The Immediate Future of Coaching: Making coaching more scalable, inclusive, and affordable
November 16th, 2021
The Evolution of Coaching
Coaching is a big dang deal right now. A developmental method that, in the past, was reserved for leaders, future leaders, and problem children has, in a sense, gone mainstream. In a nutshell, more org leaders are using coaching for more reasons, more coaching flavors are surfacing, and more coaching configurations are being developed.
Let’s explore some of the larger changes we’re seeing.
From scarce to abundant(ish)
To put it simply, there is a larger supply of coaches. According to ICF’s Global Coaching Study, there are approximately 71,000 professional coaches in the world as of 2019, a 33% increase over a 2015 estimate.1
Not only is there a larger supply, but access to that supply has been simplified. The pandemic has normalized virtual connection, making it easier to receive coaching from any distance. Additionally, coaching tech platforms continue to make it easier to find, vet, hire, and engage with coaches, and to improve the coaching experience overall.
From exclusive to inclusive
Because of high cost and low scalability, most orgs have reserved coaching for specific audiences—generally leadership—which gave it an air of exclusivity. In recent years, however, movements such as #metoo and #blm have made orgs take a hard look at how opportunity is distributed and rethink how and what they’re offering in terms of development.
This has caused many orgs to look for ways to offer coaching more broadly and evenly. Orgs that value coaching are finding ways to make it more available to more individuals—causing them to throw out traditional definitions in favor of more inclusive, broader coaching configurations (more on this later).
From narrow scope to broad scope
When we asked leaders why they were investing in coaching, their answers varied much more than we expected. Coaching now has larger goals than simply improving the behavior of one person. Some of the most common goals we heard included:
- Connection and engagement. As workforces have moved to either hybrid or remote situations, the need for human connection has become increasingly pronounced. Medical research tells us that the quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships has been linked not only to mental health, but also to morbidity and mortality.2 Coaching likely appeals to orgs right now because most coaching activities are about connection between humans. As such, we’re also seeing coaching being used by several organizations as a way to engage employees.
- Personalized development. While personalized development has long been the pipe dream of learning leaders and academics, the pandemic forced the issue: employees not only couldn’t gather to learn the same stuff, they actually needed different stuff. Coaching, at least in some of its more scalable forms, can meet the diverse development needs of many employees without breaking the bank.
- Change management. As orgs face an unprecedented rate of change, they are grappling with issues such as hybrid work, wellness and burnout, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), among others, and are looking for ways to reach large portions of the employee population. New coaching methods enable individual behavior changes at scale.
- As coaching becomes easier, less expensive, more applicable, and more scalable, more orgs are experimenting by offering it to more people. Coaching tech has likely also played a role in amplifying the discussion about coaching. These solutions run the gamut, from simplifying administration of traditional coaching initiatives to delivering coaching by way of tech. These solutions are causing some noise, curiosity, and experimentation (for more on coaching tech, see our sister report, Coaching Tech Landscape: The Humans and the Machines.)
Coaching is being used to engage employees, personalize development, manage change, even experiment.
From stand-alone to integrated
As coaching becomes more mainstream, it is also becoming more streamlined through integration with other activities. While it used to be a stand-alone, one-off development opportunity rarely tied to anything else, coaching efforts are now being coordinated more broadly.
Coaching is now being integrated into career and development discussions and activities (mobility and career), performance improvement actions and independent development plans (performance management), and leadership development initiatives and skills discussions (learning and development). As such, coaching no longer belongs to just one vertical—it is, and should be, a shared initiative.
From one definition to many
Finally, the very nature of coaching is changing. In its most traditional sense, coaching is defined as a 1-on-1 relationship between a professional coach and a coachee, which extends over a period of time to improve the behavior, knowledge, and skills of the coachee. The goal is to improve the individual—the one person receiving the coaching.
That is changing. While some leaders we spoke with still use this traditional definition, the boundaries of coaching are being pushed. The lines between coaching, mentoring, educating, championing, and any number of similar roles are blurring, which has led to several new flavors of coaching.
For the purposes of this paper, we’re not going to clearly define what “coaching” is. We have found that semantics discussions rarely benefit anyone. Instead, we will focus on the broader definitions offered by the leaders we spoke with and the literature we read.
Boundaries around how coaching is defined and executed are expanding.
Which is what we’ll do next.
Coaching Methods: All the Choices
As we outlined in the first section of this paper, there are now fewer rules surrounding both the definition and application of coaching. As with any area that experiences a lot of growth and invention, there is also a lot of confusion around coaching.
What used to be a fairly straightforward proposition has morphed into something impressively more complicated: leaders aren’t just choosing who gets access to coaching anymore; they’re also choosing what kinds of coaching they’ll invest in and who gets access to which kinds of coaching. This was the most common question we got: Which one should I be implementing?
There is no "right" answer to how coaching should be implemented; but there are lots of choices.
While a “right” answer would be nirvana, we unfortunately didn’t come up with one. What we did find, however, was that there are many choices when it comes to coaching, and depending on your goal, there may be better choices than others.
We identified 9 methods that orgs are utilizing to coach employees, as shown in Figure 1 below.
