Executive coaching can provide big benefits, many say

Published Aug. 25, 2012

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found that employment for career counselors is expected to grow 19 percent by the year 2020. Yet, despite the increased money being spent on coaching by employers today, not as much is published about the effectiveness of coaching. Does it work, and if so, how? What impact does it really have? What do executives really think about it?

Over the years, I've asked executives who have gone through coaching what they think its value might be. Haywood Barney, a technology strategy consultant with IBM, said coaching "provided a structure and plan to accomplish what I saw as my future . . . sort of a road map." Bart Ludlow, project manager at Avian Engineering, noted, "Coaching accurately identifies a leader's strengths and areas for improvement which are critical for all of us to know in order to be more effective."

One goal of coaches is to push leaders to think through issues for themselves. Often, executives experience the positive spillover of coaching. As Doug Riley, vice president of sales at Thomas Somerville Co., said, "Coaching helped me fine-tune attributes that improved both my personal and professional life."

In their roles as leaders, executives often provide coaching to proteges and employees. Yet, as they move up in organizations, they are often not given mentoring themselves, despite the fact that they have increasingly more challenging jobs. Over the years, many executives have told me that they are especially appreciative to receive coaching at this latter part of their professional lives.

But not everyone goes into coaching convinced it will have any impact on them. If those individuals can be turned around to find value in coaching, then we have better evidence that coaching is making a difference.

"As someone who was initially skeptical on the value of executive coaching I have made a 180-degree turnaround," said Elie Ashery, president and chief executive of Gold Lasso. "Coaching helped me gain greater insight into how my peers not only viewed me personally, but my abilities to lead and provide value. With this new insight, I was able to better connect with my management team, board of directors and investors. As a result of these improved connections we performed better as a team and just had our best quarter ever since being in business."

Determining the value of executive coaching is tricky and is often estimated similar to how firms measure the impact of training programs. Metrics can involve any of the following:

• Financial results — examining outcomes such as cost savings, increased sales or profits, or reduced voluntary turnover or absenteeism.

• Business results — increased market share, organizational growth, or profitability.

• Improved working relationships with supervisors, direct reports, peers, clients, and customers; enhanced employee engagement and satisfaction

• Reduced customer complaints and internal employee conflict.

• Improved customer service and competitiveness; client retention and growth.

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• Enhanced work quality and innovativeness.

Often, firms will examine the cost of the coaching as compared to the value that can be attributed to the training to determine its overall worth. They will assess short- and long-term effects from coaching as well as both tangible (e.g., reduced costs) and intangible (e.g., improved morale) effects.

Researchers in the field suggest using both quantitative, return-on-investment measures along with qualitative accounts of the benefits of coaching in order to more fully evaluate its effectiveness. It is also important to assess various stakeholders' views (coachee, coach, immediate manager) on the outcomes, since they may have differing perspectives.

Once considered a concern if a person was sent to work with a coach, now it is viewed as a privilege, and by many as a sign that the organization greatly values the person's contributions and is willing to invest money in their future growth and development. Executive coaching is now becoming a business strategy to enable leaders to drive value and to add to the bottom line of their firms.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean of the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and director of executive coaching and leadership development programs offered by the school. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management.