In my writing so far, I hope I have whetted your appetite for coaching research and put a convincing argument that it cannot be left as an “academic” pastime, but should be part of every practitioner’s arsenal.
Most of us do not have the time to carry out research per se, but given that our profession is in its infancy, there is much to discover in the literature about the true potential of what we can offer as coaches and how this can impact upon our clients and their organizations! We can contribute to the growing body of knowledge ourselves by delving into journals and articles, discussing “hot topics” within our networks and generally making our literature our own. As practitioners we contribute a valuable perspective when we talk with our peers and to academic researchers.
Over the last year I have been contributing to a working group on research as part of the Global Coaching Convention. This convention was established to create a collaborative framework of stakeholders in coaching with the aim of professionalizing the industry. Quite a job and at times I think the size and complexity of the aim has daunted even the hardiest souls. As in any undertaking of this size, there has been a debate about the value of such an initiative. Detractors say that the coaching community has grown organically so far and it should be left to continue doing so. Others say that the convention is taking on too big a job, and with so many diverse agendas on the table, there is little hope of getting collaboration or consensus so people are wasting their time. I will not go further into the debates other than to mention that if any of our clients came out with such a view, we might well consider challenging it! But enough of my soap box, as a good researcher I shall admit my bias and point everyone in the direction of the GCC’s website for the latest news and events.
Sunny Stout Rostron and Carol Kauffman chaired and facilitated the research working group and they did a grand job in challenging our process and thinking as well as generally bringing the project home. The core piece of work was a review of where we are, as a community, in terms of our research. Sunny and Carol will be publishing the full piece in the near future, but I would like to share with you some of the thinking it sparked with me.
First and foremost, we agreed that if we are thinking of moving to becoming a profession then we have to define what our body of knowledge is—what is it that makes our offer different to that of occupational psychologists, management consultants or other related fields? Research is the route to defining our knowledge. Even if we are simply looking at, and comparing, each other’s practice we are engaging in research.
The second point that struck a real note with me was our discussion around whether we should define what is “good” and what is “bad” research. This question and its real depth gets in the way of many of us entering the world of research. It throws up all kinds of questions about what is the “correct” way of doing it, reporting it or even defining it.
Let us first consider our purpose in doing research. For me and many others it is to find something out or to learn, and the best evidence of learning is to change behaviors. So we are effectively saying to our colleagues:
“Trust me—I have looked at this issue and found XYZ. You can now take my findings and apply them directly to your practice.”
That is quite a thing to say. We are suggesting people change their practice and behaviors because of what we have found out. To do this (and still sleep at night) we need to know that we are right (or valid) and not leading people down the garden path on a scenic route to nowhere. Some researchers have taken the easy route out of this dilemma and stuck to one way of doing research, irrespective of the question they are asking. Usually the method of choice is a controlled experimental study where one group gets coaching and one group doesn’t, and at the end there is some measure of impact on behaviors (with everyone hoping there is a positive effect on those who have been coached)!
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as they are doing a scientific study and don’t have to justify themselves any further. Oh if only life was that easy! As we have discussed before, what you research and how you do it is determined by the question you are asking NOT the other way around. A controlled experiment would be terribly complicated and confusing if we wanted to explore how and what elements of the coaching engagement are of most value to a diverse range of clients. Trying to control for all the factors that would be different between groups would make it untenable (and unusable).
Identifying the research method used as the main differentiator between good and bad research is therefore not a sensible path and will only lead to restricting the type of research question we will be able to ask (and answer). Our criteria for whether an inquiry is “good” research must be: Is there coherence between the question, the method used to research it and the analysis undertaken, and has everything been done to the standards of good practice? Let us leave the question of what is good practice to one side for another day and take that as read; we can then be happy to consider good research to include any method or even mix of methods that makes sense for the question we are asking.
The same thinking should be brought to bear on the question: What is the best research to do? Everyone wants to do research that will set the world alight, but choosing a topic isn’t easy. Governments have been engaged in foresight exercises for many years trying to second guess the research investment they should make to enable them to meet the challenges for the future. They have invested a significant amount of money, but it has resulted in quite a lot of what has been described as crystal gazing.
Experience has shown that such exercises are useful for mapping current drivers for research, but usually fail to foresee the big issues for the future, e.g., the exponential rise in the use of the mobile phone and the personal computer. If we cannot see what will be the main issue for the future then the best research to do is the research that speaks to you and your practice, i.e., the research that follows your passion. Chances are that your passion will be shared by others—go ahead and ask them—and if that is the case then you can be confident that there will be an audience for your work.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (October Issue 2008, Volume 4, Issue 3).