While the chart above provides a nice summary of options leaders have for coaching, it does a bit more than that: It provides a way to think about those options.
To this point, org leaders may have assumed that coaching is for the individual. Earlier, we mentioned that coaching has traditionally been utilized to influence one individual at a time. However, many of the methods we identified do not fit that mold: they’re increasing their scalability and impact by focusing on group or org effectiveness as well.
Orgs interested in affecting the effectiveness of just 1 individual tended to stick to methods that focus on helping individual employees reach their potential. These tend to rely on the traditional coaching 1-on-1 relationship, although we did see variations on that theme.
Group or team effectiveness
Orgs interested in affecting the effectiveness of a group focused on coaching methods that help managers and teams work better together. This often included equipping managers with coaching skills or bringing in an outside coach or tech to work with an entire team.
Orgs interested in developing a culture of coaching or large culture changes tended to use methods that help orgs build coaching cultures, increase feedback and learning from each other, and focus on large-scale org initiatives. Some of the more revolutionary types of coaching methods fell here, including things like coaching circles, tech-led coaching, and initiative-driven coaching (DEIB and wellness).
Coaching can affect a single individual, a team, or an entire org.
The balance of this report will address these 3 major targets or goals and their respective coaching methods. We’ll provide more information on the goals, respective methods, and leading practices. We’ll also highlight examples of how organizations are using these methods and provide a list of questions that leaders should ask themselves as they consider the methods that may be best for their orgs.
Coaching for individual effectiveness
We’re big fans of using coaching to improve individual effectiveness. We think 1-on-1 interactions and guidance are a fantastic way to develop employees. And we’re not alone. In fact, the majority of leaders we spoke with are focusing a large part of their coaching initiatives on improving individual effectiveness.
Coaching methods that focus on improving individual effectiveness generally have a few things in common.
- Professional or trained coaches. These methods generally involve either a professional coach or at least coaches that have some training. We were both surprised and delighted that most leaders we spoke with take the idea of coaching seriously and ensure that the coaches have the skills they need. (This point obviously varies slightly when talking about self-coaching.)
- One way. Coaching methods in this group are not mutually beneficial—meaning that the coach is in place to help the coachee achieve something. Some of the other methods we will discuss have a different dynamic, but in the case of coaching for individual effectiveness, coaches help coachees.
- Coaching methods for individual effectiveness are just that: individual. These methods leverage a 1-on-1 relationship between coach and coachee and the work is individualized to the coachee’s specific needs.
We identified 3 coaching methods associated with individual effectiveness, each leveraging 1-on-1 interactions. These methods include:
- Traditional, professional coaching
- Drop-in coaching
For each of the methods in this section and throughout this paper, we’ll provide a description, information about how the method is most commonly used, including its audience, outline some leading practices, and give leaders some questions to think about.
Method 1: Traditional, professional coaching
What is it?
Traditional professional coaching is exactly what it sounds like: a professional coach works with a coachee to identify and work on development areas. These engagements are generally longer term. Usually, orgs identify professional coaches they can trust and then assign them as necessary to individuals within the organization. Of all the methods we came across in the research, this method was by far the most well-known and the most commonly implemented.
Traditional professional coaching is also the most expensive, the least scalable, and the least inclusive of all of the methods we ran across, so it isn’t surprising that this method is often reserved for leaders or those likely to become leaders (high potential employees).
Traditional professional coaching involves a professional coach working with a coachee to identify and work on development areas. These engagements are generally longer term.
How is it applied?
Most orgs utilizing traditional professional coaching had specific ideas about how it should be applied. Some of the ways we saw it applied are listed below.
Building leadership skills
Because traditional coaching is often reserved for leaders or potential reasons, it makes sense that building leadership skills is one of its main objectives. Coaches and coachees determine which skills need to be developed and work through a process for developing them.
Often, 360s or other assessments are utilized to determine areas of focus. Assessments can align to the org’s particular brand of leadership if they have one, or they can leverage one of many leadership assessments available on the market. Coaches are often certified in one or more of these models.
Interestingly, many organizations use traditional professional coaching as a way to engage employees. In this case, the fact that it is both expensive and exclusive works in its favor: traditional professional coaching sends a message to coachees that they are valuable to the organization and worth the investment.
Bringing the outside perspective in
Experienced leaders building their strategic chops may also be assigned a coach with significant leadership or industry experience. The coach may act as a sounding board or outside perspective for leaders making important strategic decisions.
Correcting unacceptable behavior
While most leaders we spoke with said that coaching has a positive connotation within their orgs, a few are still using traditional professional coaching to help leaders work through behaviors that put their careers or the company at risk.
Many leaders have dreams of offering professional coaching to more people at more levels within an org, but resources remain a challenge. While coaching technology is increasing accessibility to skilled, even credentialed coaches—both simplifying administration costs and sometimes even enabling orgs to find more cost-effective coaches—it remains a fairly expensive way to coach entire employee populations.
That said, one leader we spoke with was solving this challenge by systemically creating, and then employing, professional coaches throughout their org. Read more below.
“The reality is, we can’t train enough for the 90,000-person organization to meet the needs of people who want coaching, so we were going to have to look at the hybrid strategy of internal and external.”
