Coaching: Make or break?

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A 2009 white paper by talent and career advisors Right Management presented a mixed review of corporate coaching by claiming that while it generally receives positive feedback from individuals, there is no proven methodology for measuring its ROI or impact on business. According to the authors of the report, these factors are preventing it moving beyond a 'cottage industry'.

"Moves are underway to establish a true profession of coaching, endorse a set of academic fundamentals and establish accreditation guidelines - but the industry is not there yet," says Right Management's regional general manager, Bridget Beattie.

Indeed, one 10 year veteran of the industry, Rob Balmer, managing director of Executive Central, feels the industry is "a polluted goldfish bowl", filled with people of very different backgrounds using different methodologies who call themselves the same thing: an executive coach.

"Criticism about there being no proven or tested methodology for measuring ROI or even a tested methodology for doing the coaching could absolutely be leveled at some of the activities that are going on out there labeled as executive coaching. In our organization, and I'm sure others, it's frustrating that many people out there call themselves executive coaches and it's easy to get tarred with the same brush," he says.

Part of the problem lies with a muddied definition of executive coaching. The term often gets bundled in with life coaching and other 'self help' methodologies, while the 'experts' can be anyone from sports and entertainment stars through to organizational psychologists and former executives.

"I'm not saying all these things don't provide some benefits but there are some differences in what they are. Often these people are using very different methodologies and masquerading under this one title. I always try to look at things from a customer perspective. It's incredibly difficult for a customer organization that might be looking to get executive coaching for the first time, to understand what they should be looking for," Balmer adds.

Michelle McCartan of Vibrant Futures is herself a former HR manager, and can relate to the complexity of navigating the multidisciplinary coaching industry. However, as with the purchase of any product, she says it's crucial to do relevant research to understand if the product will meet your specific requirements. "Once you are really clear on the need that you are trying to fill, don't rely on the label or name but dig deeper. There is undeniably huge variation within and between the different coaching categories so doing your homework is critical," she says.

McCartan adds that the issue is not black and white. In these days of skewed work-life balance it's almost impossible to segregate work and personal lives into discrete pockets without overlap. "It's very typical and beneficial for an executive coach to work with their clients on personal blockers to professional success, which can free up their energy and mind to deal with the task at hand and generate positive results for the business," she says.

Life coaching is often looked down upon by the corporate world as being 'new age' or superfluous. Although the technical skills of a qualified life coach and executive coach may be similar, McCartan says it is the context in which they coach and the academic and industrial background from which they come which may differ. "Typically it will be easier for someone who understands the world in which they are coaching to get up to speed quicker and navigate around it with greater ease and relevance and be able to add greater value to their client," she notes.

What's it worth?
Even with the definition tightened, there remain some fundamental stumbling blocks to successful implementation of executive coaching. In speaking with HR professionals, Right Management found there was limited tracking of effectiveness either before or after coaching. Of those who do track it, the focus is on measuring leader satisfaction and the impact on behaviour; very few measure business outcomes.

Balmer has also witnessed this. "It kind of drifts off into an individual discussion between the coach and the individual and that may well be helping the individual but the problem is there's an organization paying the bill and also looking for outcomes that are supporting the organization's needs. That often gets overlooked," he says.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly positive. "Our own experience in collecting leader feedback, client reviews and evaluations shows that all the stakeholders involved - the individual, their manager and the organization - believe the value of the coaching program is much greater than the investment," says Beattie. "Of course the impact on an individual is important, but to really stack up, coaching needs to translate into business outcomes such as increasing market share, revenues and profits. We need to anchor coaching firmly in this context."

So what are the outcomes that can effectively measure ROI of coaching? Coaching evaluations are predominantly in the form of client and manager testimony, performance against objectives and pre and post 360 degree feedback surveys. An increasing number of evaluations are taking the form of Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Expectations (ROE) calculations.

Apart from the 'soft skills', which of course benefit from coaching, Balmer feels that any executive being coached, especially those with P&L responsibilities (or at least influence over P&L), should witness direct financial impact from executive coaching. "It has to be executive coaching that is focused on pragmatic business oriented issues, not just behavioural oriented issues," he stresses. "In those instances, there is certainly an ability to track an impact on things like sales, profit and operating cost control."

However, there is currently debate around whether the results of coaching can be measured in such a straightforward manner as these indexes would suggest, and of course, not every executive is responsible for a P&L. For example, Balmer notes that a head of IT or head of finance who operate in more supportive, operational areas of the business, may not find the hard financial measures - "but certainly the areas their businesses are responsible for can be measured".

Balmer adds that the financials are an output of a process; the inputs driving that process tend to be very people-centric: staff engagement and staff satisfaction, staff retention and turnover. "Other things, like ongoing 360 degree feedback, can actually provide more than one or two measures on the input, behaviours and activities of the leader that are impacting that business," he says.

Perhaps equally important is analysis of the performance measures of the coachee's staff. "Ultimately good leadership is about getting results with and through others. To get the true measure of ROI you should be getting the true results of those others. I don't think that's done enough in coaching - it's done purely on what the individual's measures are," Balmer says.

As McCartan points out, a one-size fits all approach to measuring the impact of coaching and selecting the most appropriate will fail. It will also depend on factors such as the focus for the coaching, the outcomes required, the culture of the firm and the individuals involved (see boxout on successful engagement for further tips).

