Research Paper By Jane Thompson-Gilliam
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
I remember with fondness the training events I attended whilst working within various organizations. I vaguely recall some of the venues, a few of the trainers and small snippets of the content. If I were to critically evaluate my retention of the newly acquired knowledge or indeed any behavioral changes/shifts I would say it was not a huge success. How would my organization have evaluated the return on its investment? I believe it would have been disappointed. I did not retain or utilize as much as I would have expected. Perhaps one could argue that is just my being a poor student or maybe my motivation was lacking! However, if you look beyond this simple explanation I would argue the answer is more all encompassing and sadly widespread.
I would ask you to think back on your learning experiences. How many times have you attended expensive, well intentioned and thoughtful training events only to be unable to remember the event never mind the content or your insights/revelations? What happens between the end of the training event or development intervention where we fill out the evaluation form (positively rating the experience and perhaps complaining about the biscuits!) and our working day/daily lives. Why do we lose the value and perspective of the course and the personal learning loses its “stickiness”.
Dr. Ed Holton, an expert on knowledge retention, states that retention rates range from 10-30%. In Dr. Holton’s words, “this means our drop out rate is at least 70%“. This is validated by Dr Sebastian Bailey, President of Mind Gym Inc, who notes that typically transfer rates from learning interventions see the number of people who apply their learning and go on to make a sustained change at 15-20%. Around 70% of learners will try their new skill but will quickly backslide. Looking at my personal experience and I would hazard an educated guess at yours, this statistic feels a fair reflection of the reality of learning and development interventions.
We are in a time where organizations are investing more and more in employee development and according to Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte the figures are striking: US spending on corporate training grew by 15% last year (the highest growth rate in seven years) to over $70 Billion in the US and over $130 Billion worldwide. At the same time there are higher expectations that organizations get a good return on this increasing investment and attain a competitive advantage.
Coaching is one learning and development intervention where the ROI delivered can be high impact as evidenced by a study by Manchester Consulting Group. They researched Fortune 500 Companies and found that coaching resulted in a ROI of almost six times the program cost.
Coaching is being used by more and more organizations to support their senior, high potential employees. According to Forbes the commitment of corporate giants such as GE, Goldman Sachs and Google now sees spending on exec-utive coaching in the US alone at more than $1billion per year. Twenty years ago most coaching was a remedial effort aimed at poor performers or toxic leadership behav-iors/cultures. However, today most coaching budgets focus on developing high poten-tial leaders.
So, we are in a position where Coaching can and does yield great results however we understand that transfer “stickiness” rates can be low in development interventions. Therefore how do we as coaches aid the interventions “stickiness” and knowledge transfer? How do we give the coaching relationship and journey the best chance of suc-cess and enable the client to gain what they intended out of the learning and develop-ment intervention? I would suggest that if we seek to understand in general why coach-ing interventions do not succeed then we can be aware of potential pitfalls and try to avoid or manage these as best we can as coaches. We can also enable and empower our clients to do the same.
According to Executive Presence (2012) and Fowler and Company there are multiple reasons why executive coaching can fail and the reasons can be grouped under four general themes. These are the process the coaching relationship uses, the client them-selves, the coach themselves and the organizational culture and environment. Lets ex-plore the issues in each of these categories in more detail.
1. The Process:
- No clear metric or success measure put in place - there is a lack of clearly defined goals and expected outcomes for the process
- The coaching focuses on the person in isolation of their environment and social inter-actions
- The mutual expectations and the coaching process is not clear to both parties. The client and coach have different expectations and understanding of the coaching pro-cess and aims
2. The Client:
- The client is overly ambitious and wishes to address and change multiple things at one moment in time. The client can then take on too much and their focus and invest-ment is divided. This can lead to the client losing momentum and commitment which results in the person achieving far less than they had intended
- The client is not committed. Often when organizations are providing executive coach-ing it can be seen as something they are expected to do and not something they have chosen to commit to and invest in
- The client is unwilling or incapable of change
- The chemistry and relationship between client and coach just does not “click”
3. The Coach
- The coach takes responsibility for what the client should be doing. The issue with this is twofold - it drives the coach into a position of power and secondly it disempowers and undermines the client
- The coach mistakes giving advice for coaching
- The coach is not qualified or trained to be a coach
- The chemistry and relationship between client and coach is not a good match
4. The organization:
- The culture of the organization and what it values is different to what the client values
- Within the organization there is a culture of fear of trying to do things differently/be dif-ferent (not entrepreneurial or risk taking)
- The organizational culture is not one where you show your vulnerabilities
- There is a lack of support from higher up within the organization. Specifically, either the clients manager, sponsor or indeed the leadership team is not committed or bought into supporting the client in their journey and any changes they wish to make
We now have a good sense and grasp of the areas that could have an impact on the success of the coaching relationship. The critical question now is what can we do to create a successful coaching journey and maximize the return on the investment.
