Case Study: Launching Coaching at PharmaQuest

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PharmaQuest (a fictitious name), a large pharmaceutical company,

grew rapidly through acquisitions until there was no other company

left to buy that would propel its growth. Organic growth was the

next challenge. The investment community was interested in how

this new global powerhouse would create new drugs. What was in

the tank ready to go to market and what was under development?

Internally, the company was in near chaos, and the leaders seemed

shell-shocked as to what to do next. Some leaders abandoned ship:

about 10 percent of the leaders had been recruited out of the

company in the last six months to go to other firms. The COO and

HR senior VP agreed that they needed to take immediate action:

open leadership positions had to be filled, leaders had to be retained,

and promising new compounds had to be developed.

Unfortunately, over the past several years, little in the way of

leadership development had been undertaken. For the most part,

leadership development was viewed as costly, and the business

would be better served if the money was deposited in the acquisition

war chest. PharmaQuest now seemed to be paying for its

past sins of not developing leaders. Now it was time to play

catch-up. Executive coaching was viewed as a way to accelerate the

development of leaders to take on new challenges and refocus themselves

on bringing new products to market.Moreover, this program

would be expanded to all support areas, including HR, IT, and


The HR senior VP viewed this as an opportunity to demonstrate

the tangible value that his HR team could provide to the business.

They identified more than 80 leaders in the organization who were

to be assigned coaches. They contracted with an international

coaching company to provide the coaching. Their mandate was to

get the leaders to build more effective teams and more effectively

collaborate across the silos of the business units and functions. Ultimately,

it was assumed that these improvements in leadership

behaviors would accelerate the pipeline of new pharmaceutical

products. The HR team launched other developmental initiatives for

the leaders under the umbrella of Leadership Quest. Quarterly leadership

workshops featured speeches by thought leaders and time for

participants to discuss what they had learned. Cross-functional

action learning teams were formed to work on specific problems

identified by the COO and other senior leaders.

Twelve coaches began working with the 80 or so clients and agreed

to conduct three 1-hour sessions per month for half a year. Given

the lack of recent assessment data, each coach conducted a multirater

feedback assessment for each client. Although gathering and

analyzing the data was time consuming, the data suggested development

areas that the clients needed to address first. About halfway

through the six-month coaching process, the COO asked the HR

senior VP for a status update. The HR senior VP was able to report

that the coaching was on schedule and on budget and that the feedback

from the clients was positive. The coaching initiative was being

well managed. The COO, however, was asking a different set of questions.

He wanted to know about the impact of the coaching, not how

well it was being managed: How many more leaders will be ready

for promotion? How many more compounds will be ready for firststage

testing? The HR senior VP replied that he did not have data to

back up his assertions, but he did feel that the coaching and other

leadership activities were contributing to the business. Intuitively,

the COO agreed, but given the level of investment in leadership

development, he wanted more concrete evidence that business benefits

were being realized.

What drove the COO to ask the question about value was that,

while the comments of the coaching clients were positive, there were

questions about whether the coaching was hitting the mark. Stress

seemed to be increasing, and some of the major sources of conflict

seemed to be increasing, not decreasing. The coaching, and for

that matter Leadership Quest, seemed to be hitting symptoms and

not bedrock problems. Feeling better about the problems was not

the same as fixing the problems, and fixing the problems was the

order of the day if business benefits were to be gained from the

investment in coaching.

Business benefits from coaching can be realized if the appropriate

context for coaching has been set. The seeds of success for coaching

are planted at the planning stage. It is incumbent on both the

sponsors of coaching (in this case the COO and HR senior VP), the

manager of the coaching initiative, and the deliverers of coaching

(in this case the international coaching company) to establish the

context for coaching.What could have gone differently at Pharma-

Quest to set the context for coaching? This question is answered in

terms of the three critical success factors for setting the context for