Research Paper By Josh Alwitt
(Executive Coach, USA)
The majority of Fortune 1000 companies worldwide employ outside coaches, and spend an estimated $2B a year on executive coaching, without knowing much about the impact on their business performance. Quantitative research on coaching is limited, but it points to a small positive impact on performance, and a more significant impact on stress reduction. Is there a research-based way to approach executive coaching? It turns out the research has been underway since the 1930’s and continues today – and it promises more powerful results from coaching engagements combined with leadership training.
Leaders as coaching clients
What has led to such a large industry based on executive coaching in the first place? Let’s look at the typical client: an organizational leader under pressure to deliver, managing a number of direct reports, with limited resources, and an unlimited supply of urgent (some also important) issues to address. When this leader needs help, either at a skill, performance, developmental or transformation level, who does she turn to? Her boss is in exactly the same boat: busy, working with limited resources, and managing an even bigger set of responsibilities. The boss is also unlikely to be skilled at coaching (based on numerous HR surveys). Also, if the leader asks the boss for help, how might that reflect on the leader? Will the leader be willing to share with her boss the critical information, such as emotions, necessary for effective coaching?
What are this leader’s developmental opportunities? As they become more senior, leaders are less likely to receive honest feedback. This can lead to leaders developing a warped perception of their abilities. And because of the time pressure they experience, they often have little time for reflection, which limits their self-awareness.
So most leaders need help to play their current and future roles. And luckily, their bosses know it — leadership skills and pipeline depth are frequently at the top of the list of CEO concerns. Enter the executive coach.
Definition of Executive Coaching
What is an executive coach and how is this different from other forms of coaching? Overall, executive coaching is focused on helping clients learn in order to have more impact in the workplace, in the service of organizational goals. Witherspoon and White describe four different kinds of executive coaching:
- Skill –helping the client develop a specific skill, e.g., public speaking.
- Performance –helping the client improve performance related to their current role.
- Development – coaching aimed at enhancing the individual’s ability to meet current and future challenges more effectively via the development of increasingly complex understanding of the self, others and the systems in which the person is involved.
- Transformation – focused on the organizational, as well as the individual outcome, helping the client effect a complex organizational transformation.
In this paper, I limit my scope to the more general versions of executive coaching, namely performance- and development-focused.
A typical coaching engagement consists of information-gathering, reflection, goal-setting, coaching conversations, status check-ins and a final debrief. They range in duration from a few months to a year or more, and vary widely in the amount of interaction between coach and client. In the information-gathering phase, coaches may use a variety of psychometric tools, interviews, multi-rater surveys and conversations with the client and boss. The coach typically synthesizes this information and spends 1-2 days sharing it with the client and helping them navigate through the data, some of which may be surprising and disturbing to the client. Because of the effect of receiving this feedback, some coaches prefer to wait to conduct the information gathering with peers and reports until a few months into the engagement, when the client has had an opportunity to improve. After the client has a chance to reflect, the coach usually meets together with client and boss and facilitates a contracting discussion that defines the specific outcomes boss and client are looking for.
The coaching conversations themselves form a narrative arc, leading in stages to meet the purpose agreed with boss and client. The sessions usually consist of getting an update from the client, agreeing on the focus and desired outcome of the session, and the coach facilitating a conversation to help the client reflect. The coach will ask questions and share observations, often reframing how the client is viewing a situation, and move towards commitment from the client towards an action to take forward. This describes the coaching process, more or less, as defined by ICF, the Interactional Coaching Federation, which accredits coaches globally.
However, executive coaches in practice frequently go beyond the ICF definition of coaching and move into consulting, offering advice, suggestions, relevant experiences, and their own point of view on the situation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. To the contrary, the coach is engaged in a serious endeavor in helping the client to perform and develop, and it would be a questionable choice to withhold critical, relevant information from the client on the grounds that it would violate the ICF definition of coaching. ICF principles would simply advise that the coach be clear with the client when shifting modes between coaching and consulting.
I have described the need for executive coaching and what it looks like. But does it work? That really depends on how we define “working”. Efficacy is a difficult question with any learning intervention, and while Kirkpatrick’s system describes levels of measurement, levels 3 and 4 are notoriously expensive and difficult to measure accurately. Kirkpatrick’s scale consists of four levels:
- Reaction – how does the client feel about the intervention?
- Learning – what knowledge has the client retained?
- Behavior – what changes in behavior does the client demonstrate as a result of the intervention?
- Results – what business value has been created by the client as a result of behavioral change?
Level 1 – Reaction
If our definition of executive coaching being effective is that the client appreciates the experience, we can end the discussion here. Most clients do find the experience useful and are grateful for the opportunity to have a sounding board. And our stressed-out executive client gets a possibly unexpected benefit from coaching. McClelland showed that the biological indicators of stress levels are increased for leaders using an authoritarian style called “Imperial” leadership. With these leaders, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) initiates a reaction identical to the physical threat response; this has a negative affect on health. Boyatzis found that coaching with compassion has a neurological affect of reducing stress by arousing the parasympathetic nervous system, which can counter the effect of the SNS. Gyllensten and Palmer also found a decrease in stress levels among 31 finance department members in the UK following coaching.