Lets address and explore each category and propose what the ideal approach and action/s could be:
1. The process:
The coach and client should have a clear, honest and open discussion about the coach-ing relationship at the start of working together. This should include exploring what coaching is (and is not) and exploring what the client is expecting and hoping to achieve. This will enable both parties to contract clearly about what coaching is and is not and to work though any disparities and differences. The coach should explore with the client how to best understand the broader environment and social context that the client works within. This will enable the coach to operate more effectively and to ensure they are able to coach in context. It is useful to include regular check-ins to assess that the process and coaching relationship is working, is on track and delivering what the cli-ent was wanting it to. The coach can then tailor and adjust throughout the intervention to maximize its success.
2. The Client:
The client and coach need to have an open and upfront dialogue with regards to what the client is looking for from a coach and to both mutually assess the chemistry and fit. The coach needs to understand what the client is hoping to achieve from the relation-ship and coaching process. The coach needs to support the client in setting clear tar-gets and goals. A way to support the client by doing this is to partner with the client to ensure their targets are “S.M.A.R.T”. This is a widely accepted and recommended method of goal and target setting. “S.M.A.R.T” targets were first explained in the No-vember 1981 issue of Management Review. It contained a paper by George T. Doran called There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. It dis-cussed the importance of objectives and the difficulty of setting them. It went on to ex-plain and suggest that each objective should be “S.M.A.R.T” Specific – target a specific area for improvement, Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of pro-gress, Assignable – specify who will do it. Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources. Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.
The Coach and Client should both assess the level of commitment the client has and explore whether they are fully committed to and engaged in the coaching process. If the coach feels the client is not committed or has some hesitation then they should have an honest, direct conversation to explore and assess if this is indeed the right time to em-bark on a coaching relationship. One could again consider having check points throughout the coaching journey to assess the effectiveness and impact of the process for the client and also to keep a watching brief on the clients commitment and engage-ment levels.
3. The Coach:
When the client is selecting a coach they should ensure they are happy with the qualifi-cations and experience the coach has and check their experience and client testimoni-als are acceptable and in line with what the client is looking for. The chemistry or fit is critical and should be assessed both at an organizational and individual client level. Both parties need to test the chemistry to determine if this is someone they can work and partner with. The client needs to feel comfortable enough with their coach to fully trust them and be able to open up and reveal more of themselves in order to get the most out of the experience. The coach needs to come to the table with a set of experi-ences, skills and tools to make the learning journey the most it can be. A Harvard Busi-ness Review (HBR) Research Report suggests two key areas to assess when selecting a coach: what prior experience the coach has in a similar setting and the methods and tools they employ and why.
4. The Organization:
The organizations culture can have a huge impact on the success of the coaching jour-ney. It is worth ensuring both the client and the coach have a good understanding of the culture and are able to articulate it with a clear idea of what the pro’s and con’s are of this culture. The client should be able to work through who within and outside of the organization would be supporters and anchors for the them and who could aid them to-wards their goals and any changes they wish to make.
According to a HBR Research Paper the overwhelming majority of coaches surveyed said that one of the critical success factors was the support of the company. They ex-plained that firms needed to be committed to the executive and his or her progress, and that senior management needed to be invested in the engagement.
The clients chances of success are higher if the organization understands and is com-mitted to what coaching is and what it isn’t, if the organization has a supportive learning and development culture and if it supports and encourages individuals to be different.
The HBR research paper stated that coaches attributed the success of coaching to three things: the quality of the relationship between the coach and executive, the organi-zational support structure and culture and lastly to clients who are open to learning and actively engage in the coaching relationship. When one has these elements in place a successful relationship and outcome can be achieved and as John Russell, Managing Director of Harley-Davidson Europe, said I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought un-solvable.
In summary if coaches and clients are aware of the above pitfalls, actively and mindfully work to address each element within the themes of “process, the client, the coach and the organization” then this will greatly increase the overall success of the coaching jour-ney and the “stickability” of any changes the client makes and any insights and learn-ings they have had. As stated in the Ivy Business Journal Executives and HR manag-ers know coaching is the most potent tool for inducing positive personal change, ensur-ing better-than- average odds of success and making the change stick for the long term.
The Ivy Business Journal, September-October 2000 issue