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When Coaching Fails – Seen Through the Eyes of a Client


Dr Sabine Dembkowski and Fiona Eldridge look at a study into clients' reactions to executive coaching and the lessons coaches and organisations can learn from it.

The Study

In 2003 Tanja Schmidt targeted 150 executive coaches through the leading German -speaking coach databases, which have formal stringent entry criteria (www.coaching-portal-de, and and conducted an empirical study in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Coaches received four questionnaires to give to their clients.

Of the 10% that responded 82% of coachees provided a detailed response to the open question “What is, in your perception, a failed/unsuccessful coaching relationship?” The qualitative answers were classified in different categories.

In this article the six categories of sources of failure are presented and complemented with action steps for coaches and organisations to minimise the risk of coaching failures.

Failure No. 1 – Lack of Results

One third (32%) of respondents described a lack of achieving tangible results as the main sign of a failure of a coaching assignment. In fact, over 50% of respondents stated that they had not achieved his/her goals.

Analysis of the descriptions revealed that the failure is perceived when the coaching is not solution-oriented, no change or improvement in behaviour is achieved or, even worse, the coachee experiences a worsening of his/her situation.

For coachees it seems to be essential to experience positive results within the first three sessions otherwise the coaching is deemed to have failed in their eyes.

Action Steps for Coaches

Establishing clear goals is the foundation for demonstrating the results of a coaching assignment.

Coaches can minimise the risk of failing in the eyes of their clients by using outcome-oriented coaching models such as GROW and the Achieve Coaching Model®.

Both highlight the importance of setting clear goals for the coaching programme/session. To set clearly defined goals coaches can apply, for example, the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound) principle to goal setting.

Action Steps for Organisations

Organisations that would like to ensure that their leaders and high-potentials do not experience this failure can define procedures to state development areas and expected outcomes before a coaching assignment is approved.

The goal for a coaching assignment should have a direct link to the overall strategic goals of an organisation and/or should be the result of a management appraisal/assessment.

If organisations are concerned about setting outcomes for coaching on behalf of their leaders and high potentials they can either set broad outcomes or ask for feedback from the coach and coachee after the initial 2-3 sessions to ensure that clear goals have been set.

Failure No. 2 – Quality and Behaviour of the Coach

For 24% of respondents the key impact on failure was the coach. Expectations amongst leaders, executives and high potentials are high and they place high demands on their coaches.

While they do not necessarily expect their coach to be an expert in the field, respondents indicated that they have a very strong adverse reaction to coaches who display a ‘know-it-all’ attitude or take a high-handed approach.

At the top of the list of disliked coach behaviours were: lack of deep listening to the coachee; being inflexible in approach; not working with the coachee from his/her current position and failing to understand what was high on the coachee’s agenda.

Rigidly adhering to a set approach regardless of the coachee and his/her situation was described as the main criteria for a break down in communication. Further traits which are likely to lead to disaster are a ‘missionary’ approach and an inability to come to the point.

Action Steps for Coaches

This highlights the importance for coaches to be reflective about their specific behaviours – what and why they do something.

Supervision is crucial to counter potential difficulties as it provides a sound forum for structured self-reflection and guidance on ways of approaching different coaching challenges.

The finding also highlights the need for continuous professional development to expand the skills and toolkit of the executive coach.

Action Steps for Organisations

The strong desire for quality and professional behaviour of the coach highlights the need of a very careful selection procedure for coaches. Organisations who would like to prevent this failure would be well advised to define stringent criteria for the selection of their coaches and ensure that they understand the motivations of a coach as well as his/her methodology, and depth and breadth of his/her tool box.

Another measure that can prevent the failure is the continuous measure of success of coaches, filtering out coaches who continuously achieve low ratings. It is advisable to take low performing coaches off the recommended supplier list and take on board new coaches.

Failure No. 3 – Lack of Process Quality

For 14% of respondents this was cited as leading to a perceived failure of a coaching assignment.

In this category Schmidt subsumed a variety of answers that she classified as process quality: Lack of real competence for the specific issue of the coachee and use of manipulative methods that are perceived to be inappropriate for the coaching situation.

Action Steps for Coaches

Executive coaches as well as clients can prevent this during an initial meeting by clarifying if s/he is the right coach for the client and his/her specific issue.

Coaches may argue that in tough times any client is a good client but those who want to build up a thriving coaching practice need to be selective about their clients. Only a client for whom the coach can genuinely add value is a good client and will recommend the service.

In addition, this finding highlights the importance for coaches to have a great variety of tools in their toolbox.

This will enable the coach to select methods appropriate for the client, the situation, the specific time, the specific problem, and the desired outcome for the coaching and impact. Again continuous professional development is essential together with supervision.

Action Steps for Organisations

This finding highlights the importance for organisations to establish a rigorous selection process.

Organisations should endeavour to involve members of the leadership teams, i.e. the potential clients, in the process of defining the selection criteria.

The authors both have experience of organisations where the criteria were defined in the HR and/or learning and development departments but the needs and expectations of a coach from the perspective of the ´user´ were rather different.

The finding also indicates the importance of having a broad spectrum of experience within the pool of coaches to ensure a good match to the internal clients.