Further pitfalls
There are additional stumbling blocks. One major issue can be where coaching is used as a crutch to support poor leadership. Rather than dealing with the real issue, which may be that the leaders and executives are not having constructive conversations with employees and providing instructive feedback, a coach will be brought in to handle it instead.

Almost as damaging, Balmer notes, is when the coach is appointed and the organization checks out of the situation and is not involved in the process. "Our view is that's the only way you can keep coaching aligned both with individuals and organizational needs," he says.

There can also be an element of 'passing the buck' when it comes to executive coaching. It can be incorrectly labeled as a training & development or HR issue. Balmer feels this is a fundamental error. "HR does have a very important role to play in the sourcing and setting up of coaching but it's not their job to be in charge of executive coaching. It's executives who need to be actively involved in what's going on."

Best practice
Coaching was historically used in a punitive manner to help fix performance issues but today most coaching is about positively developing the capabilities of high potential performers. "It should be considered that coaching is not a threat, it's a promise. I always come back to this: Tiger Woods has a coach," says Balmer.

While coaching can still be used on the remedial front, the type of assignment used to improve performance is usually more specific and tends to have a shorter turnaround, "so you're really looking to fix the consequences that might otherwise follow", Balmer says.

Increasingly coaching is linked in with broader assessment, talent management, change management and leadership development strategies within a firm so that it reinforces the firms overall strategies and doesn't conflict or act as a standalone activity.

It is also being used to fast-track or assist high performers. "Today, most coaching is about positively developing the capabilities of high potential performers. Increasingly coaching is linked in with broader assessment, talent management, change management and leadership development strategies within a firm so that it reinforces the firm's overall strategies and doesn't conflict or act as a standalone activity," says McCartan.

Indeed, coaching comes into its own when executing strategy or following through on the 'great ideas' that often come out of leadership meetings but are promptly forgotten about once the executive is back at his/her desk.

"There are millions spent on training, offsite meetings, facilitations. However, after any intervention or exercise, if people go back and do what they've always done, you're wasting your time and money. Ongoing coaching support to focus on how to embed it and deal with it when it doesn't work is where coaching comes into its own. Focus on what you're going to do rather than what your intent is," says Balmer.

Who's a good coach?
By general consensus a good coach has the ability to build trust and solid rapport with the coachee. They must also have great emotional intelligence.

Balmer stresses they must also have a good coaching process. "There is a process that coaches should follow so there is a direction to these conversations. You must also have appropriate content to put in. So once the needs of the participant have been identified you must have good content. For example, if the person I'm dealing with has challenges around their own time and priority management - coping with everything that's going on - you must have the ability to introduce material and provide them with content that will help them develop strategies."

A final criteria - credibility in the area in which the executive is working - is more contentious, as Balmer freely admits. "I'm not saying that only an engineer could be a coach to an engineer. My view is that it's hard to be an executive coach if you've never been an executive. From the executive's point of view, they get a lot of confidence when they can partner with someone who at least has experienced some of the things they are going through."

Final tip
Thought must also be given to how the coach is introduced to the coachee and how the concept of 'coaching' is positioned. Balmer admits this can be crucial to the success or failure of coaching. It should be positioned along these lines: we believe in you; we want to invest in you; we see these great strengths; we see these things need developing.

"It's when they get thrown into a meeting and told, 'we'd like you to talk to this person'...that's when the shackles go up. If the coachee is not engaged they are unlikely to be open to it," he concludes.

Successful engagement
Organizations vary widely in their approach to engaging coaches. There is no one size fits all approach on how to manage coaching but there are some core themes for how to maximize the impact of coaching. Michelle McCartan of Vibrant Futures provides some tips:

  • Coaching strategy: Be clear on where coaching sits in relation to the firms OD/L&D and business strategy. Be true to this strategy to ensure the best business results are achieved.
  • Buy in: It is important that the coachee feels that the program is supported by their management team so that the outcomes can be positively reinforced 'on the job' and be sustainable. Coaching is likely to have limited or no success if the coachee is not bought into the process and aspires to make change.
  • Selection: Take your time to hire the right coach for the context, person and outcomes involved. Many coaches offer a complimentary introductory session for that purpose so make sure you take up on it. Check out their qualifications, credentials and background, ask for client feedback and understand their approach. A good coach will be only too happy to discuss these with you up front.
  • Clarity of objectives: Be really clear on what you see as the brief for the specific coaching engagement. Think about the outcomes in relation to both the individual's and the organization's agenda to find a practicable balance. Agree the best path for measuring the effectiveness of the program at different points throughout the coaching program. 
  • Involvement: Get clear on the confidentiality boundaries but ensure that the coachee's manager or a coaching sponsor remain involved with reviews at various stages of the process. Don't let confidentiality prevent involvement at relevant stages of the process as this will maximize the ability to reinforce the coaching results 'on the job' and generate more sustainable outcomes.
  • Ongoing monitoring: It is highly beneficial to ensure that the coach and coachee undertake evaluation of the coaching process on a continual basis. This will identify problems and allow adjustments to be made early rather than waiting to the end of the process when it is too late.
  • Business partner: See the coach as a business partner and include them in relevant business updates or challenges to ensure they have a realistic view on the context in which their coachee is operating. 

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