Executive coaching has quickly become a nearly two billion dollar industry. Many companies now rely on coaching for the development of their leaders. Having a coach, once perceived as an admission of failure, is now perceived as a normal part of managing large, complex organizations. And coaching has also become common for entrepreneurs who need help transitioning from a leader of a start-up to a leader of a second and third-stage company.

With this acceptance of coaching, as with any performance improvement intervention, CEOs and Boards are beginning to ask if the substantial investment they are making in it is paying off.  However, we don’t know any more about the impact of coaching then we did in 2008 when I wrote the blog EmployeesShakingHands post, “Coaching for Results.” Studies of coaching tend to be surveys of people being coached. Sometimes they include direct reports and supervisors to find out if anyone observes attitude or behavior change in that executive.

The problems with these kinds of studies are fourfold: first, they lump all coaching into a black box without examining the many variations of coaching; second, they assume that the purpose of coaching is to change the individual when, in many cases, the purpose is to change the organization; third, they don’t tell us exactly how the coaching contributed to performance improvement given an environment in which many other factors could have contributed to the change; and fourth, they rarely look at long term impact, which is what is often the intended purpose of coaching.

Researchers Erik de Haan and Christiane Niess write in Training Journal:

Coaching is an organisational intervention. The client is part of the organisation. He brings with him deep traces from the organisation. And if anything changes, he will act differently upon the organisation, where more people will be affected.

So if one is interested in the impact of executive coaching, one would have to measure its effects at the organisational level. This has only been done to a very limited extent. Three hundred and sixty degree assessments by others in the organization about the client have been used in the past to measure effectiveness of executive coaching. However, in those cases, feedback from bosses, peers and direct reports was used essentially to measure the impact of executive coaching on the client, not on others in the organisation. As far as we could determine, organisational feedback on the impact of executive coaching on organisations in a wider sense, has not been investigated or analysed.

Coaching can take many forms so that when someone says they are being coached, that doesn’t tell us very much about their coaching. Do they mean coaching for greater self-awareness, for developing leadership skills, for making a transition to a new job or role, or for solving a specific problem? Do they mean face-to-face, by phone, or email? Do they mean an hour a day, an hour a week, an hour a month, or as needed. Is the coaching process mostly inquiry or mostly advocacy?  Does the coaching include interviews of supervisors and direct reports? Does it involve observation of work situations and interactions? What does coaching mean for that executive and that organization?

What we need are studies that tell us what kind of coaching under what circumstances contribute to what kind of results for the organization and over what period of time. Surveys are helpful for knowing the extent of coaching and the general attitude of employees toward coaching. To understand coaching well enough to be able to replicate successful coaching or improve coaching for an organization, we need to tell the story of the coaching experience. How did the executive get involved in coaching? What were her expectations? How did she work with the coach? What did the coach actually do? How much time did they spend in coaching? What happened? What did the executive learn? What is the executive doing differently? What impact is that having on her team and organization? What evidence is there that this kind of change is occurring and that it is linked to coaching?

When we can answer these questions we will understand what it is about various coaching interventions that has an effect on results.  We will be able to compare coaching to other potential interventions and replicate effective methods.