Remote Business Coaching Made Sense Even Before COVID-19 – Now it’s a Necessity
Editor’s note: This article is part of NextBillion’s series “Enterprise in the Time of Coronavirus,” which explores how the business and development sectors are responding to the pandemic. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to useful resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out our coronavirus resource page.
As we’ve all learned in the past few weeks, the coronavirus is forcing us to do everything differently. Some things will never go back to the way they were – and in some cases, perhaps that’s a good thing. For instance, those of us who support microenterprises in low-income countries have long wondered why there has been so little emphasis on providing these entrepreneurs with basic management skills, so they can profitably run their companies. Sure, they need technical training, access to markets and finance, etc. But if they don’t know how to run a business in the first place, their enterprises will go under.
Development professionals are very aware of the high failure rate of small businesses, even in more affluent countries – and we know that microenterprises in emerging markets face hurdles unlike those in the developed world. Yet our sector has often failed to deliver business training and coaching to these entrepreneurs effectively. If business and management skills development is offered at all, it’s usually executed as one-off technical training with a one-size-fits-all approach. But theories collapse in practice. Stuff happens when you’re running a business – and every microenterprise has different challenges and different needs.
Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our work and priorities, we have the opportunity to transform and improve our approach. I believe it’s time we shift to distance coaching for business – a change that’s long overdue.
Why Remote Business Coaching’s Time has Come
Recent coronavirus travel limitations are pushing it onto center stage, but distance coaching is a better option for lots of reasons.
Why? First of all, it’s far more efficient than traditional in-person workshops and trainings – and importantly, it’s not a “one and done” intervention. Ongoing support is flexible and can be provided in an agreed-upon timeframe. For example, at EFour Enterprises, our coaching sessions are usually an hour a week over 3-11 weeks, but they can vary according to the specific program needed. Entrepreneurs can fit this coaching into their busy schedules, as opposed to taking leave of their businesses for days or weeks to attend in-person workshops. They have a week between sessions to complete their assignments, so they can better manage their time. And business owners (as well as supporting organizational staff) can participate from wherever they are. This is a huge advantage, since travel eats up time as well as money. Programs can be designed for the needs of specific groups, for as long as they need support, or as short as their budget permits.
Second, remote coaching is effective. Our programs provide individualized feedback and business advisory services for every participant, every week, no exceptions. We work in small groups of four to six people, to encourage peer learning and networking and everyone actively participates in every session. Homework assignments are always specifically about each entrepreneur’s business. Between sessions, email support is available as well. And while l always advocate for local business support as the first choice, sometimes the requisite skills and experience are not available in an entrepreneur’s location. Remote coaching gives entrepreneurs access to senior-level international business expertise that may not otherwise be feasible for support organizations.
Third, it’s cost-effective. There are no travel expenses or per diems—for anyone involved. Working in small groups also helps keep costs low in comparison with individual coaching, without sacrificing the benefits.
Bottom line: The reason remote coaching is superior to traditional training is that it enables personalized attention over time, and that’s what entrepreneurs in emerging economies need to succeed. Technology makes it feasible, simple and affordable.
Oh, and micro-entrepreneurs love it. So do the small business support programs and organizations that have used it.
Potential Issues With Remote Business Coaching
However, there are some challenges to making the transition to remote business coaching. For one, donors and business support organizations tend to cling to the notion that training must be done in person, even as they seek innovative, lower cost and more effective approaches. It will take time and effort to change this mentality (though the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate that process.)
In addition, organizations must carefully vet and select the right entrepreneurs for such programs. In terms of outcomes, success will only be realized with entrepreneurs who are motivated, dedicated and diligent. Our programs, for instance, are highly interactive and require open discussion. They involve teaching, hand-holding, brainstorming, hard work and problem solving. And they require entrepreneurs who are open to that kind of intensive, collaborative approach.
There are some technical caveats too. A reliable internet connection is imperative, as are good computer speakers and microphones. While internet access has now reached remote areas in developing countries, it can still be spotty in some places.
But though it’s important to keep the above challenges in mind, they’re not difficult to surmount. In the end, creative use of technology makes distance coaching work, but its impact is a function of the quality of the coaching, not the technological element. Video conferencing is not new, and neither is it rocket science. People (especially young people) are very comfortable in front of a computer screen, and they interact easily online. Training participants can see and talk to each other. We can screen share. We get to know each other. It’s all good.
Making the Shift to Remote Coaching
EFour’s ESchool launched in January 2020. As it turned out, this was well-timed. But we didn’t cobble together our remote coaching programs after coronavirus reared its ugly head. We had spent the previous 18 months crafting, refining, testing and adapting our model, methodology and offerings.
We’d known that remote business coaching would be a great idea for our clients and for us, as our company is entirely virtual. In fact, my business partner and I “met” as a result of a 2018 article I wrote for NextBillion. To this day we’ve never met in person. We worked on ESchool while operating in different U.S. states. My partner has invaluable skills in finance and technology that complement my background in business strategy and marketing. We honed our program utilizing cloud-based proprietary business tools entirely online. He’s now stationed in Iraq, and we’ve never missed a beat. Remote work is like that – as people around the world are now starting to discover.
We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, or what all the repercussions will be. But one thing is certain: If we want to continue our work to grow small businesses in the current climate, we need to find a better way. I believe distance coaching will eventually become the norm in development, because it just makes sense. We owe it to our microenterprises to empower them to get up and running once coronavirus is behind us.
Here are a few ways different stakeholders in the development sector can help transition our business training efforts to a remote coaching model:
Large companies should allocate funding to help their small suppliers to succeed and grow their businesses. They have the money, and remote coaching is a bargain, with significant ROI.
Donor 0rganizations should initiate more support projects for micro, small and medium enterprises that effectively teach these business owners how to run their businesses. They can dip a toe in the water now by including a distance coaching component in their current portfolios, as a test.
NGOs, incubators, governments, universities and implementers should try a remote approach with their current small business programs: All they need is a group of four to six entrepreneurs and a coordinating supervisor.
It’s hard to look on the bright side in times like these, but if necessity is the mother of invention, the pandemic might be the springboard to greater impact for the businesses that need it most.
For more information on ESchool visit www.efourenterprises.com.
Donna Rosa is Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at EFour Enterprises LLC.