Coaching has become one of the fastest-growing organisational interventions of the past 20 years. Back in 2000 an internet search for the word ‘coach’ might have brought you a few thousand responses, most of these connected to coaching in sport. The term has now become a key part of most organisations’ learning and development (L&D) strategies. Virtually every organisation is using coaching; they may be training their managers in coaching skills or hiring external coaches to work with senior managers. But what’s the evidence that coaching really contributes to individual or organisational performance? How can organisations get more serious about how they use coaching to enhance performance?
What is coaching?
Coaching is a development technique which can be used in a wide variety of ways, but is most commonly used to enhance performance – either at work or for a specific task, such as learning to drive. John Whitmore, the originator of the GROW model, suggested that coaching was about encouraging an individual to take more personal responsibility and also to become more self-aware. By making these changes the person could become more choiceful in their decisions.
These ingredients, while helpful, may not precisely clarify the exact nature of coaching. To help, we have included some popular definitions:
Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.
The International Coach Federation defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
International Coach Federation (ICF)
…a Socratic based future focused dialogue between a facilitator (coach) and a participant (coachee/client), where the facilitator uses open questions, active listening, summaries and reflections which are aimed at stimulating the self-awareness and personal responsibility of the participant.
Passmore & Fillery-Travis (2011)
Mentoring versus coaching
Mentoring and coaching can be often confused, as both are typically one-to-one conversations and involve learning. While coaching tends to focus on a short-term relationship between equals, mentoring is more typically a longer-term relationship in which one of the parties has superior knowledge, which they are sharing with the other individual through the relationship. In terms of process, while coaching is almost always about asking great questions, mentoring can often involve providing helpful answers.
In practice, many coaches, and mentors, work along the ‘coaching–mentoring continuum’. They may be both drawing on their skills in coaching while also providing some mentoring for some individuals. If we are attracted to step into the mentoring role, it is important to ensure we have contracted with our coachees that this is what they want and that we do so only at the coachee’s invitation during the session.
Does coaching work?
A decade ago it was hard to provide categorical evidence that coaching worked. Many coaches had seen positive results from their work and coachees were very positive about their experience, but warm feelings are not evidence. Over the past decade a growing number of research studies have provided the evidence that coaching works (Jones et al, 2016; Bozer & Jones, 2018).
This evidence from a wide range of studies has confirmed that coaching is a highly effective intervention that can be useful for a range of common workplace challenges, including:
- transition to a new role
- knowledge transfer from classroom to work role
- workplace stress
- career choice
- assessment preparation
- strategic decision making/reflection
- goal setting
However, coaching is not a magic bullet. The outcomes of coaching conversations are dependent on a range of factors: the skill of the coach, the willingness of the coachee to engage, the quality of the coach–coachee relationship, the suitability of the topic being discussed and the organisational or cultural context in which the coaching is occurring. In short, coaching is a social process and the outcomes are moderated by a multitude of external factors. There are many occasions when alternative interventions would be better; such as when the individual needs to learn a technical skill, when training would be a better option; when the person is seeking to develop their career within an organisation or a sector, when mentoring may be a better choice; or when a manager wishes to address underperformance, when feedback and performance management may be required.
How to find a coach?
Many of the professional bodies have registers of coaches. If you are looking for a coach who has achieved one of the UK’s leading coaching qualifications, the Henley Coaching Centre register may be an excellent place to start your search for a coach.
What training do you need to become a coach?
We believe that coach training involves three parts. First, it involves developing a deeper self-awareness. Only when we understand ourselves can we help others in their own journeys of self-discovery. To achieve greater self-knowledge, we encourage our coaching students to reflect: to reflect on themselves, reflect on the situation, reflect on their relationship with their coachee and reflect on their coachee. We do this through the use of the ‘Henley Eight’. This unique set of questions is designed to help coaches deepen their self-awareness. Second, we believe that coaches need to develop a wide understanding of alternative approaches alongside the tools and techniques associated with these frameworks. In this way, coaches can develop the skills to adapt and flex their approach to meet the coachee where they are and their specific issue. It has been said that ‘when the only tool we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. Third, we believe that coaches should be able to draw together their eclectic mix of approaches to build their own integrated approach, which they are able to both describe and deploy in service of their coachees.
Bozer, G & Jones, R J (2018) Understanding the factors that determine workplace coaching effectiveness: a systematic literature review. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 27 (3), 342–361
Jones, R J, Woods, S A & Guillaume, Y R F (2016) The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89 (2), 249–272
Passmore, J & Fillery-Travis, A (2011) A critical review of executive coaching research: A decade of progress and what’s to come. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 4 (2), 70–88 Whitmore, J (2005) Coaching for Performance. London: Nicholas Brealey