– Global Head of Coaching Center of Expertise at a large healthcare company
The goal of one global healthcare company is to grow and extend coaching to senior leaders. In fact, the Global Head of Coaching Center of Expertise told us his personal goal is to provide a coach to anyone in the organization who wants one.
Because coaching can be costly, this company is using a hybrid model to build an internal supply of coaches. The model works like this: a number of leaders at a time go through a coaching certification program. Once leaders are certified coaches, they act as coaches for future leadership development programs for 2 years.
This hybrid program benefits the org and individual leaders in several ways. First, it does indeed increase the number of available coaches and does so at a reduced cost. Second, it gives leaders valuable coaching skills that they can use in managing their teams. And third, leaders are certified coaches—a credential that can help them in other aspects of their lives and allows them to coach other individuals as well.
Method 2: Drop-in coaching
What is it?
Drop-in or coaching refers to a specific type of 1-on-1 coaching that focuses on in-the-moment needs. Drop-in coaching is characterized by both its specificity and its “quick hit” nature.
Employees taking advantage of this coaching method generally seek out coaches with expertise in certain areas, and the coaching relationship is generally short-lived: it doesn’t require, or necessarily encourage, a long-term relationship. Drop-in coaching can utilize either internal subject matter experts or external professional coaches.
Interestingly, we heard about drop-in coaching from both org leaders and coaching tech providers. Both groups see tremendous value in providing 1-on-1 human interaction to develop skills or knowledge, but also understand that it can be cost prohibitive to provide coaching broadly, to all employees.
Drop-in coaching refers to a specific type of 1-on-1 coaching focusing on in-the-moment needs. It is characterized by both its specificity and it’s “quick hit” nature.
How is it applied?
Orgs utilizing this coaching method are generally interested in scaling coaching to include more employees in the hopes of engaging them. We also identified a couple of other, more specific, applications.
Working through immediate, time-sensitive challenges
A few orgs we spoke with used drop-in coaching to meet immediate needs of employees. While traditional coaching focuses on long-term behavior change, drop-in coaching focuses on the here and now. Orgs provided access to coaches for employees looking for help with specific issues right this minute. For example, employees may schedule half an hour with a drop-in coach if they are looking for feedback on a presentation, are planning a tough conversation with their employee or manager or need an outside perspective on a touchy business decision.
Interestingly, several tech vendors we interviewed offer an option to utilize professional coaches in this capacity.
Subject matter expertise
Orgs can also use drop-in coaching to take advantage of subject matter expertise existing in the company. Employees needing a particular expertise can schedule time to work with more experienced employees.
Internal mobility is becoming more of a focus for orgs as well as their employees. One org we spoke with uses a simplified drop-in coaching approach as a way to leverage employees willing to talk about their own careers and help others make decisions about theirs. Another org utilized drop-in coaching as a way to make the career coaches in their HR department more visible and accessible to employees looking for help.
Coaching as a benefit
Vendors and thought leaders alike are touting coaching as a benefit,3 or providing coaching services for employees looking for guidance on profession, health, wellness, financials, and even sleep. Coaching as a benefit has the advantage of engaging with employees on issues that they care about.
Because there is so much noise about it, we were surprised and a little disappointed that not one of the leaders participating in this research is using coaching in this way. But it is available, and being touted by several coaching tech vendors.
Kelly Kinnebrew, currently a consultant in M&A Strategy at KPMG, mentioned that during her time as Principal of Organizational Development at Dartmouth Hitchcock Health, they leveraged the idea of drop-in coaching—which she described as coaching for “things you have to do tomorrow” rather than long-term projects or development. Kelly pointed out that drop-in coaching is better than no coaching at all:
“If your choices are an expensive relationship with a very skilled coach versus no coaching at all because it's too expensive for the front line, I would “drop-in” it every time.”
She mentioned that this type of coaching has a 2 main benefits. First, it’s motivating to employees to learn a new skill when they can use it to address a specific situation in real time with a real human being. She cited examples like conversations with bosses about wins or challenges, career conversations, roleplaying difficult situations, or receiving honest feedback.
Second, she said that, unlike a manager as coach, external drop-in coaches without any awareness of the specific context are able to coach from a detached perspective. Context matters a lot, certainly, but there are also benefits to the coach not being part of the system where the coachee resides.
Method 3: Self-coaching
What is it?
In self-coaching, individuals are provided the tools and frameworks that can help them guide their own growth and development. Self-coaching is a popular method for guiding individuals through transitions in their professional lives. Orgs are leveraging the idea of self-coaching by providing employees tools that help them explore potential development areas and resources to help them self-correct.
Tools can be either analog or digital. Good examples of tools for self-coaching include both the GROW model4> and the ABC model.5 Both models provide logical ways for individuals to think through their goals, assess where they are now, and plan steps to move forward. Orgs can create internal sites and job aids to make models like this widely available. Communication about the org’s use of such models also helps.
Digital tools often take it a step further by creating awareness of behavior in certain situations. They can be as simple as nudges or prompts to remind you to reflect on something, or they can be more complex, such as data-driven dashboards.
