by Susan Kushnir
illustrations by Jovanna Tosello

The profession has come a long way in the last decade. How has it evolved, where does it need to improve and what does its future hold?

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haotic, largely unexplored, and fraught with risk, yet immensely promising” is a description of the coaching industry from “The Wild West of Executive Coaching,” a 2004 ground-breaking article in Harvard Business Review by the president and CEO of the Executive Coaching Network, Alyssa Freas, and U.S. top 50 coach Stratford Sherman.

Flash forward more than a decade later. Are we still in the midst of a coaching rodeo? Has the field continued to gallop ahead but in many directions?

The answer is complicated. It is true that the executive coaching industry still comes with its share of fuzzy evaluation metrics, a lack of standard qualifications and uneven execution, but in many ways, the field has also evolved — and in unexpected ways.

Here I examine the areas in which the executive coaching industry has properly evolved — as well as the areas where there is still room for improvement.

Skill: Better Identification of When to Hire a Coach

Report Card: B+
Comment: The industry has become better at identifying the right learners.

The coaching cycle begins with identifying the need for coaching and, more specifically, the person who needs to be coached, the learner.

Certainly we in the executive coaching industry have gotten smarter about identifying learners. When I managed a coaching practice at a large bank in the ’90s, most executives at a specific level were offered the option of having a pricey executive coach. What mattered less was their performance and the criticality of their role. Learners had an implicit feeling that having a coach was recognition of status, a badge of honor and one worthy of bragging rights.

Later, I helped create a coaching practice within a smaller bank. Given the newness of coaching for the executives, they weren’t sure they wanted to be identified as having a coach. Even the existence of the internal coaching practice was shrouded in mystery. After all, it was difficult to understand the benefits of coaching given the lack of quantitative metrics that were available.

This type of unevenness of the basics of executive coaching was prevalent then. Now, fortunately, this situation is less common.

“The field of coaching is much more accepted as normal,” Sherman told me in an interview for this feature. “I see many more people getting coaching. It just doesn’t seem to be unusual anymore. People are taking a more sophisticated attitude about coaching.”

Marshall Goldsmith, known as one of the top executive coaches in the world, echoed the sentiment. “I got some good advice from one of my clients, Alan Mulally, former president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. He told me to focus on building successful leaders and not fixing losers,” Goldsmith told me in an interview.

As an industry, decision-makers are clearly being more attentive to assigning coaches and being more vocal about their placement. The 2016 International Coach Federation “Global Coaching Study” points out that coach practitioners responded that they are most likely to coach high potentials (59 percent) followed by teams/workgroups (43 percent). “I don’t have any confidential clients,” Goldsmith said. “If they have problems admitting they are getting coached, I don’t want to work worth them. If someone doesn’t want help, I don’t help them.”

The issue of learner selection has progressed partly due to the high cost of executive coaches. The overall average fee in 2015 was $231 an hour for a coaching session, according to the International Coach Federation, or ICF. Virtually all organizations select the learners that they feel are “keepers” as well as high potentials at the middle and top of the organization. Coaching still has the side effect of being a perk. In general, people who get coaching are appreciative. Certainly how willing and motivated a learner is in the process is pivotal to their development. The learner is in the driver’s seat.

Skill: Accreditation of Coaches

Report Card: C-ish
Comment: Yes, it is important, but not as important as we think.

It is true that anyone can hang up a shingle and call themselves a coach. There is no one, formal, overarching accreditation body. That said, the ICF comes closest. It has made great strides in developing coaching core competencies, establishing a code of ethics, creating a credentialing program and sharing best practices.

In the 2016 ICF coaching study, respondents were asked if coaching should become regulated; 52 percent of coach practitioners agreed, 22 percent disagreed and 26 percent remained unsure. Furthermore, “When asked if they currently hold any certifications/credentials from professional organizations, 51 percent of coach practitioners said they hold an ICF credential,” the study said.

The study also asked practitioners to identify the biggest obstacle to coaching over the next 12 months. The answer? “Untrained individuals who call themselves coaches (44 percent), followed by marketplace confusion about the benefits of coaching (28 percent).”

The issue of credentialing is becoming more in focus, but it still remains to be seen how important it is for coaches to be credentialed.

Skill: Judging the Coaching Beauty Contest

Report Card: B
Comment: It is all about the fit.

While a common credential program would be helpful, the single most important factor when selecting a coach is the fit of a coach to a learner — and it is the learner that should assess the fit.

Often, organizations will narrow the selection of a coach to several lead candidates and bring them to the learner to interview, either by reviewing résumés or meeting them. One executive coach I worked with considered this approach a “beauty contest.” Unfortunately this mindset was more about the coach than the learner or organization — the exact reverse of what it should be.

