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Coaching: Evaluating the impossible?


GraphIt's that old chestnut again: just how do you evaluate the effectiveness of coaching? Elouise Leonard-Cross opens the coaching equivalent of Pandora's Box.

Coaching as a process has existed in different guises for centuries: it was within the sporting arena and the work of Timothy Gallway that the concept was first formalised as a method to work on both the physical and inner games. Coaching is essentially about change and transformation, focusing on the individuals' ability to grow and alter behaviours, and generating new successful approaches and actions. In a business setting it is generally seen as a means of developing people to enable more effective performance and fulfilment of potential.

In the workplace it is one of the most rapidly growing forms of staff development (CIPD, 2006) however, its effectiveness as a development tool and the return on investment for coaching spend is still largely unclear and often questioned.

Coaching is a large and expanding area and gets a great deal of exposure within business learning and development. Media coverage has tended to project a highly positive image and research suggests that this is supported by the experiences of the people involved (Hall et al, 1999).

"Coaching is increasingly relevant to current workplaces: by dealing with the consequences of downsizing, by providing identification of transferable skills to support during career transition and to help staff maintain a work/life balance."

Elouise Leonard-Cross

The increase in the popularity of coaching may be explained, in part, by the volatile state of many organisations and regular career changes that individuals face, with greater responsibility for seeking personal development. Coaching is increasingly relevant to current workplaces: by dealing with the consequences of downsizing, by providing identification of transferable skills to support career transition and to help staff maintain a work/life balance. But a key criticism levied at it is the lack of evaluation that takes place. Although establishing the effectiveness of coaching is important, programmes, if evaluated at all, are often only reviewed at the reactionary level of the coachees. It is questioned whether coaching offers a valuable return on investment (ROI) for organisations and studies have identified different figures for this. The ROI identified through evaluative studies has ranged from 200% net over one year (Kearns, 2006) to 5.7 times the original investment (McGovern et al, 2001). Few coaching programmes are fully evaluated to identify the specific improvements made for both coachees and coaches, making replicating successful approaches difficult. So the need exists to develop a more coherent and well understood perception of the nature and benefits of business coaching.

Bluckert (2005) defines coaching as: "…the facilitation of learning and development with the purpose of improving performance and enhancing effective action, goal achievement and personal satisfaction. It invariably involves growth and change, whether that is in perspective, attitude or behaviour."

"The perspective of the coach can add valuable insights into aspects of the coaching relationship and individual outcomes."

This definition encapsulates the key concepts of developmental coaching but highlights some of the issues around assessing its success – namely how do we assess and measure changes in perspective attitude or behaviour to establish how successful the coaching intervention has been? Separating tangible benefits (e.g. performance, improved income generation) and intangible benefits (e.g. interpersonal skills and workplace dynamics) is difficult. Tangible elements are simpler to measure but despite intangible elements being less easy to assess, these are crucial when measuring the impact coaching has on the bottom line. A range of intangible benefits identified by Sutherland (2005) included career progression for over a quarter of coachees, 50% implemented service improvement projects, 57% job enrichment and 43% undertaking or registering for further study. Increased levels of self esteem, problem solving skills and greater insight were also reported. Anderson (2001) found a 529% ROI and significant intangible benefits to the business.

Evaluation design

To evaluate coaching a valid evaluation design is essential, ensuring planning at the outset with data gathered via a range of methods. To ensure this is successful programme sources in addition to the coachee should be included; the perspective of the coach can add valuable insights into aspects of the coaching relationship and individual outcomes. Fairhurst (2007) argues four main sources should be considered when evaluating – coaches, coachees, organisational perspective and documents, with evaluation including attitude questionnaires with rating scales to allow for both negative and positive perceptions. Face-to-face interviews, carried out by someone removed from the coaching relationship, allow for more in-depth exploration and helps less tangible elements to be verbalised by the client. A coaching intervention should not only be evaluated post coach training or on completion of coaching but at a time when both the coach and coachee have had time to reflect on the intervention and assess any behavioural changes.

"Those responsible for evaluating coaching need to think beyond simple happy sheets and start considering carefully how to evaluate within their organisation."

By taking the view that coaching is a purely individual development option organisations can fail to capitalise on the full benefit that is attainable, which can include not only benefits from coaching delivery but also the skills and performance development that can come from functioning within a coaching framework and operating internal coach and coachee development. Depending upon how coaching is used within an organisation it can impact upon a range of aspects of working life, benefiting both the coachee and the organisation in general. Benefits identified include teamwork, quality, communications, job-satisfaction, flexibility, performance, ownership, succession planning and career planning (Williams and Offley, 2005).

Those responsible for evaluating coaching need to think beyond simple happy sheets and start considering carefully how to evaluate within their organisation. One size really doesn't fit all and it is important to consider the type of coaching used and measures that relate to this. Organisations are now considering the use of pre and post intervention assessment tools to help to identify individual growth, including emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and goal focus measures, as individual increases in all of these areas have direct business benefit.

Research has shown that coaching does indeed offer a business benefit, however, evaluating the true benefit to enable organisations to establish the return on their coaching spend has to be one of the key challenges for coaching practitioners in the next decade.

Elouise Leonard-Cross is an occupational psychologist, coach and qualified learning and development professional who works with individuals and organisations to unlock potential and support growth through developmental coaching.

<div References

  • Anderson, M. C. (2001) Metrix global ROI study, Johnston, IA: Metrix Global.

  • Bluckert, P. (2005) The foundations of a psychological approach to executive coaching, Industrial and Commercial Training, 37 (4), 171-178.

  • CIPD (2006) Learning and development. Annual survey report. London: CIPD.

  • Fairhurst, P. (2007) Measuring the success of coaching, Training Journal, 7, 52-55.

  • Gallway, W. T. (1974) The inner game of tennis. New York: Random House.

  • Hall, D. T., Otazo, K. L. and Hollenbeck, G. P. (1999) Behind closed doors: What really happens in executive coaching, organizational dynamics, 27 (3), 39-52.
  • Kearns, P. (2006) Does coaching work? Training Journal, 6, 41-44.

  • McGovern, J., Lindemann, M., Vergara, M., Murphy, S., Barker, L. and Warrenfeltz, R. (2001) Maximizing the impact of executive coaching: Behavioral change, organizational outcomes, and return on investment. The Manchester Review, 6, 1, 1-9.

  • Sutherland, V. J. (2005) Nurse leadership development: Innovations in mentoring and coaching – the way forward. London: NHS Leadership Centre.
  • Williams, S. and Offley, N. (2005) Research and reality:- Innovations in coaching. London: NHS Leadership Centre.
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