Goal-setting is an incredibly powerful way to show employees you value them, but it doesn’t always have to align with business goals. Here’s how this UK business is approaching professional development differently.
When you think about professional development, you might imagine sending someone on a course to hone a specific skill or teaching them how to become a more effective leader.
But what if you got a little more personal?
What if you gave an employee the tools to mend a broken relationship, coached them through the process of buying their first home, or helped them learn how to drive so they could cut their commute time in half?
Perhaps you feel this would be treading too far into their personal lives, but that’s exactly what work has been doing over recent years. With the rise of mobile technology, strong internet connections and the globalised workforce, work has crept into our homes.
The lines between work and home have been smudged for years now, and the recent remote-work movement has all but erased those lines. So, in response, some employers are thinking about how they can replenish people’s personal lives in a bid to rethink retention, engagement and professional development.
Read HRM’s article about how COVID-19 has changed our sense of privacy at work.
COOK, a UK-based food preparation company, has taken a particularly interesting approach.
In 2013, it set up the ‘Dream Academy’. This is a program that allows any of its employees, from those in HQ right through to the factory floor, to engage in one-on-one personal coaching sessions and work towards a personal goal with its ‘Dream Manager’ Alastair Hill, who is also the founding executive coach at development agency Aha!.
“It’s a life coaching program that uses the power of people’s dreams. That sounds really ethereal and fun, but it can be difficult for people to embrace,” says Hill.
The idea was spawned from a book called The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly.
“Kelly wrote it as a business parable about a cleaning business that was really struggling. It was losing staff, people weren’t engaged or even turning up and the quality of the work was not good. They were on a downward spiral and didn’t know what to do. Then they hit upon this idea of hiring a dream manager.
“The guy sells it to his boss and says, ‘The people working for us are living day-to-day with very little purpose and meaning in their lives. They need to find some passion and discover their goals and dreams. If we do that, they’ll have an emotional connection to the workplace and be more grateful to our company. They’ll feel more cared for.’
“The CEO thinks it’s a wild idea, but says, ‘Let’s give it a go’. It ends up turning things around. People become very engaged and excited about their work.”
“Most coaching is for high-brow executives. That’s what’s wonderful about this program – you’re looking after everyone.” – Alastair Hill
More and more companies are rethinking engagement and development strategies to align with the expectations and needs of the modern worker. Part of that is not only aligning development with business goals but also with people’s personal goals.
Selling the dream
When Hill and Rosie Brown, the Co-Managing Director at COOK, decided to trial the Dream Academy, they weren’t confident it would catch on.
“COOK is a company that has people from all different stratas of life. Some of them are quite literally stirring the mince in the kitchen. Their existence has been very much hand-to-mouth.
“We thought it might feel a little too American for people,” he says.
“When you start talking about ‘dreams’ to people who feel [unmotivated] to get out of bed in the morning, you’re miles apart. It can take a while for the message to permeate, but these are the people who need it the most.”
Brown and Hill needed at least 12 people to express interest in order to get one cohort up and running.
“We ended up having 72 people wanting to do it.”
They were blown away by the employees’ enthusiasm and felt excited by the opportunity to give these employees – many of whom held blue-collar roles – the opportunity to participate in this type of personal and professional development.
“Most coaching is for high-brow executives. That’s what’s wonderful about this program – you’re looking after everyone.
“From the beginning, they can start out quite apologetic, cynical or gnarled up by life, but at the end, they can see that their life can be different.”
Hill says some of the employees he coaches can feel as though they have a lid on their potential. But when he’s able to work with them in one-on-one settings, all of a sudden that lid is blown off.
“Their belief systems start to change and they see the opportunities and possibilities for themselves. You just see it in their eyes. It’s the proudest work I do.”
Businesses might think investing in people’s personal growth is encroaching too far into their personal lives, or that there’s no direct bottom-line benefit, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Hill has personally seen employees’ confidence blossom. Their self-worth and mental fitness not only gets stronger, but propels them into an entirely different life.
