Coaching Is Evolving to Meet the Times
“Everyone needs a coach.” You might suspect that an athlete like Serena Williams or Tom Brady made this comment—but it was, in fact, Bill Gates. As Gates explained in his 2013 TED talk:
Coaches provide valuable feedback, so they can help anyone improve their performance, not just top-tier athletes.1
As a practice, coaching isn't new. In fact, it dates back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—philosophers who sought to realize human potential a few millennia ago.2 Recently, though, coaching has been evolving to:
- Serve more people in the org
- Address more than just performance
- Provide more data to help orgs best develop their people
- Utilize more tech to make coaching easier and more accessible to all
To understand more about these changes, we conducted a literature review of 60 academic articles, periodicals, industry reports, and blogs—both pre- and post-pandemic. Here’s what we learned.
What We Saw
Coaching plays an increasingly significant role in both employee development and employee experience. From the literature, we identified 5 key themes:
- More coaching for more people
- Different kinds of coaches
- Coaching for wellbeing
- Coaching cultures
- Tech-enabled coaching
More coaching for more people
Once reserved for top leadership (or those with severe behavioral challenges), coaching is now becoming more accessible to more people within the org. The literature strongly emphasizes how more types of coaching are being offered to more groups of employees in orgs today.
While coaching used to focus specifically on performance (and even more specifically on leadership performance), orgs now offer coaching to new hires and employees at key transition points (moving into management, for example). And, as part of DEIB initiatives,3 coaching is being used to retain and further develop diverse talent, increasing chances of upward mobility.4
Orgs are now offering coaching to new hires and employees at key transition points, as well as part of DEIB initiatives.
We also see coaching being viewed as a benefit—something we talk about more below—with orgs offering access to health, financial, sleep, nutritional, and other coaches.
Different kinds of coaches
Coaching—at its core—aims to increase self-awareness, provide support, and challenge preconceived notions.5 Increasingly, coaching is being provided by a wider range of individuals, not just trained or certified coaching professionals. While there’ll always be a need for these trained coaches—who, much of the time, are external to the org—many orgs utilize employees with other “day jobs” to fill coaching roles.
While there’ll always be a need for external certified coaches, many orgs also leverage internal employees to fill coaching roles.
The lit pointed out the 3 most common types of internal coaches:
- Managers as coaches. Many orgs have shifted the way they’re handling performance management. Instead of the more traditional methods, these orgs rely on continuous conversations between managers and employees—both about performance and career aspirations. Add to that a definite preference by younger generations to have their supervisors act like coaches instead of micromanagers,6 and we see orgs starting to provide resources and tools to help managers develop their coaching skills.
- Peers as coaches. Peer coaching involves pairs of employees who discuss their challenges, stressors, and relevant fears in the workplace with one another. One study found that those engaging in this type of coaching are 65% more likely to feel fulfilled and 67% more likely to be top performers in their orgs. This has become even more relevant for remote workers who face the stressors of working from home and need a safe environment in which to share and process what they’re dealing with.7
- Reverse mentoring. Reverse mentoring flips the dynamic of traditional coaching by having a subordinate help a manager or executive develop more self-awareness and perspective on their leadership. This approach aims to enhance the leader's performance, while inviting input from the employee.8
Coaching for wellbeing
Prior to the pandemic, research on coaching started to address the need for emotionally intelligent coaches who could understand and appropriately respond to issues around stress, engagement, and motivation, in addition to role performance (coaching’s traditional primary goal).9 One article written in January 2020 predicted the rise of wellbeing as a niche for coaching that year.10 Little did they know.
By March 2020, when workers started working from home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, wellbeing became a greater priority as employees had to deal with the stressors of everyday life alongside work demands. This transition further pushed wellbeing from a niche type of coaching (e.g., wellness coaches) to a goal of workplace coaching alongside performance: Leaders started to see the employee as a whole person, rather than just as a performer.11
The transition to working from home further pushed wellbeing from a niche type of coaching to a goal of workplace coaching alongside performance—with leaders starting to see the employee as a whole person, not just as a performer.
