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Executive Coaching Practices in Action by Tracy O’Neill

Feb 26th, 2010 | By | Category: Coaching Research

Most of the coaching research found today is based on executive coaching. An executive is a leader at the top of the organization, including CEOs, vice presidents, and executive directors. Executive coaching relationships are usually formed:

 between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant [coach] who uses a wide variety of behavioral techniques and methods to assist the client to achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction and consequently to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within a formally defined coaching agreement.[i]

 This article summarizes five studies on executive coaching. Many include perspectives from both the coach and the client.

 Training Intervention

Gerald Olivero, K. Denise Bane, and Richard Kopelman conducted a contracted training intervention on executive coaching as a transfer of training tool in a public sector municipal agency. Thirty-one participants volunteered for classroom training and one-to-one executive coaching. In phase 1 classroom training, the trainees completed a 3 day workshop on roles managers and supervisors need to increase productivity, quality, and effectiveness within the agency. A knowledge inventory was completed before and after the workshop, as well as an instructor satisfaction questionnaire. In phase 2 executive coaching, 8 managers were taught how to be one-on-one executive coaches. These 8 then coached the remaining 23 participants. Coachees were required to choose a work project that would enhance productivity, quality, and effectiveness. Each project shared a written format, time deadlines, and customers. All influenced the coachees’ subordinates in some way. Coachees worked individually with their coaches, covering goal setting, problem solving, practice, feedback, supervisory involvement, evaluation, and public presentation. The sessions lasted for a period of 2 months and consisted of weekly, 1 hour meetings.  

 Phase 1 training resulted in a 22.4% increase in productivity. Phase 2 coaching resulted in favorable reactions from all participants and an average increase in productivity of 88%. This demonstrates the dramatic effect of coaching as a transfer of training tool. “The training provided a period of abstract learning of principles, while the coaching facilitated concrete involvement in a project specific to each participant’s work unit.”[ii]

Executives Coached in a Private Practice

Karol Wasylyshyn, president of Leadership Development Forum, a management consulting firm specializing in applications of psychology and business, presents outcome research based solely on executives she coached between 1985 and 2001. A survey was sent out to 106 clients with an 82% response rate. The great majority of participants are white males in the 40 to 50 year age group with at least director level responsibility. Multiple responses were allowed for most of the questions presented.

 Reactions to working with a coach were significantly positive, with 1/3 of the population remaining guarded on what to expect. The top 3 credentials organizations looked for in hiring external coaches were: graduate training in psychology, experience and an understanding of business, and an established reputation as a coach. The top personal characteristics of an executive coach included: the ability to form a strong relationship with the client, professionalism, and the use of sound coaching methodology. All respondents favored external coaching but were concerned about the person’s lack of company and industry knowledge. A majority of the respondents also indicated a preference towards internal coaching. The major concerns were confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and skill levels. Most executive coaching engagements focused on personal behavior change, followed by enhancing leadership effectiveness, and building stronger relationships. The highest rated coaching tools were face to face coaching sessions, 360 degree feedback, and the relationship with the coach. Executives and organizations measured success by sustained behavior change, increased self-awareness and understanding, and more effective leadership. The author concluded that coaching can benefit many people but the client must be motivated to change and engage in the process.[iii]  

Practices, Attributes, & Skills

Deborah M. Luebbe conducted a study to investigate executive coaching practices, attributes, and skills. She looked at 3 groups: the coach, the coachee, and the human resource department to determine the most effective coaching outcomes. What leads to positive behavior change in coachees? What can be done for the best performance outcomes? 

In the qualitative research phase, 13 participants from all groups were interviewed one-on-one in relation to their executive coaching experiences: 5 were female and 8 male, ranging in age from 34 to 59 years. These individuals were chosen based on their knowledge, experience, and candidness. The interviews focused on their perceptions of coaching attributes, behaviors, skills, processes, methodologies, outcomes, and measures as they relate to an effective coaching intervention. 

The quantitative research phase was survey oriented and based on information obtained from the qualitative phase. Of the 61 participants, coaches came from internationally recognized firms, coachees came from a variety of industries, and human resource professionals practiced in healthcare, manufacturing, and financial services. The survey consisted of 25 items in a rating and ranking format. Questions covered executive coaching attributes, skills, behaviors, qualifications, and processes.   

