Coaching is a powerful growth accelerator. Whether to prepare the next generation of leaders or unlock the potential of current leaders, organizations are using executive coaching increasingly to bolster their talent development.
Leaders who have had coaching are quick to point out the benefits of a personalized learning environment where they are accountable for change. Leaders are less likely to avoid coaching for fear of surreptitiously being performance managed; instead, they seek coaching to accelerate their leadership growth. It’s not surprising that coaching is a $2.3 billion industry and one that is expected to grow at a rapid rate, especially as technology platforms and apps make coaching affordable for all levels of leaders, not just senior leaders.
As demand for coaching increases, there is parallel growth in the number of coaches. The International Coach Federation estimates there are more than 53,000 professional coach practitioners globally. Despite a few accrediting bodies that provide standards, coaching remains largely unregulated. Anyone can call themselves a coach and coaching experience and training vary wildly — as does pricing. Organizations looking to hire coaches may find themselves overwhelmed with the breadth of choice and lack of standards for measuring success. Often, the relational nature of coaching means that leaders may select a coach based on word of mouth instead of going through the organization’s usual procurement channels.
Chief learning officers and their teams should set the standard for the external coaches their organizations hire. CLOs can bring rigor to the selection process and educate leaders on how to get the most out of their coaching investment.
When choosing a coaching provider, here are some qualities to look for and related questions to ask prospective coaches.
Rigor rooted in behavioral science. The purpose of coaching in the workplace is ultimately to shift leadership behaviors that link to business performance; yet, some coaches do not have that among their primary skills. Retired executives who become leadership coaches as a second career often have minimal training in behavior change or shifting mindsets. They can share their strategies as if they were in the role — acting more as a mentor — but that advice does not lead to the self-learning which drives sustained behavior change. Mentoring is best used for less experienced leaders who need to quickly assimilate knowledge in a new function, new industry or new market. Coaching is intended to enable leadership growth, and sustained growth occurs when unhelpful mindsets are identified and challenged, which unlocks new leadership behaviors. Ask prospective coaches, “What frameworks of change do you use in your coaching and why?”
Leadership benchmarks. Coaching should not be a cozy chat that reinforces a current leadership approach. This is a risk if a leader acquires a coach through their network — opening the potential for collusion with the leader’s own self-view. For coaching to add value, the external provider needs to bring challenge and a sense of what great leadership impact looks like. Effective coaches have the right balance of challenge and support to identify a leader’s blindspots and personal barriers to success. They bring a fresh, informed perspective. Ask prospective coaches, “What benchmarks and methods do you use to challenge a leader’s goal setting?”
Ability to make it stick. Effective coaches uncover what lies beneath behavior — the beliefs, assumptions and mindsets that underpin a positive leadership impact and drive destructive leadership behaviors. That’s because coaching around new leadership behaviors without understanding core beliefs will only lead to temporary change. Ask prospective coaches, “How do you promote sustainable change in leaders and how do you measure this?”
Track record. To be accredited as a coach, one needs to have sufficient hours of client work to demonstrate breadth and depth of skill. Coaches may offer pro bono services to boost their hours. Coaches that offer their services at a very low rate are unlikely to have depth of experience and are looking to you to bump up their hours. Ask coaches, “How long have you been coaching?” If they are relatively new to coaching, then ask, “How many paid coaching hours do you have?”
Workplace relevance. While many leaders report life benefits arising as a result of leadership coaching, that is not its primary purpose. Life coaching addresses the needs of the individual, whereas workplace coaching aligns the business needs of the organization with the individual’s motivations. Effective coaches work with leaders in a way that is meaningful to the individual while shifting performance in ways that benefit the business. They take the time to understand what is unique to your organization and what it means to be a successful leader in that context. Ask prospective coaches, “What do you do to understand our business context and the leadership impact we require to be successful?”
Maximizing Value. Once an organization has selected a coach, CLOs can help maximize the value leaders get from that engagement. Because coaching typically is provided to high-potential leaders or leaders transitioning into new roles, it’s not uncommon for organizations to take a hands-off approach and trust that the leader will make the most of the investment. But, the context within which the coaching occurs can either enhance intended leadership growth or diminish it. The following best practices often enhance the impact of an external coaching engagement:
- Purpose. Clearly identify the purpose of the coaching. Is it to increase readiness for promotion, address a derailing behavior or to support a leader to lead significant change? Call this out to avoid assumptions, guesses and potential anxiety.
- Readiness. Ensure a leader is ready for coaching. Are they open to being challenged? Do they want to make changes to their leadership approach? Having these conversations internally before engaging an external coach will ensure leaders have a heightened level of commitment from the outset of the investment. When leaders understand why their organizations are investing in them, their commitment to coaching increases.
- Line manager involvement. Engaging an external coach is not an excuse for line managers to outsource their leaders’ growth, and supporting from the sidelines is not enough. We have found that line manager involvement in setting coaching objectives and providing periodic feedback around areas of change increases the leader’s degree of meaningful change. It also increases their confidence that they will sustain the change after the coaching ends.
- Track progress. Agree on workplace measures of success and discuss how coaching will link to a leader’s role or business unit knowledge performance indicators. Change can be hard; if organizations only look at measures of success once coaching is complete, the leader misses out on seeing the benefits of change when they need it most. Tracking small shifts gives leaders confidence to keep going and reinforces that the effort is worthwhile.
- Stakeholder feedback. Because 360- and 180-degree feedback have been around for some time, organizations forget the power these can have when used well. Targeting team, peer or other stakeholder feedback around the coaching objectives increases the likelihood of the leader acting on their intentions. What you measure grows.