News & Insight
August 2006

Maximizing the Value of Coaching

M.J. Blocker

Many organizations today believe in the value of employee and leadership development and demonstrate that belief by utilizing professional coaches. However, there are situations where even a professional coaching process can fall short of expectations and fail to bring value to an individual or organization. This can be the result of an ineffective coaching model or shortcomings on the part of the coach, the client, or the client's organization.

Ineffective Coaching Models

Increased interest in coaching today has created opportunities for coaches with a variety of backgrounds and experience. Unfortunately, the result can sometimes be a commoditized approach to coaching by organizations that utilize coaches with little organizational experience or expertise because the price is right.

There are two ways that organizations often cut coaching costs-and achieve a less-than-desirable result. The first is when they utilize inexpensive-and inexperienced-coaches to work with high potential clients or clients at lower levels of the organization. The thinking is that clients with more experience should have more experienced coaches and that middle managers or employees with less experience can "get by" with less coaching expertise. In truth, inexperienced clients typically have greater needs than seasoned managers and consequently require a coach with significant organizational experience and highly developed coaching skills.

The second way that organizations minimize the value proposition of coaching is by utilizing an option that has been created by today's technology: distance coaching or phone coaching. Although coaching can be delivered efficiently and effectively in today's virtual environments, initial meetings with the client are most valuable when they are conducted face-to-face. Why? First, because coaching requires a high level of trust between client and coach, and it is difficult to build trust in early stages of the process in a virtual setting. And second, successful coaching is predicated on the coach's ability to read a client's non-verbal communication, especially during early stages of the coaching relationship.

Yet coaching can fail even when organizations fully commit appropriate resources to the process and hire skilled and experienced coaches. Let's see how that can happen.

Coaching Failure

Paramount to a successful coaching assignment is a skilled and experienced coach who operates on the basis of integrity and objectivity. If a coach is not able to separate emotion (his/her own emotion or the client's emotion) from fact, the value of coaching can be compromised. This is not to say that coaches shouldn't help clients leverage positive emotions and work through negative ones. However, effective coaching needs to be fact-based-and facts need to be objectively interpreted by the coach and client.

Coaches diminish the value of the coaching process when they attempt to impose their own values onto clients (or onto client organizations). For this reason, it is critically important for a coach to deliver services within the context of the client organization's unique culture. To do this, coaches must be able to read the organization's culture and help the client do so as well. Anything less can result in a superficial approach or failure to see that a client's behavior and performance may not be matching up to organizational norms and expectations.

So far, we've described how coaches can fail clients, but let's also look at how clients and client organizations can negatively impact coaching outcomes as well.

Client Failure

Clients most often fail in the coaching process when there are competing issues, priorities, or outside forces that take them off track. The coaching process can also fail if these issues require professional psychological assistance that goes beyond the scope of coaching. However, there are two other common causes of client failure that bear mentioning: (a) little receptivity or commitment on the part of the client and (b) a lack of integrity (i.e., not honoring commitments or failure to work on agreed-upon action/development plans). Bottom line: Coaches can help clients change, but clients have to bring commitment and dedication to the process.

Organizational Failure

Organizations too can negatively impact coaching outcomes. If a client's manager doesn't provide an environment that is conducive to development and change, it is unlikely that the client will attempt it-despite good intentions. Also, if a manager doesn't recognize change or provide positive feedback, a client may become demotivated.

Additionally, if organizational reward systems fail to recognize or reinforce new or improved behaviors, clients may go in search of a more supportive environment in other parts of the organization or outside of the organization. For change to be sustained, reinforcement needs to occur on two levels: tangible (compensation and rewards) and intangible (positive feedback).

In concluding, coaching has the potential to be a high-value proposition for both individuals and organizations. As is the case with any process, however, certain elements need to be in place. We have seen how the coaching process requires a delicate interplay between the coach, client, and client organization. When any one of these elements fails to support the coaching process, the entire system is affected.

Although coaches need to bring a certain degree of knowledge and skill, organizations need to ensure commitment on the part of the client and the people he/she interacts with-particularly the manager. The coaching process is, in many respects, similar to a team development process: Although the team needs to possess certain skills and abilities, team development can only be enhanced when all parties work together, to achieve a common goal.

Marilyn Blocker is a member of WJM Associates' executive coaching and organizational effectiveness faculty. Drawing upon over 20 years of experience with leading Fortune 500 and healthcare organizations, she specializes in coaching, succession planning, and large-scale organizational change. Marilyn has coached over 200 clients who range from high-potential employees to C-level executives.

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