“It helps people who are rudderless, lost, or feel without purpose or meaning in their life. Or they might have had difficult upbringings or challenges in their lives which make it hard to explore themselves. They’ve got a burning desire to do more, but it’s very difficult to do that without a cheerleader.”
Those who’ve gone through the program are happier and more fulfilled in a holistic sense. This transfers back to the business in the form of increased loyalty and output to the business, he says.
“We’ve done quantitative analysis which shows that the Dream Academy has given them 10 per cent more purpose, fulfilment and meaning in their life. That’s massive.”
How the professional development program works
Thanks to the positive reception from COOK employees, Hill now runs two cohorts through the program each year.
Over six months, he coaches employees on all manner of topics, such as improving relationships with their family members, starting a side hustle or overcoming anxieties. One employee even wrote his very first novel (see video below) – a goal he’d harboured for years but had never shared with anyone.
“He was somebody who’d been doing hobby writing, but he didn’t share it with anyone because was frightened about it. This was something he wanted to do for his kids. So his goal was to write a whole book. During the process he grew, matured and found his voice. Now he’s the program’s biggest advocate.”
“The first session is about determining what it is people want to focus on. It might be something fairly straightforward from someone’s point of view, but for that individual it’s massively life-changing.
“For example, I had one guy who had only been in the country for around three months and he wanted to get his license because his wife had to travel an hour-and-a-half to get to work every day, and an hour-and-a-half back. And she needed to take three buses to get there.
“He said if he had a license, he’d be able to drive her to work in 20 minutes. That would make a significant difference in their life.”
The dreams need to encourage employees to get out of their comfort zones, he says, which is why he encourages all participants to embrace a ‘stretch goal’ that’s likely to have a long-lasting impact on them.
“The goal has to be really sizzling and inspiring for them. It’s not about making it to the finish line, it’s about the difference something like this would make for them.
“I coached this one guy, he was a porter at COOK, and his dream was to set up a water company. During the six months, he bought the land foundations and set up a water bottling company in Nigeria. Some people just blow me away with what they can do.”
Create brand advocates
Not only can a program like this be treated as a new take on professional development, it can also be a strong talent acquisition tool.
“You get some people whose goal is to one day leave the company to start their own business. Let’s face it, a job is never for life. COOK understands that if you help people to mobilise to have a better life, the external PR you get from it is massive.
“People say, “I love that company because it helped me fix my relationship with my stepson or it helped me to start this company’. What’s better press than that?”
As well as building a network of alumni-turned-advocates, you’re also creating opportunities for employees to return to your organisation in the future and bring their new skills with them, he says.
“It’s freeing to think like this because rather than trying to hold on to something that you just can’t, you can look at the opportunities it brings. Don’t think of it like, ‘We’re investing thousands in people and they’re leaving.’ It’s fine. Other companies are experiencing that too and you’ll be able to benefit from that.”
Want to create a bespoke professional development plan that aligns with employees’ unique interests? AHRI’s suite of short courses has something for everyone.
Creating your own Dream Academy
For organisations looking to shake up their own professional development strategies, Hill has a key piece of advice: make sure leaders have the time, interest and willingness to see something like this through.
“If you try to launch something like this in a company where it’s seen as a nice-to-have or an HR stunt, it won’t see the light of day.”
It also needs to be scalable across the business, he adds. You’re not just trying to make your superstar performers even better, you want it to impact every single employee.
It’s also important to partner with a credentialed coach, he adds, as you can often be dealing with sensitive topics, such as financial, emotional and psychological issues.
“The modern worker wants to feel valued by the company they work for,” says Hill.
“If organisations want employees to join them on their journey, they need to align on purpose.
“If an employee can go some way towards fulfilling their personal purpose while working towards the organisation’s purpose, that’s the sweet spot. It’s an emotional connection that increases their productivity and happiness.”
A shorter version of this case study first appeared in the October 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.