Often, these tools use technologies such as natural language processing (NLP), AI, or text analysis to capture and share information within the workflow. One example we saw monitors email and helps managers understand their own patterns, such as sending emails after work hours, or using a different tone with certain people; it then provides both data and content to encourage change.
For self-coaching, employees use tools and frameworks to guide their own growth and development.
How is it applied?
Self-coaching can be leveraged in several ways across the org.
Orgs will often introduce self-coaching models when employees onboard and provide them with some tools to help them navigate their new environment.
Remote or hybrid work
Orgs undergoing changes in the way employees work—either remote or hybrid—are also facing the challenge of establishing new norms and breaking old habits. Self-coaching, particularly some of the digital tools, are being utilized to draw attention to current behaviors and provide some guidance on how to change those that may be troublesome.
As with most of the coaching methods introduced in this paper, self-coaching can be heavily leveraged during leadership training initiatives to provide both frameworks for problem-solving and self-awareness, and data and feedback that prompt change.
The team that focuses on executive and leadership development at a global food production company uses coaching to develop crucial skills. They leverage several methods to coach their employees, and recently started to experiment with bots as part of their coaching strategy for managers.
Coaching technology has not only helped them scale, but has provided more consistency across the engagement, ensuring that information that managers got was consistent.
However, there has been mixed reactions, especially from frontline leaders since there are limits to access in factory settings. Many of their frontline workers work in factories where sanitation restrictions are very tight. Rules govern actions as small as picking up a dropped pen, which make using a phone to access coaching tech a non-starter in many cases.
The Head of Executive and Leadership Development, thinking of this use case, described how she’d like to see the tech work: like an earbud in NASCAR driving – directing and feeding insights in real time, on the plant floor, and without requiring interaction with a mobile device.
Coaching for group effectiveness
The second primary reason that orgs are investing in coaching is to increase group or team effectiveness. By this, we mean ensuring that groups or teams are led more effectively and work together more effectively.
The pandemic has drawn attention to the importance of cohesion among groups, and orgs have realized that while they focus on skills and knowledge for the individual, often there isn’t enough focus or support for better functioning groups.
Group and team effectiveness, and org and culture effectiveness, which we’ll discuss in the next section, is where we started to hear quite a bit about creating a coaching culture. Orgs attempting to create a coaching culture want to leverage some of the best aspects of coaching (candidness, open feedback, sharing information, seeking information, etc.) and embed them deeply into the way work gets done. They’re beginning with coaching methods that affect groups.
Orgs looking to build a coaching culture often start with the coaching methods that affect group or team effectiveness.
We identified 3 methods orgs are using to coach better teams or groups:
- Manager as coach
- Integrated coaching
- Group or team coaching
We discuss each below.
Method 4: Manager as coach
What is it?
As many orgs are figuring out how to function in this new world (with remote teams, back to office plans, and hybrid work arrangements. to name a few), they view managers, and particularly managers taking part in coaching efforts, as a means of ensuring more human connection and smoother transitions.
Manager as coach was identified as one way to provide coaching to more employees within the organization. Manager as coach is exactly what it sounds like: giving managers the skills they need and then leveraging them as coaches to their direct reports.
During our roundtable on coaching, leaders made 2 points we think are important to pass on. First, manager as coach is not a command: it’s a system. Just telling a manager to coach does not provide them with either the impetus or the skills necessary to do so. Three things leaders mentioned that can help:
- Help managers build skills. Don’t assume that asking managers to coach is enough. Provide them the skills necessary to do it.
- Give managers tools. Support managers by offering them nudges, prompts, dashboards, and reports that can give them more information about their own and their employees’ behavior.
- Create the impetus. Communicate, encourage, and even compensate managers to act as coaches—don’t just assume that coaching will happen.
The second point leaders made in the roundtable was that a manager, by nature, is directive. Managers have a dual responsibility of meeting business goals and developing employees. Coaching is a good development tool for that second responsibility, but orgs need to help managers understand when to utilize it and when the situation calls for something more directive.
Managers armed with coaching skills are often leveraged to provide connection and coaching to their teams.
How is it applied?
Orgs are leveraging manager as coach in several ways. We discuss some of the most common below.
Interestingly, manager as coach was one of the first things we heard when we asked leaders how they were planning to scale coaching. Leaders identified managers as the first line of defense for both skill building and engagement, and were working to ensure managers and leaders had the skills they needed in order to act as coaches for their direct reports.
Managers are also often the first line of defense when it comes to helping employees navigate their careers. Along with regular conversations with employees about their aspirations, managers also coach employees on what skills they should develop, what resources are available to them, and what stretch assignments can be taken on.
Increasingly, coaching conversations are being integrated into performance management processes. Hybrid work and remote work have encouraged more, not less, checking in with employees, and many of those conversations revolve around how employees can meet their performance objectives.
Ginny Gray, Director of Global Coaching, Assessments, and Facilitation at Intel, oversees a 5-month program in partnership with a coaching vendor dedicated to developing formal coaching skills of 50-75 managers within the org each year. These leaders learn coaching skills in working with their direct reports, and after the program, are expected to commit to voluntarily coaching other managers across the company. She shared:
“Part of standard expectations and capabilities going forward is that shift into being more of a facilitative manager and that part of their role is to show up in a more thoughtful way, asking thoughtful questions, less command and control and telling you what to do, instead focusing on asking the right questions to get them to figure out what they might want to do. Building out a coaching culture at the company.”
