I was interviewed recently by someone doing research into coaching practice in different organisations. One of the questions she posed was, 'what makes coaching successful in your organisation?' It was a good question and so I thought I’d share some reflections here. It would be natural to assume that success depends primarily on the quality of coaches or coaching provided. After all, poor quality coaching is unlikely to have the same positive impact as high quality coaching. Assuming that to be the case, what else makes the difference?
I will approach this question from a number of angles. Firstly, why is the person undertaking coaching doing it? You can easily imagine that if a person enters a coaching relationship willingly, the outcome is likely to be different to that if a person feels forced to do it. Some organisations use coaching as a remedial intervention. People are sent for coaching if they are underperforming. Others use it as a perk or developmental intervention for high flyers or top talent. The former may approach coaching reluctantly, the latter with enthusiasm.
Secondly, what does a person aim to gain through coaching? Are his or her expectations realistic? Is coaching the best mechanism or approach, depending on what the person is hoping to develop or achieve? Coaching can make a real difference, but it isn’t a silver bullet. I often hear of people seeking coaching to develop their professional or technical expertise. Whilst coaching can certainly be used to develop professional insight and capability, technical knowledge and expertise may be better addressed through training or mentoring.
Thirdly, is there a good fit between coach and the person seeking coaching? This could range from interpersonal chemistry to coaching expertise and approach. Some coaches focus on how to navigate business challenges, others are more psychologically orientated. I advise people to think first what they hope to achieve through coaching, what they hope to be different then to explain their provisional goals and to ask the coach, ‘how might you approach that with me?’ The response will help determine whether it’s the right choice.
Fourthly, does a person know how to get the best from coaching? If he or she hasn’t worked with a coach before, what help may he or she need in managing the relationship? It’s about learning to act intentionally and proactively as a coaching client. I sometimes meet people who have felt frustrated with their coach. On further exploration, they have approached the coach in passive mode, waiting for the coach to do something magic. The trick is how to work with the coach, to co-create the agenda and provide constructive feedback.
Fifthly, how well does coaching fit with the person’s culture or organisational culture? Does the person's environment support and encourage the posing of searching questions, even if they challenge established norms or perceived authority? I have found this particularly challenging in places where people defer to the status quo out of cultural respect or fear. In such environments, if a coach asks a person, ‘what do you think?’, the person may feel confused (‘why, don’t you know the answer?’) or threatened (‘are you trying to catch me out?’).
Finally, how well does the person apply what they are learning through coaching? Does he or she allow space and time following coaching to allow deep insights to surface? Does he or she rush back into normal activities and habitual patterns of behaviour so that learning is quickly lost? The greatest value from coaching often emerges afterwards when the person steps back from the coaching experience itself (a) to reflectively journal his or her learning and (b) to experiment with new ideas and approaches to see what happens as a result.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.