All rater groups indicated trusting relationships as the highest attribute in a coaching engagement. Other key themes that emerged include a coach’s ability to:

  • Communicate valuable insight from assessments
  • Be accountable to the hiring organization
  • Provide candid feedback
  • Foster self-awareness and independence
  • Build partnerships with internal HR professionals
  • Establish an agreed upon set of practices and competencies

Interventions are most successful when coaches are appropriately matched with coachees, and the organization communicates their intent and purpose to the coach. The study recommends adopting a person-centered approach. This means coaches should take the time to know and understand their clients before asking them to change. The age of the client, their level in the organization, the culture of the organization, and the industry in which one works, all influence learning preferences. By building relationships to discover these differences, coaches can ensure a more effective intervention.[iv]

 Job-Related Attitudes

Myra E. Dingman presented research on the impact of executive coaching experiences in relation to self-efficacy, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and work/family conflict. She asked, “How does the extent and quality of participation in an executive coaching experience affect levels of self-efficacy and job-related attitudes?” The study was based on the valid responses of 92 executives being coached by Transformational Leadership Coaching (TLC) graduates. Most participants were white males, with a median age of 42. The majority were married with children and held post-bachelor degrees. On average, respondents had worked 7 1/2 years with their organization and supervised about 16 employees in a field with religious affiliation.

A web-based survey, consisting of 88 questions, asked each coachee for information on their demographics, self, work/family balance, organization, job, the coaching process, and the quality of the coaching relationship. The study concluded that:

  • Quality coaching relationships have a positive relation to self-efficacy but a  negative relation to job satisfaction, meaning that an effective coach results in the coachee’s self image and self-efficacy increasing but a coachee’s job satisfaction actually decreasing.  
  • Successfully completing the coaching process led to an employee’s increased job satisfaction. This is great news for organizational coaching. The more time spent in a successful coaching relationship moving through the different steps in the coaching process will lead to increased job satisfaction for the employee.
  • Organizational commitment and work/family balance are not significantly related  to executive coaching experiences, meaning that neither was affected after a successful coaching relationship.

Dingman suggests that organizations continue to study the impact of coaching on executives.[v] 

What Works

Brett L. Seamons conducted research to determine the most effective component parts of executive coaching from the viewpoint of the coach, the client, and the client’s boss. Eight triad cases were surveyed by telephone using open ended discussions. The coach, the client (executive), and the client’s boss discussed their views on why the coaching experience was successful. The participants represented multiple coaching firms and organizations while crossing international borders. All participants were in the researcher’s personal network of colleagues and coaches. The average ages are as follows: coaches, 45; clients, 42; and bosses, 48. Work experience for all groups averaged between 19 and 23 years. Most coaching engagements lasted just under a year. 

From the interviews, 5 components of coaching with a positive impact emerged. These include; support of boss, adherence, insight through feedback, relationship, and reflective space. Broken down: 

  • Coaches reported client adherence as the most important part of executive coaching
  • Clients said the support of their superior, reflective space, and coaching challenges were the most important factors
  • Bosses thought their support, insight through feedback, client adherence, and client investment were the most important factors
  • Over 87% of the participants felt coaching was a value for the money

 Each player can maximize coaching success by understanding the importance of their role and relationships.[vi]

[i]R. R. Kilburg, Executive Coaching: Developing Managerial Wisdom in a World of Chaos (Washington, District of Columbia: American Psychological Association, 2000), 66-67.

[ii]Gerald Olivero, K Denise Bane, and Richard E Kopelman, “Executive Coaching as a Transfer of Training Tool: Effects on Productivity in a Public Agency,” Public Personnel Management 26, no. 4 winter 1997 [journal on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 20 September 2007.

[iii]Karol Wasylyshyn M, “Executive Coaching: An Outcome Study,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 55, no. 2 (spring 2003): 94-106.

[iv]Deborah Luebbe M, “The Three-Way Mirror of Executive Coaching,” (Doctor of Philosophy diss., Union Institute & University, October 2004).

[v]Myra E. Dingman, “The Effects of Executive Coaching on Job Related Attitudes,” (Doctor of Philosophy diss., Regent University, April 2004).

[vi]Brett L. Seamons, “The Most Effective Factors in Executive Coaching Engagements According to the Coach, the Client, and the Client’s Boss,” (Doctor of Philosophy diss., Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, March 2004).

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