They also offer a variety of internal programs to coach around 800-1,000 managers a year out of the 14,000 managers at the company. Here, the focus is on manager of managers (3,500) who can have a greater impact and create a ripple effect within the org. To identify who gets coached, Intel considers critical needs across the company as well as retention issues.
Finally, to reach even more managers outside of those invited to their formal programs, Intel also has built out coaching resources in their learning pathways, setting up the expectation that an effective manager at Intel has good coaching skills.
Method 5: Embedded coaching
What is it?
Embedded coaching surfaced, not through our conversations with leaders, but through our briefings with coaching tech vendors. Still, leaders gave interesting examples of embedded coaching as they talked about skilling up their workforces.
Embedded coaching is coaching that is integrated into some other learning method—generally formal programs, and usually those requiring specific skills, such as leadership, although we’d like to see it used much more broadly. Embedded coaching gives participants in a program access to a coach. In some instances, coaches coach the group together; in others, employees can sign up for individual sessions with the coach.
Embedding coaching into other programs accomplishes a few good things. First, it provides a way to scale coaching to more employees in a fairly cost-effective way. Second, it pairs coaching with other types of learning, allowing employees to learn, practice, and receive feedback, all in context.
Coaching is often embedded or integrated into development programs and other learning initiatives, allowing employees to practice and receive feedback in context.
How is it applied?
Some of the more common ways that orgs are using embedded coaching are discussed below.
Including a coaching element in a leadership development program was the most common example of embedded coaching. Many leaders shared examples of providing coaching to participants to develop their coaching chops and ensure that they had the skills to coach. Embedding coaching in leadership development initiatives gives participants the opportunity to get 1-on-1 attention and feedback, an element often missing in group learning.
Follow on to programs
Embedded coaching sometimes also takes place after the fact. Some leaders mentioned follow-on coaching offered as a complement to the main learning initiative. Participants were encouraged to reach out to receive extra guidance, either by participating in group coaching sessions, or by scheduling a 1-on-1 feedback session. Because the follow on is largely optional and as-needed, orgs are able to use fewer resources while still meeting the needs of their employees.
Caterpillar, an American manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, engines, and locomotives, employing 100,000-plus people – shares coaching plays a significant role in their leadership development programs, aimed at their 11,000-12,000 leaders.
Amy Ashley, Organizational Development Manager, talked about their focus on building coaching skills being as important as direct coaching engagements, to reach these leaders and improve their performance in leading their teams.
Within their mid-level manager program, which they run several times a year, 30 managers (of the 3,000 mid-level managers at the company) are invited to the program and assigned a coach – so that they can experience coaching in addition to learning coaching skills.
For multiple levels of leaders (e.g., mid-level managers, frontline leaders, and senior leaders and executives), in these leadership development programs, they carve out coaching practice for leaders to experience varying scenarios (related to their positions) in triads, where leaders receive feedback on their coaching style. They offer coaching related content as well as opportunity to practice asking good questions, listening well, and building safe and trusting relationships.
Method 6: Team coaching
What is it?
The 6th coaching method we came across as a part of this project is team coaching. Team coaching generally involves a single coach—either a skilled outsider, or in some instances a team leader—working with a group to increase their effectiveness. Coaching can include both 1-on-1 sessions to help team members understand their role and the dynamics they help create, and sessions with the entire group to find solutions to some of their team’s challenges.
Team coaching has increased in popularity in recent years as orgs have moved toward team-based work.
The way people work increasingly involves other people. In fact, people spend about 50% more time collaborating than they did 10 years ago.6 As employees find themselves relying more and more on teammates to get work done, this coaching method has found its footing.
For coaching to have a positive effect on team performance, it needs to focus on the most salient team performance processes for a given task.7 Team coaching is not about simply improving interpersonal relationships; it is focused primarily on helping the team meet specific goals.
How is it applied?
Because team coaching has a fairly specific use case, applications are much narrower than with some of the other coaching methods in this study: they revolve around helping a team function better. Three situations were specifically addressed in the literature.
Team coaching may be used upon team formation to set the right tone for how work gets done. A team coach may help a team set up a charter, work structure and procedures, and communication norms to ensure the bones of solid working relationships are in place. They may also set expectations for how conflicts should be resolved.
Orgs can leverage team coaching throughout the lifecycle of a team, checking in with members and the group as a whole to ensure that the team is working together to accomplish their goals. In cases where orgs are using team coaching to continuously ensure team health, the role of team coach is often taken on by the team leader. Orgs should ensure that leaders acting as team coaches are equipped with the skills needed to do the job effectively.
Conflict can keep teams from performing at their best. While conflict is not the primary application of team coaching, team coaches can be brought in to help with alignment, interpersonal skills, expectation setting, and communication.