Goldsmith told me another story about discussing the successful coaching engagement he had with Mulally, the former Ford CEO. Despite having spent the least amount of time coaching Mulally, Goldsmith asked him how and why he and his team had shown the greatest progress. Mulally responded: “Marshall, you should realize that success with your clients isn’t all about you. It is about your clients, the people who choose to work with you.”

“I was under the egotistical delusion that I was the key variable in the relationship,” Goldsmith said. “But I wasn’t; the key variable are the people I coach and the organization. I am merely the facilitator. And, by the way, I’m not really certified to do anything.”

When determining the “fit” of a coach, Goldsmith suggests never start by telling the coach what you need or they will “mimic” it.

Questions to ask:

  • “What are your areas of specialty?” When they get to their fifth specialty, you know they probably don’t do that specialty very well.
  • “Who have you coached?” If they won’t give you the information, be suspicious.

Additionally, we’ve seen coaches narrow their focus for who to coach and what they do. For example, Goldsmith’s sweet spot for coaching is very targeted. “My mission is to help successful leaders achieve positive, long-term, measurable change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams.”

Skill: Measuring the ROI of Coaching

Report Card: Incomplete
Comments: Certainly the effectiveness of a coaching engagement is important but who should be evaluating the effectiveness?

A lot of time and energy has gone into determining the effectiveness of a coaching engagement — with mixed results.

ICF, for instance, asked coach practitioners to identify the biggest opportunities facing them within the upcoming year. The two most identified areas were increasing awareness of the benefits of coaching (38 percent) and a desire to better communicate the impact of coaching (26 percent).

“Some coaches feel that too much energy is spent on trying to quantify behavioral change,” Freas, the president and CEO of Executive Coaching Network, told me in an interview. “This concept of measuring effectiveness reminds me of an airline gate agent. The gate agent isn’t likely to have 3 million miles of flying and experience with what it means for me to be a frequent flier locked in a plane for days, hours, months and years over time. They are expected to ‘one size fits all’ my experience into what their computer says. The best executive coaching is customized to ensure it aligns with the organization and person being coached rather than to some standardized measure of success.”

“I don’t have any confidential clients. If they have problems admitting they are getting coached, I don’t want to work worth them. If someone doesn’t want help, I don’t help them.”

— Marshall Goldsmith,
executive coach

To have a great executive coaching experience, Freas says it helps to ensure:

  • All parties involved understand their roles and how to collaborate.
  • Transparency is maintained to help the organization and confidentiality is secured for the person being coached. Confidentiality means different things to different people, so the coach must define the term, explain it and abide by it.
  • The objective of the engagement is clear.
  • The steps in the coaching process are clear and everyone understands major milestones and timeframes.
  • The process is a creative one. When you stop trying to control the process with too many artificial boundaries, the process works.

Skill: Measuring the Coach’s Success

Report Card: N/A
Comment: Wrong metric. The fit between the coach and the learner is more important.

In a world full of key behavioral indicators, key performance indicators, standards, returns on investment, values, wins and other metrics, the field of coaching has struggled to quantify its success. Sure, anecdotal feedback on a coaching relationship is promising, but what are the hard metrics? How can we prove the effectiveness of a pricey executive coach?

The short answer is, you really can’t.

The longer answer is: Maybe we should quit maniacally focusing on evaluating the coach rather than the learner to ensure a behavioral change has absolutely, positively happened. Remember what Goldsmith said earlier: It is an egotistical delusion to believe that the key variable is the coach; it is really the people and the organization. The coach is only the facilitator.

The learner needs to take responsibility for their own life, not the coach. As Goldsmith said, “You want to become the best coachee you can be. It does no good to dump on the coach. You won’t get better; you’ll just critique the coach. Let’s imagine I’m the worst coach and you improve, who cares? Let’s imagine I’m the best coach and you improve, who cares?”

What’s Next for Coaching?

Even though the field of executive coaching remains fluid, it may be a time for disruption or shifts such as the ones below:

Potential Disruptor: Increase the Frequency of Learner Progress Checks

Anticipated Grade: B
Skill needed: Clear knowledge of change required.

So maybe we still need to evaluate the coach, but perhaps we have been too focused on the coaching process and not on the outcomes. More importantly, we need to solicit the opinions of those around the learner to judge the learner’s success.