Level 2 – Learning
Measurement at this level would determine how much knowledge has been transferred from coach to client. Learning results are usually measured via testing, and only tell us what the client knows – not necessarily how she applies that knowledge. Since we are focused on performance and developmental coaching in this paper, knowledge testing is not that relevant to coaching efficacy.
Level 3 – Behavior
Since the executive coach is focused on behavior change, being able to measure positive change would be helpful. Self-reporting is a very common method because it is inexpensive and a fast way to gather the data. The challenge is that the data is unreliable when self-reporting one’s ability. Examples of studies with self-reported data are Harder+Company (2003) and Grant (2014). McClelland also found that when reporting one’s motivation, self-reported motivation was worse than chance at predicting the tendency to take moderate risk.
If we can’t rely on self-reporting, what about multi-rater feedback? In a year-long study of 1361 senior managers receiving multi-rater feedback, Executive Coaching had a statistically significant but very small effect on improving feedback scores and on goal-setting specificity. In other words, at the end of a year, behavior appears to have changed. However, multiple coaches worked with the cohort of senior managers, and we know little about the specific coaching techniques they employed. We also don’t know how long the effect lasted. In reviewing multi-rater studies, Grant found that the measurable benefits were typically stress reduction, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies. Coaching could be worthwhile just for the stress reduction benefits alone, given what we know about the effect of high stress levels on cognitive ability and health.
Level 4- Results
So there is some evidence for positive behavior change, but does this translate to business results? In his meta-study, Grant found no correlation of coaching to performance except in situations where the clients were being coached to acquire specific job-related skills such as learning a new interviewing technique. So there is some evidence of effectiveness when coaching is combined with training. Although in this case, Grant’s study looks at technical skills rather that the behavior change sought in leadership development.
Conclusions on Efficacy
Efficacy of executive coaching is clearly challenging to measure, and harder still to isolate the elements of coaching that are most effective. As of 2009 there were 156 studies on the effectiveness of coaching yet only 11 of them compared coaching clients to those who were not coached, in quantitative terms. This leads me to the following conclusions regarding efficacy:
- Most clients enjoy the coaching experience and believe it is helpful.
- Coaching can reduce stress levels as measured by blood chemistry, which has inherent cognitive and health benefits.
- Coaching can have a small positive effect on performance as measured by multi-rater survey.
This is positive, but hardly an endorsement for corporations to be spending $2B per year on this service. Which leads to the question: is there a more impactful, reliable way to improve leader performance?
What about leadership training? This is a vast topic unto itself; literally hundreds of thousands of books have been written on the subject. Thousands of leadership models and training programs exist. And yet most leadership training, if effective at all, has short-term impact only. In some research, leadership training has been shown to adversely affect performance.
But what if we combine a leader training program based on psychological research with executive coaching based on that same research? The results, as David Burnham writes in Inside the Mind of the World Class Leader, are very compelling. His work deals with implicit motives – stable, unconscious thought patterns that drive how we perceive the world, how we make decisions, and how we behave.
Since implicit motives are at the heart of Burnham’s work, let’s have a look at what they are and how they can be used to develop leaders.
In the 1930’s, Harvard psychologist Henry Murray studied human personality and developed a system of 300 human needs such as acquisition, recognition, variety, nurturance, etc. He developed a diagnostic approach called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which was used to assess a person’s unconscious needs, referred to as motives.
Maslow used Murray’s work to develop his well-known hierarchy of needs. What most people don’t know is that Maslow and David McClelland found the hierarchy of needs theory did not hold up in practice. Their research in India showed that starving people did not think any more about hunger than those with enough food. Their finding, which invalidated one of the most-referenced psychological models of all time (the hierarchy of needs), was in line with the work that McClelland had taken forward from Murray – that our unconscious thought patterns, expressed in terms of needs or motives, are stable over time.
Further research found that 80% of the population is dominant in only three of Murray’s 300 motives: Achievement, Affiliation and Power. McClelland developed, with others, an objective coding system for the TAT in which people look at pictures and write stories about them. This has come to be viewed as the most reliable diagnostic for determining unconscious motives (called the Picture Story Exercise or PSE).
Correlating implicit motives to leader performance
So what does this have to do with executive coaching? Since the goal of executive coaching is to improve performance in the context of the organization, it would be helpful to understand whether there are stable, measurable factors that predict success, and whether coaching can have any influence on those factors. In 1977, McClelland and Burnham published “Power is the Great Motivator”. In this article they described their groundbreaking research in measuring correlations between implicit motives and company morale and performance. What they found was that most senior managers tended to be dominant in the “Power” motive, which is a need to influence others. Further, they found that a particular type of Power, “Institutional” Power, correlated to top-quintile performance among the Fortune 1000 CEO’s (they measured the motive patterns of 992 of the Fortune 1000). This was an incredible finding – there was now a way to accurately predict, based on implicit motives, organizational performance of an executive leader.
