Executive Coaching: Does it work?

Executive Coaching: Does it work? How do you buy it well?

By Stuart O’Reilly

There is no shortage of opinion regarding the usefulness of coaching, but what does the research tell us?

Does coaching work?

Two composite studies give us an overview of the evidence. Jones, Woods and Guillaume (2015) focused exclusively on research looking at work related outcomes. (That is, more general effects such as increased life satisfaction were not covered). They reached three major conclusions.

  • Coaching is effective: All studies showed coaching impacted positively on work related outcomes – with a less than ten percent chance these results were spurious.
  • Internal coaches were more effective than external coaches.
  • Coaches supported by multi-rater feedback generated superior results.

The final finding is interesting because often the data utilised in coaching is self-report in nature, coming from the coachee him/herself. Perhaps these multiple perspectives add value because they help clarify the coach’s understanding of the context, whilst giving the coachee insight into their own strengths and development areas. This point about context may also be the reason why the study found internal coaches to be more effective.

Page and Haan (2014) summarised the results from two meta analyses (including the one described above) and built on this by incorporating data from their own study. They concur that executive coaching is effective, and specify its benefits in goal setting, idea generation, and in obtaining superior coachee ratings (from both direct reports and managers). They are most interested, however, in those active ingredients of coaching which determine success and conclude the following.

  • The relationship between the coach and the coachee is the strongest predictor of effective outcomes. (This factor also predicted whether the sponsor of the coaching believed benefits were delivered).
  • The coach/coachee relationship needs to be strong, but also focused on goals.
  • A further predictor of effectiveness is the extent to which the coachee can motivate themselves.

What can we take from the above?

  • Coaching works: for multi-dimensional organisations in a VUCA world, accurately evaluating any people intervention (training, change programmes, assessment processes, wellbeing etc) is fraught with difficulty. But, based on the evidence available, executive coaching is a sound, worthwhile initiative.
  • Appreciating context is crucial. This includes understanding what the sponsor (ie the person funding the coaching) wants from the program. Perspectives from others in the organisation can also help to constructively shape the outcomes and calibrate the leader’s development needs within the operating climate and direction of travel.
  • The relationship between the coach and the coachee is key. What is meant by ‘strong’ is not defined in the research, but crucial value is likely to come from the coachee’s willingness to open-up, explore, share how they feel, and tell the coach things that might sometimes show them in a poor light. To do this they must feel that the coach truly represents their interests and that their feelings, actions and thoughts are not being judged. In this way, the coach becomes a conduit for the individual to evaluate their own actions.
  • Can the coachee motivate themselves? It could be that coaching motivates certain coachees to develop. But based on Wickland Westcott’s own experience coaching has a much greater likelihood of success if it is welcomed by the coachee rather than foisted upon them.

How do you buy coaching well?

We suggest the following tips.

  1. Explain to your potential coachee(s) what coaching involves, gauge their interest, and only spend money on those willing to invest time and effort into their coaching program.
  2. Articulate how a strong coaching relationship should feel, and then offer them a choice of coaches. There are good reasons for ‘chemistry meetings’. Use them. The right coach should offer these obligation-free.
  3. Enlist coaches who will work with the coachee to deliver tangible outcomes. Insist clear goals are in place for all coaching programs.
  4. Ensure that the coach speaks with key stakeholders, particularly the coachee’s line manager, to obtain a truly rounded understanding of context.
  5. Expect clear bounds of confidentiality to be specified and respected.
  6. Monitor the regularity of coaching sessions to understand coachee engagement.
  7. Suggest scheduled review points between coach, coachee and sponsor/line manager to establish if/when the defined outcomes have been delivered.
  8. Think about how you might bring these coaching skills in-house, and indeed start to develop a coaching culture within your organisation. At Wickland Westcott we find that more senior individuals tend to want external coaches, therefore it is probably worth having clear criteria for when to use internal and external coaches.
  9. If using more than one coach extract key themes from their observations and build into the L&D agenda. Also, link any coaching to other development activity.


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