings, taking into account all of the different projects you may have dealt with over your year. The first thing every coachee learns is that their coach is their advocate with those group members. The coach weaves a cohesive narrative throughout the year and helps with some of the intangibles (like: “hey, this particular project was less great than the others because it was her first time doing this, so we should cut her some slack”).

In an ideal scenario, the coach and coachee should be regularly checking in throughout the year so the coach doesn’t have to try to wrangle a good performance story out of an avoidably bad one. There are no forced requirements for this. The one meeting at the start of the performance review and the one meeting at the end are the only “requirements.”

Your coach is there to grow you with the rest of the business

It goes without saying that direct managers have a broader view of the business’s strategy than a practitioner. And their managers have an even broader view of the business. We believe that giving people an avenue into that broader business picture - as they need it - is important for helping them grow. That’s why our coaches are a skip-level above their coachees. It lets coaches bring in some of that broader business throughout conversations with the coachee, letting them see how strategy is being shaped beyond the things they see every single day. And, on the flipside, it’s good for the coach: they get a vantage point into some of the front-line that they might not typically see otherwise.

Your coach is an arbiter between you and your front line managers

I think single points of failure are, as a general rule, not great. And having a single relationship (the manager/staff relationship) as a single point of failure for an individual’s career is not great, nor is it grounded in the reality of how most people’s day-to-day job operates.

Let’s give a hypothetical: we have a talented systems engineer who has worked great with the security teams and system administrators, but she doesn’t really enjoy working with non-technical people. A re-organization happens and our engineer is now on a team led by an MBA type who’s more of a product manager than an engineering manager. They butt heads. MBA type starts marking the systems engineer as difficult to work with in performance reviews. Engineer gets a bad review and no raise. Engineer bounces to go work for another company.

Now, let’s add a coach in to the mix. Remember, the coach is a skip-level rank above - not necessarily in the chain of command but certainly someone our hypothetical manager will likely know and respect.

Coach hears about the MBA vs. engineer personality divide in a check-in with their engineer. There’s the first opportunity to fix the problem: maybe the coach can offer some tips to help the engineer work better with their new boss. Okay, maybe that helps a little, but it’s still not great. So coach starts asking if maybe it’s better if the engineer changes teams to work more with security. Maybe that fixes it! Or maybe it doesn’t - and maybe the issue is that the engineer just isn’t going to be happy with the new regime. That happens too.

But at any rate, we’ve had several opportunities where the coach can both try to course-correct with their coachee, and where the manager will have to at least explain themselves to another person why they’re unhappy with that engineer’s performance.

Your coach is just there for you when you need to vent

Look, things happen. Sometimes your manager has an off day and makes a mistake that means the team has to stay late. Sometimes you get passed up for a promotion that you wanted (but maybe didn’t deserve yet). Working with people can sometimes be frustrating.

And sometimes you need a trusted mentor to just call and gripe to, without fearing that they’re going to judge you or that there will be repercussions for you needing to vent some steam. Coaches are there for that too.

Final thoughts

I don’t think there is much debate on whether “coaches/mentors are good.” It’s pretty well-established that they are. But we take the next step and say “and organizationally, we are going to make sure each person has one and align our own processes around it.” That’s the next level and something that organizational leadership has to make a commitment to do. From this person who’s both a coach and coachee - it’s worth it!