Leave the perks; take the coaching.

Foosball tables and wellness programs may attract talent, but they won’t keep it.

Whether you’re in Silicon Valley or Kansas City, you are living in a startup world now. We all are. Every year, the U.S. sees about 4,000 new start-ups, even though only 15 of those will generate 95% of the economic returns.[1] Despite the long odds, optimistic entrepreneurs continue breaking virtual ground on a daily basis. Even the U.S. Government backs the rising tide of start-ups in hopes of creating more high-quality jobs and driving the innovation we need to solve some of the globe’s biggest issues.

This start-up economy in which we find ourselves has big implications for hiring and retention of talent, and for culture. Many organizations try to differentiate themselves by offering increasingly extravagant perks. But fighting the perk war is a losing battle. Not because perks aren’t desirable. They are (don’t you dare try to take away my office stash of chocolate almonds). And not because your corporate culture isn’t important. It definitely is. When it comes to hiring and retaining talent, culture is the only meaningful differentiator.

But your corporate culture is about far more than whether people can bring their dogs to the office or do downward-facing dog onsite at noon. When it comes to retaining and nurturing talent, you have to do one thing: create an environment in which people feel like they have the opportunity to do their best work, every day. Perks are an investment in the present moment. If you want to retain your talent, you need to be investing in your people’s future.

Superstars need coaches.

There are many valid and important ways to create a culture in which people can do their best work. Learning programs can help people discover new ways of seeing and applying their innate strengths. Technology can increasingly understand who people are and deliver content that is meaningful, personalized, and relevant to what they need right now, at this very moment. But the most powerful, proven mechanism to support the culture that fosters and sustains talent is coaching.

In the corporate world, we are slowly expanding our structure of interpretation around coaching. It used to be that coaching was leveraged to help a struggling executive. It might as well have been dubbed swim coaching, because it was aimed at people trying to keep their heads above water (or to keep from drowning others). But that attitude is changing, fast. In fact, coaching has its greatest impact not in remediating poor performance, but in retaining top talent. Google’s Eric Schmidt went as far as to say that a board member telling him to get a coach — when he was already a highly successful CEO — was the best advice he ever received. As he put it, every famous athlete, every famous performer, has somebody who’s a coach to give them perspective.

When you look outside the corporate world, it’s easy to see how true that is. The most successful music superstars all have vocal coaches who put them through their paces and catch the subtle nuances that improve performance. It’s inconceivable that a top athlete would go without a coach. Quite frankly, without a coach, it would be impossible even to be a top athlete. Some coaches are highly visible, pacing the sidelines and showing up at the parades (it’s worth noting that Phil Jackson led Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to 11 NBA titles between them, while their total without the great coach was exactly zero). Other coaches are behind the scenes, known only to insiders who watch closely (everyone knows Nadia Comaneci got perfect 10s at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976; few can name Bela Karolyi, the man who helped her elevate her performance to that height).

Obviously, the corporate world is a little different from the world of world-class sports and music stars. But only a little. We value performance just as much. We measure it just as obsessively as anyone in a ball cap with a whistle around his neck measures the performance of his team. And, just as in sports or in a band, while we need to address the team as a whole and coordinate its elements, performance happens one individual at a time. So why wouldn’t we address it that way?

Perks are about “we”; coaching is about “me.”

It’s all about the individual. This is why perks will never be the key differentiator. Perks are about the “we” — the whole company, together. “We” is a great thing. It’s important. But by definition, it’s not differentiated. Sure, you can differentiate yourself from the company down the street by offering better food, or laundry service, or even — I am not making this up — “life creation insurance.” (Because if you work here, you’re going to be too busy innovating to think about having kids just yet; tech magnets such as Apple and are now footing the bill for IVF, sperm donors and egg freezing.)

But what about differentiating each person and the unique strengths he or she has to offer? Investment in “we” is great. But where is the investment in “me”?

Coaching — specifically strengths-based coaching — is that investment. It is the surest, most direct way to help people make their greatest contribution and do their best work. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss, it helps “me” be the best “me” I can be. It creates an overall culture for your organization that is the aggregate of myriad unique micro-cultures, one for each person. Because each person is able, with the help of a coach, to define and create the conditions under which he or she is not only productive and engaged, but fulfilled.

This personal, one-size-fits-one strengths-based approach makes as much sense in the corporate world as it does on a sports field. In both environments, team success is achieved by maximizing the impact of the individual. Strengths-based coaching focuses on individuals who want to take responsibility for becoming a more powerful contributor, and it emphasizes that their key areas of opportunity are their strengths, not their weaknesses. Every single person has unique gifts that can be leveraged to benefit both that individual, and the team. The job of the coach is to work with the individual to draw those gifts out, apply them to situational challenges and opportunities, and create the goals and action plans that will help to realize his or her potential.

More than any other thing you do to develop your team leaders, coaching helps to create a high-performing culture, because it is:

  • Coaching identifies critical challenges and points to education and practices that help people learn how to be the best version of themselves, not only at work, but also in life.
  • One-to-one coaching is “just for me and just enough of what I need right now,” encouraging people to take what is unique about them and make it useful.
  • Providing one-to-one coaching flaunts your commitment to nurturing talent. I often ask people, “what is the meaning you’re attaching to that action?” The action of investing directly in someone’s development conveys a pretty clear meaning: “I care about your future success.”

Strengths-based coaching is like performance insurance.

Innovative organizations that already invest in coaching for their team leaders don’t consider it a “perk.” They consider it a “must,” because the performance of team leaders drives the performance of the entire organization. Organizations that know this consider coaching a way to retain, motivate and develop their most critical talent: their team leaders. To take just one example, Facebook has made strengths-based coaching an integral part of its culture. We have had the privilege of partnering with them over the past five years to weave the strengths approach into their management training. As part of that training, they have emphasized the importance of strengths-based coaching for their people managers, understanding that coaching team leaders lays the foundation for building stronger teams.

The bottom line? Competing in the perks war is necessary, but not sufficient. A tangible, personal investment in your people is the best way to differentiate your culture. And nothing is a more effective, more personal investment than coaching. Coaching is more about retention than remediation. Helicopter rides and frozen eggs may get attention and headlines, but they won’t retain top talent. Coaching will.


Charlotte Jordan Saulny is President and SVP of Education and Coaching at The Marcus Buckingham Company. I am an advisor through and through. You won’t have to ask me twice to hear my opinion. I believe there is a special genius in making distinctions that unlock understanding and tease out the subtle nuances that distinguish the best course of action from a good course of action. Usually this core belief manifests in a very customized and targeted approach to consulting with clients and leading The Marcus Buckingham Company’s coaching and learning services. Here, it will take the form of distinctions I hope will be of broader use for everyone. When I’m not working, the best course of action usually involves hiking with my kids and two Great Danes in the mountains behind my house, or watching “Game of Thrones.”