Failure No. 4 – Lack of Responsibility from the Coachee

13% of respondents pointed out that a coaching failure can occur when the coachee is not willing to reflect and refuses to take responsibility for his/her development and actions.

In addition, if the coachee has high and/or inappropriate expectations of the coach and delegates all responsibility for the coaching relationship and progress to the coach, the relationship is unlikely to succeed.

Coachees also perceive that problems can occur if they themselves show no willingness to participate actively in the coaching process.

Action Steps for Coaches

This finding highlights the importance of taking the time at the beginning of the coaching programme to clarify expectations from the coaching on both sides – coach and coachee.

The coach is well advised to talk with the coachee very openly about the motivation for the coaching – was it their decision or were they sent by the organisation and resent being at the session.

It also indicates the importance to frankly talk about what coaching is and what coaching is not, what it can do and what it can’t do and what both can contribute to a successful outcome of the coaching assignment.

The finding indicates the importance for the coach to have a clear ‘psychological contract’. This is especially important for clients who have not experienced coaching before.

Action Steps for Organisations

Organisations can help to prevent this failure by investing in an “awareness raising” campaign about coaching.

This would communicate the organisation’s understanding and expectations of coaching together with information about the procedures for obtaining coaching, what coaching is, what coaching is not, the benefits of coaching and what the potential coachees can do to contribute to a successful outcome.

Failure No. 5 – Lack of a “Relationship” Between the Coach and the Coachee

Failure to develop a real rapport was quoted by 12% of the coachees as the cause of breakdown of a coaching relationship. More specifically, lack of trust, openness and transparency were highlighted as the most frequent factors missing in the relationship creating a situation where coach and coachee were not on the same wavelength.

Add to this a failure to meet deadlines or deliver promised outcomes and the relationship soon foundered.

Action Steps for Coaches

Coaching is a highly professional relationship that is even more sensitive to issues related to trust than other forms of professional services.

Coaches need to be transparent when describing what they offer and how they perform the service. They also need to establish the boundaries of the relationship at the outset and define very clearly what information is confidential and what will be shared with the sponsoring organisation.

Building rapport is one of the key skills of coaching and coaches need to take time to hone this skill. Without trust and transparency any intervention is likely to fail or at a minimum does not produce optimal results.

This finding also highlights once again the importance of self-development and the need for self-reflection and a guided reflection process in the form of good supervision.

Action Steps for Organisations

As has been suggested above, organisations will benefit from improved coaching outcomes if they have a stringent selection process for their coach pool.

It is also important to include coaches in the pool with a great variety of experiences that are perceived as valuable from the perspective of the users of the coaching service. This also underlines the importance of “measuring” performance of a coach after an assignment.

Over time the organisation get important insights about which coaches genuinely fit into the culture of the organisation and its people.

Failure No. 6 – Forced Coaching

For a small percentage (5%) coaching was perceived as failing when the coachee was ‘forced’ into the coaching programme by his/her employer.

This was particularly the case where the coachee had been labelled as ‘failing’ and needing a coach to prevent exit from the organisation.

Action Steps for Coaches
This symptom is part of the wider issue of misconceptions about coaching. Coaching may be viewed by an organisation as a way of ‘fixing’ problems or problem people.

The authors find this perception still prevalent in German speaking countries. In other areas, especially the UK and US coaching is viewed to a greater extent as part of the overall development strategy for executives in an organisation. However, there are still organisations where a coach is called in to ‘quick fix’ an executive.

Coaches who wish to avoid being trapped in this failure are well advised to establish expectations at the outset of a coaching assignment.

Coaches who are faced with “forced clients” that have no personal motivation to develop and be in the coaching programme may well be well advised to decline the assignment or to work with the host organisation to develop a different approach.

Action Steps for Organisations

Organisations can contribute much to the perception of coaching within their organisation. When establishing a coaching culture successful learning organisations start at the top by providing coaching for the top executives and the top-talent of an organisation.

In this way coaching acquires positive associations and can become a “status symbol” rather than a “stigma”.


Schmidt’s study marks a new step in the development of the coaching profession by presenting empirical results from the perspective of the client – a view not well represented elsewhere in the coaching literature.

It has a seemingly harsh message as it talks about failures, however for all involved in the profession it provides a clear understanding of what can go wrong and hence a platform for taking action to prevent failure.

The good news from this study is that most of the common reasons for failure in a coaching relationship can be offset by good preparation before a coaching assignment.

Both coaches as well as organisations can make a great contribution to not being trapped in the failures. Clients want to know the ‘rules of the game’: what will happen in the relationship; their role and responsibilities; typical coaching outcomes; how will success be measured and other burning questions.

It is important to establish the coaching contract from the outset so that the buyers in an organisation, the users and the delivering executive coach each know what is expected.

Schmidt, T. (2003): “Coaching: Eine empirische Studie zu Erfolgsfaktoren bei Einzel-Coaching” (Coaching: An empirical study of success factors in individual coaching), Berlin.

* Sabine Dembkowski PhD is director of The Coaching Centre, London & Cologne. She is the current co-chair of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) in Germany. Email [email protected].

* Fiona Eldridge is director of The Coaching and Communication Centre, a Master Practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming. She is a member of EMCC and is a member of their committee working on competencies and standards. Email [email protected].


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