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Coaching: Does it work?

Coaching: Does it work?

It has been impossible for us not to notice the explosion in the industry of coaching over the last few years: Life coaching, Leadership coaching, Career coaching, Skills coaching and Team coaching, just to name a few. These and many more are all on offer. The big question is: does coaching work?

Up front I have to say that my experience is limited to many years in the field of management and leadership coaching. My simple answer to the question is – it depends. Many factors come into play when we try to evaluate the success rate of coaching programs and below I’ll look at what I consider the key ones to be. But, even when all the stars are aligned, anecdotally I tend to find that, at least in my field of management and leadership coaching, there are three roughly equally-sized groups of coaching outcomes:

  • Programs where the participants have certainly made significant progress with regard to their initial objectives

  • Programs where participants have made some progress, but not as much as either they or their coach were hoping for: I call this group the “Not a waste of time” group.

  • Programs which go nowhere.

As these groups are more or less equally sized, I find that, for management and leadership programs at least, coaching is somewhat to very effective in 66% of the cases. My colleagues and associates in the same field mostly agree with this assessment. Not bad, but that means there are still a lot of programs where much time, effort and money has been spent for little or no result.

So, what makes for a successful management/leadership coaching program? One of the first key ingredients is the willingness of the coachee to participate. Programs simply don’t work when a manager or leader is told their participation is obligatory. Following on from this is to make sure your coachee knows that she or he can “pull the plug” at any time. If they feel they don’t want to continue, they have to be completely free to leave the program. And without any recriminations from their management.

It's also important to stress the development focus of a management or leadership coaching program. It’s not there to be part of a performance evaluation program, or to decide on the promotability of a participant and certainly not to make decisions on her or his salary or other compensation.

Just as important is confidentiality. Nothing will be shared with your coachee’s management unless the coachee has given her or his express permission to do so. In management and leadership coaching, it can be very desirable to share certain development actions with a coachee’s direct superior. This helps to ensure that this superior is actively involved on the inside of the organisation in helping the coachee to reach her or his maximum potential. But this has to be cleared from the start with the person being coached. And in most cases permission is very willingly given, which greatly helps to move the program into the categories of the two-thirds of very, or at least moderately, successful programs.

It goes without saying that the coach has to be credible. There are a host of programs to train and accredit coaches of all sorts. Many are excellent, but it is difficult to judge and compare them because the industry is just beginning to take shape and create a framework of training and accreditation that increases the quality of coaching programs.

One undeniable factor in establishing a coach’s credibility is the “Gray hair factor”. Coaches are rarely experts in the technical areas of a coachee’s job. If they are, they may often find themselves in a mentoring function as much as a coaching one. In management and leadership coaching especially, coaches find themselves focussing on emotional intelligence aspects, fine-tuning soft skills. In short, areas that organisations often only pay lip service to. And, despite all the other disadvantages of aging, this is where gray hair pays. Good coaches have lived through many and varied situations. They have experienced many failures and disappointments, as well as some great professional successes. And from both failures and successes, they have distilled some key lessons that can be adapted and passed on to their coachees.

Another critical element that contributes to successful coaching programs is to ensure you have assisted your coachees to establish their objectives, or desired outcomes up front at the beginning of their programs. Typically they will run to less than a page and more often only be a few sentences in length. But they may take several sessions to clarify and confirm. They are the only way to be able to judge the success of a program, both as it progresses and when it reaches its end. Objectives can of course change and they often do. Your coachee may change jobs or receive a promotion.

Finally, I always ensure coachees do not become “coach-dependent”. One of the best ways to ensure this is to put the coaching program in a time frame. I use 12 to 18 months as a general rule. I tell my coachees that, if after 18 months they still feel the need to continue being coached, there is a strong possibility that I haven’t been successful, or they haven’t, or that both of us have come up short. A coach is not a crutch.

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