The director of the tax and treasury department at Specsavers, a multi-national optical retailer, noticed a growth area for her department to be less reactive and more proactive to org needs. A coach was assigned to the team and conducted monthly team coaching sessions in addition to 1:1 coaching with each member to practice more strategic action.
This coaching helped the team become more aware of each other’s strengths, developed clear objectives, and moved the team towards proactively accomplishing their goals. As a result, communication and productivity increased significantly – leading to the team to exceed its goal of saving the business £1 million.8
Coaching for org and culture effectiveness
During this study, the term “coaching culture” came up a lot—describing everything from managers having the ability to coach their teams to developing a culture of feedback. Orgs are looking for ways to infuse the benefits of coaching into the culture. Methods in this group focus on not only increasing access to coaching, but also building coaching skills within individuals.
Additionally, these methods can and are being used to address specific large-scale changes, such as burnout, wellness, and DEIB. These methods are scalable, inexpensive, and inclusive, making them good ways to affect large swaths of the employee population.
Coaching for org or culture effectiveness includes coaching methods that require less oversight and sustenance from the org. They most often don’t require professional coaches, or even extensive coaching training. In many cases, these methods are more systemic: orgs support the initiative with guides and tools rather than human coaches.
Three coaching methods were identified in this category:
- Coaching circles
- Peer coaching
- Culture change programs
We discuss each in more depth below.
Method 7: Coaching circles
What is it?
In its purest form, a coaching circle is a group of 5 or 6 individuals coming together and “synchronizing” their coaching to support a colleague.9 Coaching circles take advantage of the collective knowledge of a group and focus it to help individuals one at a time with challenges or situations they are facing.
Coaching circles can have many benefits over traditional 1-on-1 coaching for the individual:
- Leaders mentioned that accountability is often a challenge with many coaching initiatives. Coaching circles have built-in accountability, which can help with follow-through.
- Diverse perspectives. Coaching circles can offer diverse perspectives rather than the perspective of a single coach.
- Coaching circles build networks that often outlast the coaching circle itself. Participants develop trust, and can call on each other throughout their careers.10
Coaching circles also appeal to orgs because they can be quite cost effective and reach a large number of employees. Resources that would otherwise be directed toward finding or developing coaches for a select few can be used to establish systems and guides to help employees coach each other.
Coaching circles are smaller groups of employees coming together and “synchronizing” their coaching to support a colleague.
How is it applied?
Coaching circles can be used as a way to help any group connect around common challenges. Some of the ways we saw them applied are discussed below.
A few orgs we talked to are utilizing coaching circles to augment Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Offering coaching circles within an ERG can mobilize an already interested population to help each other problem-solve challenges they may be experiencing in the workplace.
The literature mentions coaching circles as a good way to help leaders, particularly newer ones, navigate their roles. One org we spoke with reduced the length of their standard leadership programs by providing leaders with better data about their teams and clarity on their goals, and then augmenting the data with a coaching circle. Their thought was that people on the ground doing the job were likely to offer better guidance than any practice scenario a leadership training program might offer.
As talent mobility and career development get more attention, orgs are using coaching circles to provide needed support. While a lot of career development will naturally occur within coaching circles organized for other purposes, org leaders can also design coaching circles specifically for roles or career paths they see as key to future business success (e.g., data scientists).
Heather Bahorich, Talent Management Lead at Centric Consulting, a digital and tech company, noted the success of the coaching efforts in one of their mature local geographies in Ohio. Here, they are piloting a robust coaching program through coaching circles. They currently have 5 active groups: young professionals, business development, tech, business consulting, and leadership.
Bahorich noted that these circles focus on career development more effectively than ERGs, in addition to creating a social community. These coaching circles offer a place for connection and development for those with similar interests or who find themselves in similar stages of their careers.
Method 8: Peer coaching
What is it?
Peer coaching generally involves pairing up 2 individuals at a similar leadership level to coach one another. While some peer coaching happens naturally in most professional settings, more orgs are providing slightly more formalized relationships to get the most out of it.
To make the most of peer coaching, most orgs provide at least 2 things to peer coaches. First, they provide tools and ground rules to guide peer coaches through coaching sessions, including questions to ask each other and follow-up items. Second, they provide some guidance or training on how to give and receive feedback.
Peer coaching involves pairing up 2 individuals at a similar leadership level to coach one another. Orgs often provide structure and guidance for sessions.
How is it applied?
In our search of the literature and our interviews and roundtables, we only really saw two applications for peer coaching, discussed below.
Interestingly, much of the literature was written with the education or nursing professions in mind. Peer coaching has been used by teachers for at least 3 decades.11 Teachers observe each other teach and provide each other feedback, observations, support, and problem-solving. While the term “peer coaching” is newer to other professions, we see it as a valuable tool in any situation where feedback and support could be helpful—which describes basically all situations.
As with many of the coaching methods we’ve reviewed, in this study, we saw peer coaching used heavily in the leadership development space. Some orgs are including peer coaching in leadership training programs. Participants are paired up and utilize new coaching and management skills to coach each other after the program has been completed. Others are using peer coaching as a substitute for traditional professional coaching.
