Executive coaching has exploded in popularity over recent years. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, American companies are spending more than $1 billion annually on coaching. Yet coaching remains a largely unregulated industry and one whose effectiveness is difficult to determine.
A recent survey of 328 companies by Philadelphia-based Manpower Consultants found that more than half provided coaching for their managers, executives and high potential employees.
Yet for companies employing executive coaches, it is often a case of "buyer beware." What's more, there has been little research into the effectiveness of the various approaches to coaching or even how to measure the its success.
Alec Levenson, a scientist with the Center for Effective Organisations at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, is one researcher who has been studying the impact of coaching.
He argues that coaching programs can make a significant difference in overall organisational effectiveness by improving teamwork and ability to execute strategy.
"Coaching is particularly effective when it is focused on driving behavioural change rather than cultural change and when the emphasis is upon positive performance outcomes rather than remedial issues."
Most executive coaches are from outside the company, he says, and bring an unbiased and objective view. They provide their clients with candid and unvarnished assessments, often based upon information from those who work closely with the individual, of their weaknesses and strengths.
These assessments can be useful in shaping a person's interpersonal behaviours and help mesh more closely with corporate goals and values.
However, most organisations are still in the early stages of learning to use coaching in a systematic way and may not be realising its full value.
Coaching in and of itself is limited in its ability to improve an organisation, Levenson points out. Its impact can also be diminished by other factors, including low employee morale, a weak organisational culture or conflict about company values.
The maximum benefits of coaching occur when coaching is used in targeted, limited ways, throughout an organisation, with a primary intention to improve performance rather than merely correct problems.
"To get the most out of their investments, companies will need to take a much more thoughtful approach to deploying coaching as one element in a broader portfolio of leadership development tools," Levenson says.
His research also suggests that most companies lack a disciplined approach to managing the coaching process and measuring outcomes. They often do not have a precise understanding of the benefits of coaching or even what to expect from a coaching assignment.
As a result, too often coaching is selected simply to respond to the needs of one individual executive. Coaching needs to go beyond that and help the individual complement corporate goals and practice.
In fact, says Levenson, there are no acknowledged standards across the coaching profession of what value it brings to an organisation.
However, he sees that changing as coaching matures and organisations, seeking to justify their investments in coaching, develop more systematic ways of applying coaching within the company as well as defining goals and measuring results.
Companies will increasingly demand that coaches be certified and focus on a defined set of goals. Only those who can deliver positive results and show measurable success will survive.
Fortunately, the steps used to make coaching effective are easily achieved, according to Levenson. Visible leadership from the top, defining behavioural objectives and measuring success and centralised management of coaches will result in desired results.
The ultimate benefit will be leaders who are better equipped to drive organisational performance, more skilled at working with peers and subordinates and who are better attuned to learning and adapting throughout their careers.