Changing Motives to Improve Performance
What if some type of behavioral intervention could help someone change their implicit motives to be more aligned with those that predict top performance? McClelland had been successful in India in persistently improving entrepreneur performance with Achievement motive training. To create motive change he used simple writing exercises that were known to work empirically, and that can now be explained through neuroscience. In 1976, he and David Burnham designed an Institutional Power training course and tested it on a cohort of 50 salesmen, who subsequently improved their performance with lasting effect. The course included a classroom component, followed by coaching.
A Social Shift in the 1990’s
McClelland and Burnham decided to run another leadership study in 1991, and upon examining the longitudinal corporate performance data in 1998, were in for a shock. The type of leadership that now correlated with top performance had changed. Just as the workforce had become more diverse and information was now flowing freely over personal computers and email, the Institutional Leadership approach was no longer that effective. In fact, it now predicted average results, whereas another approach, InterActive Leadership, predicted top performance. Of the top-performing executives studied over a 12-year period, 93% had the Interactive Power motive pattern.
InterActive Leadership is marked by a shift in the leader from being the source of power to being the facilitator of power. From influencer to co-influencer. From provider of answers to acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers. From decision-maker to one who ensures the decision making is shared with those closer to the situation.
Once the data had been verified, Burnham went about redesigning the motive training program for leaders to help them shift their motive patterns to InterActive Leadership.
Role of Coaching in Changing Performance
Today, the InterActive Leadership program consists of a 3-day workshop and a minimum of 1-2 coaching sessions. In the workshop, participants were shown extensive research on implicit motives so that they could see the relationship to top performance for themselves. They had a chance to analyze their own thoughts, captured in writing, to see what implicit motives were driving their behavior. In a simulation they were able to see how the motives play out in a real-life situation. They practiced using a story-writing and coding technique for actually changing their implicit motives. And finally they were presented with their own motive profiles, which had been developed previous to the workshop through the PSE.
The first InterActive coaching session is intended to help the participant validate their motive profile, since there is a small error rate and the profile might have been skewed by factors such as a recent personal crisis, alcohol or drugs. The coach walks the client through his or her life history starting at about age 10, since this is when motive patterns form. Meaningful life events and experiences are reviewed in the context of the client’s motive pattern so they can see how this pattern, once formed, has predicted much of their behavior over the years. One the life history has been walked through and the coach and client are satisfied that the motive profile is correct, they move on to an exercise that had been started on the last day of the workshop and continued in the pre-work for the coaching session. This exercise helps the client reframe her role at work from the perspective of InterActive Leadership.
Most clients have defined their role in some way for themselves, but the Power motive research gives us a way into the role definition that correlates to top performing leaders. This lens is called Work Focus, defined as a concern with specific work that impacts others, from which one gains pride. The client starts by thinking about her role at work from the perspective of who she is trying to influence, and what she wants that impact to be such that it would make her proud. This turns out to be a very powerful question for most leaders, who may think about their role in terms of a quantitative goal rather than impact, or may think in terms of impact that does not connect to them emotionally through pride.
Here is a sample dialogue:
Look at the difference between the original role description “My role is to grow my business unit to $50M in revenues” and the Work Focus purpose description of her organization: “My role is to help our clients capitalize on disruptions in the energy markets so people have easier access to the energy they need to live their lives.” Which of these role descriptions is more exciting to you? That excitement and pride is what creates the emotional connection and the energy that ignites the whole organization.
Subsequent coaching along these same lines would explore the leader’s specific role, e.g. “I enable my team to help our clients capitalize on disruptions in the energy markets so people have easier access to the energy they need to live their lives.” After all, if the leader is doing all of the work herself, that’s not leadership. It’s doing.
Efficacy of Coaching in Changing Performance
The efficacy of this program has been studied extensively, but only as a combination of workshop and coaching. In this combination, 65-85% of participants are able to improve their performance as leaders on a sustained basis. Various factors go into the success rate – for example, the more leaders who go through the program within an organization, the more they support each other in applying the concepts to their work, and more of them make the change. Anecdotally, extending coaching availability appears to have had a positive effect within some of the organizations employing the program. It’s also possible that the top performers were more likely to avail themselves of the coaching opportunity in the first place. Also anecdotally, Burnham has found that participants who do not participate in coaching are less likely to experience a change – he does not have data on this, however.
In conclusion, there is little hard evidence that executive coaching by itself improves performance significantly other than through stress reduction. There is little evidence that leadership development interventions alone have lasting impact. But the combination of motive training and motive-based coaching can have a radical and lasting effect on a leader’s organization, improving morale and performance. The essence of executive coaching is to help the client change in a persistent way to unlock her potential. And yet persistent change is notoriously difficult. Motive-based coaching, that helps a client take full advantage of a psychological and neuroscientific tool set, offers a path to fulfilling one’s potential.
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