One of the best examples we’ve seen of peer coaching is actually a peer mentoring program at a large hospitality company (remember when we said the lines were blurring?) The Senior Learning Designer and Leadership Coach at the company oversees coaching and mentoring within the central learning team – 1 of the 4 learning areas focused on leadership development, learning labs, and DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging).
The company just relaunched their mentorship program this past fall, where anyone in the company can become a mentor or mentee, and in which 1 out of 7 employees are already participating.
The goals of the program are threefold: 1) to make new connections, 2) to create a sense of belonging which the company defines as “being respected, valued, and able to contribute”, and 3) to accelerate growth, aligning with their mission of connection and belonging.
This alignment of the mentorship program with their core values is key to their work in creating a coaching culture at the company by fostering greater transparency and reflective practice.
Method 9: Large-scale coaching
What is it?
Large-scale coaching is an umbrella term for large-scale initiatives, often involving tech, that support large-scale culture change initiatives such as DEIB or wellness. This type of coaching is often quite programmatic, ensuring that all employees receive the same access to information that can help with the org change.
Large-scale coaching can happen manually (paper and pencil), but usually involve tech. During our sister study on coaching tech, several vendors introduced us to “coaching” solutions that address these large-scale culture change initiatives. These solutions generally had an AI or machine learning component to provide the right information at the right time to participants.
This method is probably the least “coachy” of all the methods we discuss. In fact, there are naysayers that would not even describe this as “coaching,” as it doesn’t necessarily involved humans. But we include it because it has many of the characteristics we associate with coaching:
- Personalized development. These initiatives differ from courses or knowledge-sharing in that they are interactive and personalized. Technology or programs adapt to specific areas of study depending on the individual.
- Personalized data. Often tools or programs come with self-assessments and / or dashboards. Data acts as a mirror, much as a real coach would, to give direct and personalized feedback to help participants understand how they are performing or reacting.
- Self-reflection. Initiatives often have built-in opportunities to reflect and apply new information over a period of time. Nudges and other tools are often incorporated to help employees apply new knowledge and skills during work.
Because large-scale coaching is usually applied to fairly important topics, they are often part of larger org initiatives and include significant communications. For example, an org wouldn’t apply large-scale coaching to a DEIB initiative without significant communication about what the organization expects, what it’s doing, and how it will affect everyone.
Large scale coaching, often quite programmatic and often involving tech, supports culture change initiatives, such as DEIB or wellness.
How is it applied?
Important org Initiatives
Large-scale coaching is often used when an initiative is important enough that everyone needs to know and apply the new information. Examples include initiatives on such issues as DEIB, wellness, and burnout.
In the current environment, large-scale coaching is also being used for initiatives like “return-to-work.” Orgs put together a guided coaching process to help employees understand what is expected and coach them through the steps necessary to a smooth transition.
Marriott International has a strong focus on global well-being for their associates and wanted to embed this further into the culture based on the conviction that employees who are equipped in this arena are more productive.
Pre-pandemic, they partnered with a tech vendor to discuss providing their employees with the resources needed to increase resilience, improve mental health, and manage workplace stress. This partnership proved increasingly relevant as the pandemic hit, and Marriott made the coaching platform accessible to all employees in 2020.
Lance Bloomberg, Vice President of Employer Brand and Communications, and Colin Minto, Vice President of Talent Acquisition, Planning, & Employer Brand (EMEA), discussed how this rollout helped support Marriott’s global well-being initiative, Take Care. By the fall of 2020, they had users registered in 27 countries. And by using heat maps, they can also identify areas of interest and customize their well-being offerings to specific local regions.12
So far, we have told you why you should probably care about coaching, identified some for the major trends we’re seeing, and introduced you to 9 coaching methods we came across in our research. In the last meaty section of this report, we want to provide you with some guidance on how to get started with coaching or evaluate it as a development method.
For a solid coaching initiative, all leaders should understand 3 things: the need, the constraints, and what success looks like.
We suggest that any leaders charged with coaching initiatives understand the following 3 aspects:
- The need
- The constraints
- What success looks like
Let’s discuss each.
Articulating the need
Most leaders we spoke with addressed their coaching initiatives as a foregone conclusion: they have senior leadership, ergo, they have a coaching program. Interestingly, however, not many were able to clearly articulate why they were investing in coaching specifically.
We strongly recommend being able to clearly articulate the need a coaching initiative fills. Without a solid reason for an investment in coaching, it is difficult to justify and impossible to measure (which we’ll talk about a little later). To get a clear picture of your need, ask yourself the following 4 questions:
What exactly are you solving for?
Understanding exactly what outcome you want and expect is key to ensuring that your resources are being used well. In the first section, we mentioned 4 reasons, in addition to development, that orgs are investing in coaching, including engagement, personalized development, change management, and engagement. All are valid reasons to invest.
What makes coaching the best option for solving it?
Although it is a sexy and seemingly straightforward option, coaching isn’t always the best solution. It is often, however, one of the most expensive. Leaders should understand what other options are available to them to ensure coaching is the right option.
Who is the initiative for?
What may be appropriate for a particular audience (or audience size) may not be appropriate for another. Being clear on who the audience is, as well as the criteria for determining that audience, is important to articulating the need.