While most coaches use client assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of their engagements, there is a trend of having the people around the learner be the judges of the engagement’s success. Many practitioners, including Goldsmith, advocate using mini-surveys three to 15 months after the start of the coaching engagement. These surveys are specifically tailored to the primary change that the learner was trying to make. The use of these surveys helps the learner gauge their progress in a specific area and do a midcourse correction if needed. Perhaps even more important, the surveys allow the respondents to consider what progress the learner has made and see the learner in a new light.

Potential Disruptor: Training Learners to Embrace Receiving Feedback

Anticipated Grade: A
Skill needed: Listening, respect for feedback providers.

The ability to receive feedback is one the most important muscles a learner should develop. Giving feedback is very important too, but the ability to receive feedback is an underrated skill.

Sometimes getting feedback stings. Lori Trahan, chief executive officer at Concire Leadership Institute, has found a way to take the sting out of giving and receiving feedback. Take the burden off of the person you’re soliciting feedback from by asking, “How would you have handled that situation?” They will be able to talk openly about what they would have done rather than offering a critique of what you did.

“Sometimes we ask for feedback from people we haven’t vetted — meaning we’re not sure if their strengths match our weaknesses,” Trahan said. “Ensure you are asking for feedback from someone whose behavior you want to emulate. Then, create a safe environment for him or her to share information.”

People tend to struggle with receiving feedback. The receiver is in charge and decides what to let in. Maybe the key is to learn how to internalize the blizzard of feedback. People who solicit feedback are likely to report higher work satisfaction, adapt more quickly to new roles and get higher performance reviews.

Potential Disruptor: Becoming Your Own Coach

Anticipated Grade: A
Skill needed: Self-discipline, ability to be humble.

The intuitive benefits of executive coaching, as well as moving anecdotes from those who’ve been on the receiving end of the practice, are enticing enough for employees to want to be partnered with a coach. They see changes in others that they tie to the coaching relationship. This makes them want to have a coach as well.

Given that coaching is difficult to quantify yet anecdotally impactful, the second hurdle is to get partnered with a coach, which is not easily granted.
But let’s not let that stop us. Let’s figure out how we can replicate some of the benefits of an executive coaching process without a coach. What does a coach offer that, with some creativity and gumption, you can replicate and when should you not even try to replace the process?

The journey begins with a question: Do you have the discipline and self-awareness to take on the task of self-coaching? Do you know the right questions to ask?

In 2014, ICF used Facebook and Twitter to crowdsource their favorite questions used in coaching sessions. These questions work well when coaching yourself or being coached. Here are some of the responses:

  • What would you do if you had unlimited resources? — Karen Martin Miner
  • What story is holding you back? — Chris Padgett
  • What will you do first? — Katarzyna Wojnar
  • How much energy are you willing to put into that? — Alisa Manjarrez
  • Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again? — Renee Stuart
  • If you knew the answer, what would it be? — Rita Tourigny
  • What are the positive outcomes of this negative situation? — Vanya L. Marinova
  • And … ? — Katy Caroan

If one has the discipline and willingness to work hard, there are tools that leaders can use to help the process. Two initial tools to begin with are the change story and skills matrix, which I’ve written about before in Talent Economy.

“When I know I have a skill gap or I want to enhance my ability I listen to audiobooks,” Freas said. “I will set time aside to do the recommended exercises in the books. This is a method I find useful for myself and my clients. If I recommend an audiobook, I also suggest a hard copy of the book to read along as the person is listening. This will increase speed as well as the retention of the information.”

“I like the self-coaching idea,” Goldsmith said. “It is humbling. At times I have been too cowardly to self-coach so I pay someone to call me every day to ask me 40 basic questions. I don’t have the self-disciple but others may have it and then self-coaching makes perfect sense. I have long ago gotten over the macho idea that I need to do everything myself.”

Overall Score For the Decade

Report Card: B
Comment: Coaching is still a bit like the Wild West but there is little doubt that it is a highly regarded development tool.

It will be interesting to watch the continued evolution of executive coaching. There is a tug of war on how much measurement of the coaching engagement is necessary given that coaching is more of an art than a science. Measuring outcomes of the learner will likely become the key metric.

Whether there is a de-emphasis on one-on-one coaching also remains to be seen. It is true that the leader creates the team dynamic and it is also true that most often employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. However, given the high cost of coaching, perhaps shifting the emphasis to shorter coaching engagements and more team coaching makes sense.

And what about becoming your own coach? This concept may be the key to spreading out the knowledge we’ve learned from the most effective ways to coach.

The coaching terrain is an excellent test-and-learn environment. Anecdotally, it has proven its success. The process, measurement and credentialing are still forming, and perhaps we in the industry don’t ever need to come to consensus.

Susan Kushnir is director of lean management at S&P Global. To comment, email