Lights, Camera, Coaching

By Garry Kranz

Oct. 23, 2007

The late Aaron Spelling never made a TV series about employee coaching. But the legendary producer would have enjoyed The Firm, an in-house miniseries created by consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers.

    Dramatizing real-life workplace issues, The Firm (think of NBC’s The Office, except with a worthwhile purpose) follows the interaction of six fictional employees at the company as they learn valuable lessons about accountability, appropriate business attire, giving and receiving feedback, bridging generational differences and other key behaviors.

    You won’t find The Firm on cable or satellite. The target audience is the 30,000-strong U.S. workforce of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The episodes come complete with a catchy theme song, recurring characters and even a bloopers episode. The inaugural “season” of 10 programs concluded its run recently, and the second season hit the company’s internal airwaves on October 17.

    The specific goal of season one was to entertain employees while educating them about the pivotal role coaching plays in the organization, says Kym Ward Gaffney, the national coaching leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

    “We wanted to create coaching messages that were authentic to the PwC experience. We wanted this to be fun, not preachy or pedantic,” Gaffney says.

    Headquartered in midtown Manhattan, PwC provides assurance, advisory and tax services to many large corporations, including the Fortune 500. It is the third-largest private company in the U.S., according to Forbes magazine, with 2007 sales topping $25 billion.

    Each program runs only a few minutes, often using humor to deliver serious points. The overarching theme: Almost every workplace situation presents an opportunity “to coach and be coached.” A narrator (Gaffney) sums up the main idea at the end of each episode.

    Portraying the main characters are actual PwC employees from the New York/New Jersey area, giving the production the desired air of authenticity. About 60 employees auditioned for the roles of the six characters. The ethnically and gender-diverse cast consists of Amy, an associate; Blake, a senior associate; Carl, a senior manager; Bob, a partner, Sally, an executive assistant; and Mukesh, a newly hired employee.

    The series debut introduces the characters, who are viewed mainly through the eyes of Amy, a 20-something with a propensity for twirling strands of her hair as she candidly assesses each of the other characters. She says of Blake, a party animal who occupies the neighboring cubicle: “I guess he gets work done some of the time. But he really doesn’t seem to do much.”

    After a cutaway to a shot of Blake leaving the men’s room, she adds: “Plus, he smells.”

    It is a bit of foreshadowing that pays off, in a serious way, in a subsequent episode. It features Blake and Carl, the senior manager whom everyone likes for his honesty and helpfulness. The episode, “Difficult Conversations,” opens with Blake explaining to the camera why he is shaving in the men’s room. A round of all-night partying prevented him from going home to clean up for work. Carl walks in, easing into a critical coaching moment.

    “We need to have a talk,” Carl tells Blake. He then voices the concerns raised by Amy and others: “You smell like a bar” on arriving at work, he says. He tells him, politely but firmly, to shape up or ship out.

    The message takes hold. Several episodes later, Blake is the first one to arrive at the office. He credits Carl for providing honest and direct feedback to “help me clean up my act.” When Amy arrives, she peeks around her cubicle wall and is surprised to find Blake there ahead of her, hard at work.

    The conversation in the men’s room served as a turning point for Blake. The point was clear: As important as formal evaluations are to help employees grow, it’s often in the unscripted, informal moments that the most meaningful coaching occurs.

    Giving precise feedback is the theme of another episode. It begins innocently enough with Sally telling Bob she’s going for coffee.

    “Can I get you anything?” Sally asks.

    Bob gives her a litany of Starbucks requirements:

    “I’d like a venti, skim latte, no foam, extra hot. Oh, and bring some of that yellow sweetener, not the pink stuff.” Amazed at the specificity of Bob’s order, a dazed Sally is shown in the elevator carrying a tray of coffee cups, and she shares her thoughts.

    “Venti, skim latte, no foam, extra hot; it never fails to amaze me how specific we can be about stuff that doesn’t matter. But when it comes to just talking to each other, we’re experts at being totally vague. Tell me specifically what I need to know to do my job better; [don’t just] say, ‘That’s fine.’ ”

    The concluding narrative reinforces the point, “When you say exactly what you mean, you get exactly what you want: the yellow sweetener, not the pink.”

    Episode nine finally introduces Mukesh, a new employee who has appeared in the opening credits but is largely absent from the previous episodes. That is by design. Most of the other characters don’t even recognize Mukesh’s name, although he’s been with the firm for six months. Ironically, it’s Blake who takes Mukesh under his wing and tries to ease his assimilation into the organization.

    Portraying the characters were Tim Abrahams (Carl), Deirdre Connors (Amy), Don Favre (Bob), Blake Neiman (Blake) and Mukesh Luhano (Mukesh). The woman who played Sally has since left the firm and PwC did not provide her name.

    The final episode features bloopers, closing with a simple message: “We tried to tell the truth. We tried to encourage important conversations. We had fun.”

    Although many companies use online video to aid employee learning, the concept of a TV program is highly unusual, especially for a conservative and serious-minded company like PricewaterhouseCoopers. Internal coaching is well-established at PwC. For example, each employee is assigned a personal coach, but the company sensed a need to reinvigorate its message.

    “We’re not producing widgets. We’re sending our people out to work with clients,” so it’s critical they demonstrate the attitudes and behaviors deemed critical for success, Gaffney says.

    A TV-style format was used to deliver the training messages because it is both immediate and universally appealing, according to Gaffney.

    The 10 episodes were filmed during a three-day period. Another three weeks were devoted to voice-overs, editing, mixing and other technical aspects. All told, Gaffney estimates the company spent about $125,000 on the production, which included hiring scriptwriter Bill Heater.

    Employees were notified by company e-mail each time a new episode was released and which installments were available for viewing on PwC’s internal computer networks.

    The first episode attracted 8,500 viewers, and the numbers rose steadily with each successive episode. Attesting to its popularity is a growing overseas audience of PwC employees. Although intended mainly for PwC’s U.S. workforce,The Firm has been seen by PwC employees in Canada, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere.

    Season two of the series focuses on fictional PwC staffers in the Los Angeles office. Again, they’re played by real PwC employees. And while the first season’s episodes addressed the organizational value of coaching, PwC says the second season zeroes in on business issues, such as “the tension of losing a client because we failed to deliver behaviors that lead to high-quality service,” according to Gaffney.

    The employees who participated in season one, meanwhile, have attained the status of in-house celebrities. In real life, Tim Abrahams is a certified fraud examiner in PwC’s computer forensics division. And co-workers he’s never met now seek him out.

    “They’ll stop me in the cafeteria and say, ‘Hey, you’re Carl, the guy from the video,” Abrahams says.

    More important is the fact that the video series has heightened awareness among employees about the important role of coaching, Abrahams says. He actually does coach five PwC employees.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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