Monday, February 15, 2010

New trends in how large organizations are using coaching

I recently completed a round of meetings with large organizations in Asia, Europe and the US over a 3-week period. It culminated in a visit to the Conference Board Executive Coaching Summit in NYC, where many companies presented their current strategy around coaching.

Many organizations canceled all outside consultants and coaches last year, slashed their budget to zero and removed the team in charge of coaching. Now these firms are starting to thinking about how to rebuild learning and development resources for their leadership teams, but on tighter budgets. Much tighter. One of the great things about times of deep change is you can start again, doing things properly, the way they should be done, rather than the way they have always been done. It is usually easier to start a new initiative than it is to change an initiative midstream, when all the stakeholders and the system itself pushes back. The combination of tight budgets, and the ability to create from scratch, seems to be driving three emerging trends in how organizations are thinking about coaching. These include more focus on internal coaching, thinking of coaching more broadly as a learning enabler, and thinking more strategically about coaching.

Trend one: the rise of internal coaching

One big trend happening is a shift toward internal coaching. Organizations are seeing that a large amount of coaching can be done in house, and are wondering how to do this. This is an area I have been excited about and studying formally since 2002. I published a white paper a couple of years ago that summarized a range of findings from helping around 100 firms build internal coaching capacity. I think these findings are even more relevant today. Here is a summary of some of the bigger insights in this paper. If you'd like a copy of the full white paper (which was also published in a peer-reviewed journal), email Kathy Meehan at

A surprisingly large population can be coached internally.

It is true that senior executives at the C-suite level may demand external coaches. I also think that remedial coaching, where there are significant behavioral issues, is best done externally. However, this still leaves a huge body of people who can be coached inhouse. At EDS this was over 400 executives a year, most of whom would not have been given external coaching. Internal coaching is great for driving performance, improving innovation, increasing engagement, helping with on boarding new people, assisting with transitions and providing development for high potentials. That's plenty of coaching that can be done internally at a fraction of the cost of external coaching.

Coaching others is not just rewarding, it improves the coach's productivity and reduces stress.
This has been one of the big surprises. The splash back effect of coaching turns out to be quite significant. Coaches report getting as much or sometimes more benefits than the people they coach. So much so that it’s hard to take coaching off a leader once they have been coaching others, they get quite upset about losing what can be one of the most rewarding parts of their job. Richard Boyatiz explains the science of this phenomenon in a paper called Building Sustainable Leaders. This makes coaching others one of the best development programs for senior leaders themselves.

A lot of coaches each with just a few coachees may be the best model.

Our initial research points to a sweet spot where a leader gets great personal benefits from coaching about 2.5 people a year on average. This means they have one coachee at any time. Too many more and it can take over other work. Any less and they lose momentum in learning to coach. I think it is better to have more people do a bit of coaching, than it is to try to make a small number of people be better coaches. I believe there is so little out there in terms of positive, personalized support, that great benefits can be had from fairly good coaches being available widely.

Senior leaders are willing and able to coach well.
Make senior leaders the coaches, not just HR people, to support the credibility of an initiative. In reality a mix of about 50/50 works well, though I find that the more senior leaders are coaching, the better for everyone. I have found that, as long as the coaching approach is credible, senior leaders are willing to engage in learning new skills, and tend to be very effective coaches, in quite a short amount of time. You can not ask them to take a week out to be trained, but a short and intense training program can be effective, if it is well thought out.
If you give people some good training and a process to follow, I have found a high percentage of leaders make good coaches, higher than I expected at the start of this.

There is strong demand for internal coaching from employees

We’ve never had a problem easily filling coaching places – employees tend to really appreciate being given a coach. One of my favorite quotes: This is the first time the company has given me something that really helped me do my job.

The ROI on internal coaching is fantastic

We have done two full studies on internal coaching, after just one round of coaching, showing 17:1 ROI and 39:1 ROI (see links below.) The best ROI I have seen on external coaching is around 7:1.

I will be running a webinar on April 21, at 12 noon US ET. It's free to register, click here to reserve a place. I will be sharing what I have been learning since 2002 about designing, positioning and rolling out internal coaching programs, with lots of opportunities for questions and interaction with participants.

There is a lot more to say about internal coaching, if you would like to set up a time to speak with me or one of my team further about this, email me at

More internal Coaching Resources

- Listen to an interview with an organization discuss how they found 17:1 ROI on internal coaching

- 17:1 ROI Study, Financial Services

- 39:1 ROI Study, Healthcare

- White paper on Internal Coaching

- What the Coachees say - research from people being coached inside organizations

Trend two: thinking of coaching as a broad learning-enabler

Another trend I am seeing is the idea of using coaching broadly to drive learning, instead of just using training. A few studies show that following up after a training can create half the behavior change. To run a learning and development framework using just training, without one to one support and follow up, may be missing half the value. A client like EDS saw this back in 2005 and decided to build internal coaching capacity into their global learning function, which until then only delivered training. Their vision was that every learning event would involve pre-work, an event, then follow-on coaching, all delivered with internal resources. Over a couple of years they trained 3,000 leaders in coaching skills (without anyone traveling at all), and developed over 100 internal coaches who coached over 400 executives a year. You can read more about this initiative in a white paper here.

The point here is to get maximum value out of learning interventions, without making them longer or more expensive. A 2005 paper by Jack Zenger in the ASTD 'Training and Development' journal called The promise of phase 3 put this issue as clearly as I have seen it expressed anywhere. Most companies don't invest in follow up, they invest in bells and whistles inside trainings, when the follow up appears to be the easiest place to improve the effectiveness of learning. How do you develop the ability to add follow-up to all learning programs? That involves some strategic planning and thinking, and finding an approach to coaching that sits well across many domains, which is the third trend I'm seeing.

Trend three: thinking strategically about coaching (not just 'letting it happen'.)

Another trend emerging involves companies thinking about how they might integrate coaching more strategically into their L&D framework. Instead of just using external coaching to develop senior leaders, organizations are beginning to think about how it can support many aspects of L&D, including on-boarding, performance management, transitions, high potential development and more. It is also been seen as a way to provide support to top people, to help the business builders close deals, or as a way to support important communities, such as high potential female executives.

I will say that unfortunately the majority of companies are not thinking strategically about coaching. They are more just letting it happen. I have met with dozens of organizations at various stages of the cycle of building a coaching culture, and have seen some real challenges with this approach. It's similar to installing software - if you let the business work it out as it goes along, sooner or later things get very messy. This is happening with coaching: many firms have multiple models, multiple definitions, no clear strategy and no way to measure impact. This makes it hard to get wide buy in and therefore it becomes hard to scale up coaching. Some big names companies in the end have decided to give up on coaching altogether. This is a big shame: to me, nothing is as effective at unlocking insights and increasing engagement as good coaching. The key is to find a good model that suits your organization, that is credible enough to be taken seriously.

Thinking strategically about coaching means having a 3-5 year vision for how you might use coaching, a robust theory base for coaching, clear definitions and a set of well-defined coaching models. You also need systems and approaches that sit well with an organization and can be used in multiple ways. It also helps to be clear on how you will measure and communicate your coaching programs. This is the kind of work I get to do with a few clients that really excites me. There is a one and a half hour audio presentation that one of my team gave on this whole issue that you may find helpful, download it for free here.

On a final note, I am working on a research project this year to explore how companies are building their coaching initiatives more broadly. Email me if you would like your organization to participate in this, at

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