Best practice: a closer look at internal coaching with Danone

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Danone is one of the few companies to have developed internal coaching for its directors. This pioneering initiative, which is known as “Leader’s Perspectives”, now involves external and internal coaching partners from around the world, who work closely with teams to support the company as it transforms. We meet with the two “corporate hackers” who initiated this program in 2013 and made it an integral part of the company’s HR policy: Marie-Agnès Debar and Arielle Genton.

Can you tell us about how Danone’s internal coaching program came into being?

Marie-Agnes Debar: In 2013, Danone went through a large-scale adaptation plan, aimed at halving the number of CoDirs in Europe. A thousand director & manager positions were eliminated, which affected some highly committed leaders who were pivotal to the commitment of their employees. Having understood the impact on the rest of the business, Muriel Pénicaud, Human Resources Director for the Group at the time, wanted an adaptation plan that would be consistent with the double economic and social project. I myself was trained in coaching and it was my belief that the teams needed support to build the Danone of the future, and that we should not only focus on those who would be leaving us. So I went to see Muriel with a proposal based on my idea, and she gave me a two-year carte blanche for the plan, to create a support initiative for the teams that were going through the transformation.

I didn’t want to embark on this adventure alone, because I understood the importance of interactions in building progress in contexts like these. I approached Arielle, who also has coaching training, and who knew how much value it could bring.

Arielle Genton: At the time, I was HR Director for danone.communities, which really allowed me to have a broader vision of social innovation, the potential of inclusive diversity, with an “empowerment” approach to individuals and groups. When Marie-Agnès told me about her project to help the people in our Group get through this difficult restructuring project, I thought that in addition to supporting communities in Bangladesh or Cambodia to find the strength to take control of their own destiny, the right place for me was in Europe, where I could offer the same thing to the employees in our company.

How did you go about setting up this internal coaching initiative?

Arielle Genton: We started in “lab” mode, with workshops of twenty people (including managing directors), which were designed and run by external coaches. Our first focus was to provide support as employees left the company. Our method: co-building responses using emotional intelligence indicators.

Marie-Agnes Debar: Coaching workshops were included in two official briefing meetings for leaders on the adaptation plan in Paris and Amsterdam. The directors realized their value. And at the end of these meetings, some of the leaders asked us to take the same approach with their Board of Directors.

What are the basic ideas behind this “Danone”-style approach to team coaching? 

Arielle Genton: First, it’s the internal/external aspect. The message that we need to put across is “internal coaches know about our daily experiences, and take care of us; external coaches provide benchmarks and challenge our way of doing things”. Our idea is that team coaching is particularly important during transitions.

Marie-Agnes Debar: As a result, we’ll nurture an innovative approach to team coaching, driven by an internal/external “coach partnership”; one of the two coaches works with the leader and the other supports the team. We work with our network of partners to co-build a high-performance team coaching program over 6 days, in which we introduce a set of “compasses” based on trust, decisions, management, etc. to provide people with solid benchmarks and ensure they are autonomous in their understanding of transformation.

Arielle Genton: The coach provides support as the move is made from implicit to explicit, creating the conditions for healthy and productive conversations/confrontations. The process is actually more important than the result.

What feedback have participants given about this program?

Arielle Genton: Participants of Danone’s internal coaching program have said that first and foremost, they have found a space in which they can breathe, take a step back, and, above all, analyze situations. Then, they have explained how the program has improved team cohesion, solidarity, and better relational fluidity. And finally, they say that having team coaching has allowed them to change behaviors and attitudes concretely in the business on a daily basis.

Marie-Agnes Debar: Coaching can and must bring about real change. When participants say “it has helped me go much further than I would have imagined,” we’re on the right track.

You have been supporting leaders through transformation for 5 years, so what is your vision of a 21st century leader?

Marie-Agnes Debar: The current context is demanding on leaders: they need to maintain and develop the ongoing business while making huge changes. These are two different skillsets, verging on a double bind. But on the other hand, only humans, with all their imperfections, the strength of their intuition and creativity, can meet this challenge. This context is an opportunity for our leaders to learn, grow and create new paths for themselves.

Arielle Genton: Solitary heroes are no longer revered. Leaders are realizing that without their team, they are nothing. They are coming to the understanding that it is not their responsibility to “do”, but that they need to engage the whole community. The power of leadership today is the power to transform.

Marie-Agnes Debar: Humility, courage and discipline are probably three of the most important qualities in a future leader.

Arielle Genton: Humility means seeing another person as greater than yourself, and seeing a group as more important than individuals.

Marie-Agnes Debar: Courage is where the heart meets the guts! It is not only a temporary act of bravery, but a deep, sincere and determined commitment.

Arielle Genton: And discipline means taking care of yourself as much as others. Because nobody can be an inspiring leader if you’re not inspired and balanced yourself.

Interview by Valérie Hernandez Amalou and Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine.