Coaching has become extremely popular as a component of most companies’ leadership development programs. More than 70 percent of organizations with any formal leadership development initiatives use coaching as an important part of that mix.
Yet, many have nagging questions about the effectiveness of coaching as a leadership development tool. The quality, consistency and predictability of coaching are uneven at best. Using external resources can be expensive and typically relegate coaching to a few elite individuals. Additionally, coaching might be perceived as a “flavor of the month” activity versus something that is sustainable and systemic.
Questions that learning and development professionals currently ponder include:
Should organizations offer coaching?
- How is coaching different from other development activities?
- What is the payoff of providing coaching?
- What is the return on investment (ROI)?
Can coaching become more scalable?
- How do you make coaching more broadly available so that a wider set of leaders can take advantage of this targeted approach to development?
- How do you involve managers in the process of employee development?
- How do you establish a “coaching culture” in your organization?
How can organizations increase the predictability of the process and outcomes?
- How do you select qualified coaches?
- How do you standardize the process so that coaching does not vary widely from coach to coach and from client to client?
- How do you create a replicable process without eliminating the individual creativity that is vital in the coaching relationship?
- How do coaches and clients measure progress? How is the performance of the coach evaluated?
Should Organizations Offer Coaching?
Coaching works because it encompasses many of elements of the best learning methodologies and content used in leadership development. If you were to make a list of the best ways to help leaders and executives learn, some of those ingredients would be: concepts and ideas that are job relevant; content that is practical, actionable and personalized to the individual; highly engaging learning methods; emphasis on the long-term and follow-through; and content that is appealing to the adult learner.
Coaching, when done well, encompasses all of these ingredients. It will be practical and job-related. Because it is so targeted to the individual, it becomes highly engaging and relevant. However, the one element that might be most important is the one that is often overlooked. Coaching, unlike many other activities that are used in leadership development programs, (case studies, experiential exercises, simulations, group discussions and role playing) happens over a protracted period of time. It is not a single event but often stretches over a period of months or years.
The major criticism of most executive development programs is that although nearly everyone finds them extremely enjoyable, there is often little that gets implemented as a result. They happen in a short burst of time, and there simply are no mechanisms that remind people to act or hold them accountable to make change happen.
There is an enormous body of research that suggests that the real benefits from any developmental experience come from what happens after the “event,” whether it be a class, a seminar, an e-learning program or a week-long residential program. Coaching allows the development focus to extend beyond a single “event” and encompasses an aspect of accountability that does not exist in many other development efforts. The coaching relationship provides a vehicle for follow up, in which the coach holds the client’s feet to the fire regarding fulfilling their stated commitments. One organization measured that 94 percent of its coaching recipients agreed or strongly agreed with the survey statement: “Having regularly scheduled coaching sessions kept me focused and accountable.”
Although calculating the ROI of providing coaching services can be difficult, more and more studies point to positive results. For instance, a 2001 Manchester Review study of 100 executives documented the ROI for executive coaching at 5.7 times the initial investment.
More recently, Zenger Folkman studied the impact of managers and leaders who increase their coaching effectiveness. This research shows that managers who are highly effective at coaching their direct reports have significant impact on the performance of their organizations. Specifically, the research confirms that increased coaching effectiveness can be positively correlated with employee satisfaction with the organization, employee confidence in the organization’s ability to achieve goals, employee commitment to “go the extra mile” and intention to stay at the organization.
For example, employees working for a leader perceived as an ineffective coach are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be thinking about quitting and going to work at another organization than are those employees who work for a leader perceived to be a very effective coach.
Can Coaching Become More Scalable?
One of the frequent questions businesspeople ask regarding a new product or service has to do with scalability. Many organizations have experience using external coaches in senior leadership development efforts. However, as companies begin to realize the value of coaching, they seek ways to make coaching available to a broader range of employees by finding more efficient and cost-effective ways to deliver it.
One way to achieve scalability is to create a coaching culture in which managers embrace coaching skills as the way to lead others. Rather than providing “command and control” as a general style of leading, the leader-as-coach will provide guidance to help others find their own ways to successfully perform, grow and develop.
Coaching skills can be taught, and coaching effectiveness can be measured. The most effective leader-coaches possess strengths in four key areas: building strong relationships, communicating effectively, facilitating action and results, and providing ongoing support and accountability.
Providing training and systemic support for managers to act as coaches is a critical component in sustaining a coaching culture.
A second way to achieve some scalability, especially for those middle-and lower-level leaders in the organization, is to move to a “peer coaching” process, rather than relying on external coaches. The benefits of peer coaching are obvious. The peer coach understands the organization’s culture because he or she works in it along with the person being coached. Coaching skills that are developed remain inside the organization and get used with other subordinates, peers and bosses. The economic argument is completely obvious. Although it’s true that a bi-weekly or monthly coaching session takes a peer-coach leader away from other duties, it is invariably a highly developmental experience for the coach as well as the person being coached.
Our experience with peer coaching implementations show that extremely positive results can be obtained. It works most effectively when those doing the coaching receive training on how to be effective coaches. But experience shows that people with relatively short bursts of training prior to peer coaching can often provide great value to their peer partner. They become good sounding-boards regarding important issues. They provide a positive vehicle for testing out alternative courses of action, and once a path has been determined, they can be a strong force for helping the coachee follow through on important commitments.
From experience doing executive coaching, it becomes clear that tracking the actions of several coachees can be a headache, if not a serious nightmare. You want to be abreast of what they are working on, but tracking this is extremely hard to do if you take your valuable time together collecting data about what this person has done and plans to do in the future.
Through the use of computer software, the coach can collect data regarding the actions of the coachee and the plans this person has for following through on commitments in the coming period of time. This makes the entire coaching process more efficient for the coach, and provides a mechanism for the coachee to document goals and commitments. Using tracking software also can provide the organization with information regarding what the coaching recipients are doing as a consequence of their coaching relationships.
How Do Organizations Increase the Predictability of the Process and Outcomes?
As the coaching profession matures, coach-training institutions and associations are adopting standards and becoming more thorough in measuring the skill levels of coaches receiving credentials. As organizations experiment and gain experience with coaching, they seek to gain some consistency in the product or offering of coaching.
Organizations that offer coaching as a regular part of their leadership development efforts typically establish several processes or systems, which will reduce the variability of the coaching services offered. Some of these processes include:
If an executive is working with an external coach, the meetings and telephone conversations they have are clearly identified as coaching events. But the same is not true with interactions between managers and their direct reports. When using internal leaders as coaches, one of the most important changes that should be made is simply to make the coaching conversation more formal. Then, managers should make efforts to set time aside for specific coaching conversations. Coachees should know that a lunch they have with their boss is a coaching discussion. They might be given the opportunity to choose the topic(s) to be discussed, but whether the coachees or the coaches make that choice, there should be no confusion that the purpose of the discussion is to focus on topics that are of interest and importance to the coachees.
Managers benefit from training on how to hold effective coaching conversations, which are usually quite different from performance discussions. (Many managers are also uncomfortable conducting performance discussions, but these are normally mandated and monitored by an HR system.)
Providing managers with some simple tools can be useful, as well. Simple tools help both the manager and employee direct their focus during the coaching conversation and measure the impact of the conversation from the employee’s point of view. The coachee might complete a feedback questionnaire that asks some questions about the value of this session to the coachee. Were the topics discussed of interest and importance? Is the coachee leaving with some concrete, practical ideas about what to do?
Experience from the other helping professions has shown that when the helper solicits that kind of feedback from the person being helped, a number of positive things happen. First, it makes the relationship one of greater equality because the helper is sending the clear signal that he or she wants to learn and get better and that the coachee’s ideas are of importance. Second, the relationship is strengthened. The coach has become vulnerable and in so doing, the bond is always tighter with the person being coached.
Finally, the research is clear that this process is a powerful force for helping the coach become much more effective in what he or she does. Immediate feedback enables the coach to get progressively better. Such instrumentation of the process does what collecting data always does. By focusing the searchlight on anything, it usually gets better.
Coaching has already made significant contributions to leadership development. But corporations have done virtually no research on why it is effective, what outcomes are actually being produced, how it could be made more cost effective and how the very nature of coaching could be improved.
The recommendations suggested here are in no way intended to represent a series of changes that will fix all that is wrong. They are some interesting steps that build on the strengths of coaching and can escalate it upward. Hopefully, they will inspire people to find other scientific research that can be applied to this extremely important practice in industry. Few things are of greater importance than developing extraordinary leaders.
John H. Zenger is the CEO of Zenger Folkman, a provider of leadership development research and materials. Kathleen Stinnett is a senior consultant with the Zenger Folkman. They can be reached at email@example.com.