With these changes, coaching is shifting to encompass the dual goals of:
- Enhancing performance
- Improving employee wellbeing
And these dual goals seem to work well together. One study conducted among 20 managers across industries found that coaching significantly improved both the wellbeing and performance of these clients over the course of a few weeks during the pandemic.12
On an individual level, coaching has been shown to improve a variety of outcomes (e.g., creating safety, promoting self-awareness, developing people strategies).13 But it’s also having a great impact on the org at-large: This, however, is largely dependent on having a strong coaching culture.
Some of the literature was fairly prescriptive when describing what a coaching culture is. One article defines it as having 3 coaching approaches (internal coach, external coach, and manager as coach), a dedicated line item for coaching in the budget, and increased equal access to professional coaching throughout the org.14 Other literature talk about mindset and manager support as the most important aspects of coaching cultures.
Coaching can have a great impact on the org holistically—but this is dependent on the org having a strong coaching culture.
Either way, coaching cultures can be effective: See these 2 recent examples.
- According to a 2019 study, 61% percent of employees in strong coaching cultures rated themselves as highly engaged, as compared with 53% of employees in noncoaching cultures.15
- Another team went from having low levels of engagement within its org to the highest level after an org-wide coaching transformation.16
Finally, the literature also indicates the most effective ways to build a strong coaching culture. Like most org initiatives, coaching efforts are more likely to succeed when they’re embedded in the org’s other systems: L&D, talent management, DEIB, engagement and wellness groups—even people analytics—can support a coaching culture by actively embedding coaching in their overall strategies.
Coaching has always been seen as a highly personalized experience, which doesn’t sound congruent with tech—but it actually is: Tech offers ways to scale and support coaching efforts.
As a part of this coaching study, we’re looking into coaching tech. The literature points to tech vendors developing their own coaching-related insights in these 4 ways:17
- Establish a coaching baseline and monitor goal progress
- Offer insights to coaches based on interpreting facial expressions, eye movements, etc.
- Provide potential scenarios through AR / VR tech and analyzing clients’ actions
- Use “nudges” to reinforce targeted behaviors
We know these 4 elements are not all the ways that tech can support coaching … and we’d like more info on how successful each of these areas is in helping orgs achieve their goals. We’ll let you know what we find. But we do know that tech provides a way to give more feedback, get better data, and erase previous limits imposed by geographic location.
Tech-enabled coaching provides a way to give more feedback, get better data, and erase previous limits imposed by geographic location.
What Caught Our Eye
During our review of the literature, we flagged articles that we thought were particularly interesting or helpful in expanding our perspectives on coaching. We summarized 5 of our favorites below.
Jen Colletta, Human Resource Executive, 2020
“Numerous studies have pointed to the burnout many employees are facing since the pandemic started, particularly working women. Those challenges are opening the door for coaching.”
This article from mid-2020 summarizes why coaching became so important during the pandemic. It suggests that the disruption caused by COVID-19 made employees seek out coaching as a method of developing self-awareness and as a wider learning strategy.
- Coaching is taking on a new role to establish boundaries between work and home
- Career development is becoming a greater priority of coaching
- There’s been a mindset shift from coaching to fix a problem to coaching to invest in a person’s development
Aaron Hurst, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2020
“The goal is not to come up with solutions to each other’s problems, but to help each other find their own solutions.”
This paper explores the value of peer coaching, especially as remote workers sought to address stressors during COVID-19.
- Peer coaching is a way to support each other on an equal playing field, while relating to similar challenges by being in the same org
- There are a few steps to take to help peer coaching be successful; managers need to provide the time, avoid making pairs with a hierarchy of power, encourage positive conversations, and model the behavior by making their own time for peer coaching
Sydney Finkelstein, Harvard Business Review, 2019
“The exceptional leaders I studied don’t leave it to HR to create career progression programs for their team members. Rather, they personalize their coaching, support, and teaching efforts.”
This article suggests ways to focus on employee development and offers personalized coaching as a solution.
