Coaching: the newest old way to develop people

June 22nd, 2021

Why we care

Coaching: it’s been an important part of improving performance since the ancient Greeks.1 Given its longevity and the fact that it’s currently a $15 Billion2 industry, you would naturally expect fairly consistent innovation.

Unfortunately, for 2000 years, there really wasn’t any. Coaching generally consisted of pairing an expert from outside the org with an individual inside the org who could use special help—typically focusing on their performance and / or leadership. Success relied heavily on the relationship between coach and individual, coaching wasn’t very scalable, and there was very little data to tell an org what made some coaching effective while some fell flat.

But in the past 5 years, we’ve seen some very promising changes. For one, coaching appears to have gone mainstream. No longer is coaching seen only as a luxury item reserved for executives or a legal imperative for very, very bad managers. Instead, orgs are finding ways to offer coaching in many forms, on many different topics, tor many more employees at many different levels of the organization.

With these advances, though, comes a different set of problems. Scaling coaching requires organizations to think about measurement and success differently. It also requires orgs to think more carefully about what they’re trying to accomplish broadly (instead of just performance improvement for an individual) and how that jives with the rest of their employee development strategy.

Interestingly, we haven’t found a lot of information that helps orgs address these challenges. Specifically, we want to answer these questions:

  1. What characteristics make coaching initiatives successful?
  2. What challenges are orgs using coaching to solve?
  3. When should you leverage different types of coaching? (e.g., external vs. internal coaches, nudges, performance insights, development, etc.)
  4. What tech exists to help orgs scale coaching, and what options do they offer?

We think that as coaching continues to gain popularity and more organizations make it key to employee development, answering some of these questions will be increasingly critical for overall org agility, performance, and long-term competitiveness.

Hypotheses we’ll test

For this project, we’re starting with three major hypotheses:

  • Coaching initiatives that use an integrated talent development approach (L&D, performance, leadership, engagement, etc.) are more successful than those that do not.
  • Effective coaching initiatives focus on ongoing and personalized experiences that appeal to the needs and circumstances of individuals – instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Data plays a large role in helping organizations effectively leverage coaching initiatives to address some of their largest business challenges.

This study

We’ll test these hypotheses through a comprehensive lit review, coaching software vendor briefings, roundtables, interviews, and possibly a survey. Specific topics this study will dive into include:

This Premise is the first of several pieces that we’ll use to explore coaching. Others include:

  • Literature review
  • Roundtable
  • Key findings infographic
  • Coaching tech insights report
  • Final report

We welcome your comments, ideas, and suggestions for people we should interview! If you're interested in participating in our roundtable, please shoot us a note and we'll send you an invite! Please also share this research premise with others interested in coaching initiatives.

Dani Johnson Redthread Research
Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  1. Sourcebook of Coaching History, Brock, 2012.
  2. 3 Trends That Will Shape the Future of Coaching Rebecca Willis, Jan 2021