As an introduction to how people are thinking about research for the future, have a look at these two papers. If you do not have access to these journals through a library or database, then just go to the website of the journal and order the download direct to your computer.
Linley, Alex P. 2006. “Coaching Research: Who? What? Where? When? Why?” International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn): 1
Bennett, J.L. 2006. “An Agenda for Coaching-Related Research: A Challenge for Researchers.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research Vol. 58, Part 4: 240-249
Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis
Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis is a senior researcher and education coach with the Professional Development Foundation. The author of more than 60 research articles and studies, her recent book The Case for Coaching, presenting a literature review with research case studies and interviews from over 20 organizations on coaching efficacy, was published in 2006 by CIPD, UK.
Everyone in the business coaching profession agrees that executive coaching works. However, according to Coaching and Buying Coaching Services (London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2004), an even greater impact, more sustainable results and increased effectiveness can be achieved when a systematic approach to executive coaching is applied.
Novice coaches wonder if effective, experienced coaches possess mysterious methods for producing magical results. In fact, the genuine trust that renders coaching effective is created when both coach and client have a clear understanding of the coaching process and methodology. We have always believed in the value of such transparency, and have made it a cornerstone of our practice. To validate our belief, we conducted research and monitored our own coaching results.
In order to determine and define what actually happens in sessions facilitated by an effective coach, we observed and analyzed transcripts and video tapes from executive coaching colleagues in the US, England and Germany. We investigated how the coach achieved results, what specific actions the coach took to improve executive performance, and what distinguished an effective, experienced coach from a novice. Our observations, analysis and study of various coaching models led to our development of the seven-step Achieve Coaching Model®, which has been applied successfully in some of the finest organizations in the world.
Application of the Achieve Coaching Model®
A brief description of each of the seven steps follows, along with insights into the skills and techniques employed by an effective coach at each stage.
Step 1: Assess the current situation
In this step, the executive is encouraged to reflect deeply about his or her current situation. The enhanced self-awareness obtained by describing that situation helps in identifying areas to address, and provides a useful context for the sessions ahead. However, the most important benefit of this step is the client’s opportunity to reflect on past events, enhance understanding of what specific actions contributed to the current situation, and how those actions may have stimulated specific responses in others.
Key coaching behaviors
- Makes informed use of assessment instruments (without relying solely on those instruments) to gain an understanding of the client’s situation
- Expresses sincere interest in the client’s life stories
- Takes time to understand the situation from the client’s perspective
- Listens deeply so that the client is fully engaged and feels genuinely understood and valued
- Creates a sense of connection and comfort, fostering a climate of openness and trust
- Observes and registers all verbal and non-verbal communication
Step 2: Brainstorm creative alternatives to the client’s current situation
This phase broadens the executive’s perspective and creates a sound foundation for the development of creative solutions and behavioral change. The objective is to increase the choices available to a client who is facing a challenging situation.
One of the most pressing issues for clients is the feeling of being “stuck” in a particular situation with no visible alternate course of action available. In some circumstances, particularly in times of heightened stress, perspective can narrow, resulting in mental and emotional “tunnel vision.” The effect resembles a confrontation with a massive wall–nothing is visible but that wall.
An effective coach draws the client back and restores a broader perspective, which is a prerequisite for the next stages in the coaching partnership. Absent creative brainstorming, the client continues to circle and repeat the same patterns of behavior. Essentially, the first natural reaction in this “stuck state” is to do “more of the same.”
Key coaching behaviors
- Utilizes a variety of tools and techniques to interrupt the client’s habitual patterns, thus breaking the “stuck state”
- Surprises clients with creative, unexpected questions
- Brainstorms a variety of alternatives to the current situation, probing beyond initial responses to unearth a broad spectrum of options
Step 3: Hone goals
In Step 3, the client forges alternatives and possibilities into specific goals. This is the stage at which SMART goals are created and/or refined, and it is essential that the principles of effective goals formulation be taken into account. This is more difficult than it may first appear. Most executives are very aware of what they do not want. However, they frequently find it highly challenging to specify exactly what they do want. In this step, the coach helps the executive to clearly articulate specific, desired results.