- Employee development is a key value for 90% of Millennials, but less than 40% feel they’ve learned something on the job in the past 30 days
- Managers play a significant role in developing their employees
- Managers can track information regarding skills, motivators, and career goals to personalized coaching, while referencing this on a weekly basis and using this information during performance discussions
“Companies need to offer their managers the appropriate tools and support to become better coaches. And if they want to be sustainably healthy learning organizations, they must also develop coaching as an organizational capacity.”
This article explores how leaders can take on a coaching capacity to best lead their employees.
- Managers need to not only perform their jobs well—but develop their people well, too
- Effective coaching can build org capabilities and lead to a learning culture based in a growth-mindset
- Resistance to coaching may be due to a need to assert one’s authority; however, directing others by asking the right questions proves to be more effective
- Situational coaching, where managers apply their expertise and elicit insights from their clients, strikes a balance between directive and non-directive coaching styles, according to the specific needs of the moment
“The global growth and widening spread of coaching since 2016 is evident from the responses to the 2020 study.”
This 2020 report summarizes study findings based on the size and scope of coaching, with responses from a wide range of coaches across 161 countries. This is an updated report from research conducted originally in 2007, and updated in 2012 and again in 2016.
- The study proposes a “coaching continuum”—comprised of coaching practitioners (external and internal) at one end and managers / leaders who use coaching skills on the other
- Gen X accounts for 61% of managers who use coaching skills
- 93% of coach practitioners offer additional services, like consulting and counseling
- Almost all (99%) coach practitioners in the study have received coaching-specific training
Additional Articles to Check Out:
- “Workplace Coaches Shouldn’t Just Be For Senior Executives,” Stirrett, S. & Gill, P., The Globe and Mail, 2019.
- “Coaching for Change,” Boyatzis, R.E., Smith, M., & Van Oosten, E., Harvard Business Review, 2019.
- “Employee Coaching Comes to the Masses,” Backaitis, V., CMS Wire, 2020.
- “10 Ways Technology Is Changing Coaching Now And In the Future,” Welsh, J., Forbes, 2019.
- “The Democratization of Coaching And Leadership Development,” Richmond, J. and Forbes Business Council, Forbes, 2020.
- “The Increasing Popularity of Coaching In The Workplace,” Hagen, C., Medium, 2019.
- “Research Paper: The Essence of Coaching and the Ancient Greek Philosophers,” Psofaki, V., International Coach Academy, 2015.
- “The Democratization of Coaching and Leadership Development,” Richmond, J., and Forbes Business Council, Forbes, 2020.
- “The 5 Fastest-Growing Coaching Niches of This Year,” Perez, I., Forbes, 2019.
- “Coaching and ‘Coaching Approach:’ What’s The Difference?” Campbell, J., Institute of Coaching, 2017.
- “Building a Coaching Culture? Don’t Forget About Your Managers,” Magdelena, M., Training Industry, 2020.
- “Newly Remote Workers Need Peer Coaching,” Hurst, A., MIT Sloan Management Review, 2020.
- “Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to Do It Right,” Jordan, J. & Sorell, M., Harvard Business Review, 2019.
- “Global Executive Coaching Survey 2018,” Abel, A.L. & Ray, R.L., The Conference Board, 2018.
- “Trend: Coaching Will Rise in 2020,” Malleret, T., Global Wellness Institute, 2020.
- “The Business of Learning, Episode 31 — Enabling On-the-Job Coaching: The Role of L&D,” Bowman, R., Training Industry, 2020.
- “The Impact of Coaching on Wellbeing and Performance of Managers and Their Teams During the Pandemic,” Jarosz, J., International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 2021.
- “How Coaching Adds Value in Organizations — The Role of Individual Level Outcomes,” Sharma, P., International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 2017.
- “Building Strong Coaching Cultures for the Future,” Human Capital Institute and International Coach Federation, 2019.
- “Building a Coaching Culture with Millennial Leaders,” Filipkowski, J., Ruth, M., & Heverin, A., Human Capital Institute and International Coach Federation, 2017.
- “Building a Coaching Culture? Don’t Forget About Your Managers,” Magdelena, M., Training Industry, 2020.
- “How Technology is Transforming Executive Coaching,” Lancefield, D., Cable, D., & Clark, D., Harvard Business Review, 2019.