Executive coaching – does it really work?
The executive coaching industry is growing fast with some studies reporting that up to 90% of businesses now use external coaches. Chris Martin from Silvermaple discusses the benefits and risks of this changing landscape and reviews the evidence to see if coaching actually works.
A changing landscape
Over the last decade there has been an explosive growth in the number of senior managers receiving coaching. This increase has also been reflected in the size and revenue generated by the coaching industry at a global level.
Membership of the International Coach Federation has more than tripled and in 2014 IBISWorld estimated coaching was a $1 billion industry in the U.S. alone, with the Harvard Business Review estimating the global coaching industry to be worth in excess of $2 billion.
Coaching isn’t just growing, it’s evolving. In addition to executive coaching, there are many other offerings available including; life coaching, health coaching, career coaching, and elite coaching. Multiple coaching models also exist all with accompanying coaching techniques, qualifications and networks. Coaches for their part have the choice of remaining true to one approach or blending this to suit the individual needs of their client.
‘Coaching isn’t just growing, its evolving’
• A shift in mind-set – Over recent years there has been a shift in people’s attitudes towards executive coaching. Rather than a remedial offering for struggling or underperforming leaders, coaching is now seen as a performance enhancing opportunity. Businesses who provide coaching within a culture that appreciates the need to invest in talent and leadership can differentiate themselves in a competitive market place.
• Increasing regulation – Its early days but we are starting to see a more regulated approach to coaching. Coaching federations and other formal bodies are increasingly outlining the skills, approach and qualifications required to coach others. As the industry continues to grow and diversify this regulation will become increasingly important in assuring quality and standards.
• Acknowledgement of the importance of behaviour in leadership – Behaviour is widely accepted as a fundamental component of leadership effectiveness. From decision making and risk taking to influencing and learning, all aspects of leadership performance are effected by behaviour. As a result, many coaching relationships focus on supporting leaders to achieve positive, lasting change in their behaviour.
• The sharing of expertise from other professions – Executive coaching is frequently provided by Occupational or Organisational Psychologists. However, psychologists and coaching professionals from other industries are increasingly involved in supporting people in the business context. Whilst this is not always a straightforward transition for the practitioner, the benefits can be significant.
• Difficulty separating opinion from fact – The internet is full of articles about coaching, and finding empirically derived and robust information that is written by an impartial author is not always easy. For individuals and businesses to be empowered to make the right choices and to evaluate the effectiveness of a coaching relationship they must first understand the key ingredients of effective coaching.
• Potential conflicts of interest – Coaches occupy a privileged and unique position. This is built upon trust and the belief that a coach has the skills and integrity to act in their client’s best interests. However, any relationship can be open to abuse, particularly when the practitioner gains financially from the frequency and tenure of the coaching relationship. Effective coaching develops independence and a client’s ability to self-reinforce, build personal insight and strengthen their own support network. Whilst this doesn’t mean that coaching relationships can’t be enduring, it does mean they should be enabling growth and self-efficacy.
• Establishing the effectiveness of a coach – We live in an era where you can search on Google for the performance of a cardiologist or rate the quality of your tyre fitter via an app on your phone. Despite this there is little information available to establish the effectiveness of individual coaches. Good practice in executive coaching should include evaluation of the progress made by the client, together with perceived value of the coaching relationship.
• Knowing whether coaching works for you – The individual themselves is one of the major variables when it comes to the relative success of coaching. Clients can be unclear about what they expect to get from a coaching relationship or how they would like it to work. In an environment where it increasingly becomes the norm for senior leaders to have a coach there may even be a degree of expectation that everyone ‘should’ have a coach. In this context individuals need guidance to establish whether coaching is for them or appropriate for addressing their goals or challenges.
Does coaching work?
• What the research tells us
Whilst research has struggled to keep up with the diversity of emerging offerings, there are still useful studies to draw upon. One of these is the meta-analysis conducted by Theeboom, Beersma and Vianen (2014).
Theeboom et al looked to address the question of whether coaching had an effect on five outcome categories: performance/skills, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal-directed self-regulation. Their results indicated that coaching had led to statistically significant positive effects on all outcomes with effect sizes ranging from g = 0.43 (coping) to g = 0.74 (goal-directed self-regulation).
• The factors that contribute to successful coaching
Nadine Page and Erik de Haan asked ‘does executive coaching work?’ in Vol 27 of the Psychologist (2014). They focussed on the factors that lead to successful and impactful coaching specifically; personality, the coaching relationship, and type of coaching applied by the coach.
They reported that the strength of a coaching relationship was the most powerful predictor of coaching outcomes. More specifically, their research suggests that ‘it is important to build rapport that is task-focused, with clear and achievable goals, as this leads to successful outcomes, more so than just focusing on developing a close relationship or bond.’ Another important predictor they identified was ‘the degree to which clients can motivate themselves, their self-efficacy, or if you like, ego strength or self-confidence’.
Senior leaders and the companies they work for increasingly understand that behaviour has a significant impact upon business performance strategically and operationally and that executive coaching can significantly impact an individual’s behaviour.
The evolution of executive coaching and the sharing of techniques from other industries is also enriching what coaches can offer their clients. Despite this, executive coaching is not for everyone and as the industry continues to grow there is a risk that some may join the profession for the wrong reasons. Ideally, we need to ensure that clients and client organisations are sufficiently well informed to make the right choices about who to engage as a coach and how to work with them.
Finally, it is affirming to read evidence that executive coaching can deliver real and meaningful results for individuals and businesses. More research is needed though if we are to ensure continuous improvement and that coaching remains a scientifically robust and impactful intervention.
About the author
Chris Martin is a Business Psychologist and Founding Partner of Silvermaple. You can visit at www.Silvermaple.co.uk