Key coaching behaviors
- Encourages precise definition of goals (in positive terms)
- Takes time to develop SMART goals
- Works with the client to develop goal(s) with high personal meaning and relevance
- Ensures that the goals are, in fact, the client’s
- Develops a specific set of measurements with the client to provide clear evidence of goal achievement
Step 4: Generate options for goal achievement
Having decided upon a specific goal, the aim at Step 4 is to develop a wide range of methods of achieving it. At this point, the purpose is not to find the “right” option, but rather to stimulate the client to develop an abundant array of alternatives. No option, however seemingly appealing, should form the sole focus of attention. At this stage, the quantity, novelty and variety of the options are more important than their quality or feasibility.
Key coaching behaviors
- Exhibits confidence in the process and works with the client to develop alternative pathways to the desired goal
- Uses a broad spectrum of techniques and questioning styles to stimulate the client to generate options
- Provides space and time for the client to think creatively
- Ensures that the client “owns” the options generated
Step 5: Evaluate options
Having generated a comprehensive list of options, the next step is for the client to evaluate and prioritize them. As is the case in Step 3, “Hone Goals,” this is the stage at which an experienced coach can guide the executive towards developing focus. Without a well-defined focus for action, the executive is unlikely to move forward effectively.
We have found that executives who are skilled at evaluating options for their business objectives often find it difficult to apply the same techniques to their private lives. In such situations, the coach can serve to remind the client of the value of these techniques, and encourage their application on a personal level.
Key coaching behaviors
- Encourages the client to develop personally meaningful criteria for the evaluation of options, since these criteria form the basis for option selection
- Probes the client to develop a comprehensive evaluation of each option
- Ensures that the key options and their evaluation are fixed in writing for future reference
Step 6: Design a valid action plan
As one coach described it, “This is where the rubber meets the road!” At this stage, a concrete and pragmatic action plan is designed. One of the main advantages of executive coaching in industry and commerce is that it provides “just in time” learning and development when and where an executive needs it. This stage of committing to a plan means that the executive is ready to take action.
With many executive development programs, the challenge is translating “classroom learning” into everyday practice. Coaching helps bridge this gap, and the executive commits to taking action using newly acquired skills.
Key coaching behaviors
- Creates a detailed action plan with the client
- Works with the client to check the feasibility and achievability of the plan
- Fixes the action plan in writing
- Ensures the client’s commitment to the action plan
Step 7: Encourage momentum
This is represented as the final stage in the Achieve Coaching Model®. While the final step in a coaching partnership may be to facilitate the client’s execution of the defined action plan, the role of the coach in encouraging momentum between coaching sessions is equally important.
As a US coach explained, encouraging momentum is a “crucial part of the process. Until the new behavior becomes the new reality, it remains difficult…executives who are in the transformation process need encouragement and reinforcement.” We have found that it is important to reinforce even the smallest steps, since this helps to build and maintain momentum and increase the executive’s level of confidence. Cumulative small action steps create the critical mass necessary to accomplish the desired goal. Sustainable change is easier to achieve with continuous reinforcement and encouragement.
Key coaching behaviors
- Demonstrates continuing interest in the development of the client
- Organizes regular “check-in/keep-on-track/follow-up” coaching sessions
- Takes measures throughout the coaching program to avoid dependency, and knows when to end the partnership
The aim of this article has been to describe and provide insights into the practical application of the Achieve Coaching Model®. Coaches can use the model to structure their coaching sessions and coaching programs without confining the coach to a “straightjacket” which inhibits flexibility and individuality. For those considering hiring a coach, the model provides a transparent, forthright description of coaching methodology. It can also help potential clients to evaluate coaches when choosing those with whom they wish to work.
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Spring Issue 2006, Volume 2, Issue 1).
“Coaching and Buying Coaching Services.” 2004. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. London. Available at http://www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/lrnanddev/coachmntor/coachbuyservs.htm?IsSrchRes=1
Sabine Dembkowski, Ph.D
Sabine Dembkowski, Ph.D is based in Cologne, Germany. Following a successful career as a top management consultant at A.T. Kearney and Monitor Company, Sabine founded The Coaching Centre, an international consultancy for executive coaching and leadership services. Sabine can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fiona Eldridge is the Director of The Coaching and Communication Centre. She is a Master Practitioner and Certified Trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming. Fiona has appeared on television and radio and frequently contributes to newspapers and journals. Learn more about her work at The Coaching and Communication Centre.