For example, it is not enough to specify the audience as “senior leaders.” What level of senior leader? Senior leaders in all regions? Senior leaders on the front line and in the plants? Senior leaders in a hybrid environment? A more specific response to any of those questions may lead to different coaching methods.
What will this coaching initiative interact with?
As we mentioned when discussing each of the 9 coaching methods, coaching is very often not a stand-alone development tool: it is often combined with other initiatives. When deciding what to solve for, it’s important to understand not only whether coaching is the best option, but what coaching will be interacting with. Integrating coaching into other initiatives (or on some occasions, vice-versa) ensures that participants are receiving consistent information, but also allows orgs to leverage them together.
Coaching doesn't exist in a bubble – it interacts (and should therefore align) with other initiatives.
A few of the leaders we spoke with were thoughtful about tailoring the coaching initiative to the different initiative. The 9 coaching methods we introduced provide more options to org leaders when designing initiatives. Being clear on what you’re solving for, what makes coaching the best solution, what audience it’s serving, and how coaching will interact with other aspects of the initiative can help leaders make more sound decisions.
Working within the constraints
One question we asked in every interview in this study was, “What are your biggest challenges with coaching?” Without fail, leaders mentioned the resources necessary to run a coaching program. It turns out that development budgets are not bottomless, and lack of resources kept leaders from using coaching as much as they’d like.
Part of this is because many of the leaders we spoke with hadn’t read this report yet and were thinking about coaching only in the most traditional way – which is expensive, hard to scale, and very exclusive.
All coaching methods have constraints – understand them to choose the method that will work best for your org.
Which brings us to constraints. All development methods have constraints and the 9 coaching methods we introduced earlier are no different. Constraints can motivate (and even force) leaders to choose one over the other. Understanding the constraints early on can lead to better decisions. For coaching, we identified 3 common constraints, discussed below.
When seen in its most traditional light, coaching is not that scalable: talent leaders to keep a binder of coaching resumes on hand, and then assign them as the need arises. Lots of work can go into managing the coaching relationships, getting through procurement processes, and ensuring that coach quality is maintained. Many of the newer methods, however, solve for scalability by changing the coach / coachee relationship, utilizing tech, or introducing coaching in different formats.
Scalability was the second most common constraint we heard from leaders (after cost), and many are actively looking for ways to provide more coaching to more employees. Three of the coaching methods we identified are reasonably scalable.
Coaching has long been seen as a developmental opportunity for senior leaders or high-potential employees. It has been reserved for those deemed as “special” and those the organization wanted to invest in. The exclusivity can be rankling to employees in orgs taking a more inclusive approach to employee development, and some leaders see the cost as particularly high when it only affects a small group of employees.
In most orgs, coaching is seen as a positive thing. There was the odd leader we spoke with that was actively trying to change the perception from negative to positive, but the majority actively use it as a development as well as an engagement tool, particularly given recent social movements, such as #BLM and #MeToo. Many coaching efforts scaled up to address specific audiences.
We’re now seeing leaders take it a step further by looking for inclusive solutions, not just expanding the exclusive solutions. Four of the 9 coaching methods we identified in this research have the potential to be fairly inclusive.
As we’ve mentioned, traditional coaching is not the cheapest option for employee development. This is partly because it cannot be scaled, and partly because coaching often leverages external resources, and cost per hour is often between $200 and $600 per hour, depending on the level and experience of the coach.13 One org we recently spoke with is spending well over $15M on executive coaching alone.
Affordability continues to be a challenge, but as with scalability, leaders and vendors are finding ways to stretch the coaching budget. Four of the coaching methods discussed in this research fairly cost-effective, either because they rely on internal resources or because they leverage resources already in place.
Figure 2 provides a brief summary of these 3 constraints and how scalable, inclusive, and affordable they are. We use a common red, yellow, green rating to give you a sense for how each stacks up.
Even so, in the 4 months we have been conducting this research, we’ve already seen changes; if you have noticed or are using methods we’re not discussing, or if you have found ways to make them more scalable, inclusive, and affordable, we’d love to hear from you.
Finally, leaders implementing coaching initiatives should decide in advance how they will define success. Leaders should understand what criteria they will utilize to determine if they should continue investing, and they should understand the metrics associated with that criteria.
Measuring the success of coaching is immature – both because it has been seen as a confidential relationship and because there has been no central system to gather data.
One thing was clear from the research: coaching measurement is in its infancy. And there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, traditional coaching relies on a confidential relationship between coach and coachee. Professional coaches we talked to held that relationship as almost sacred. What goes on in coaching discussions is akin to therapy sessions. Information is not shared beyond the participants. This desire for confidentiality has kept many orgs from collecting data beyond completion rates and coach evaluations. This is changing.
As orgs standardize their coaching processes, many find it advantageous to also standardize the models used during coaching engagements. Sometimes models are wrapped around 360s or other assessments, and sometimes they’re wrapped around leadership or other frameworks. But the standardization allows orgs to collect information on things like general themes and progress in certain areas. This data at least provides administrators with general information about how coaching is going.
The second reason coaching measurement isn’t super mature is that, until recently, there was no central access point, and therefore no central repository for data about coaching engagements. This is also changing.
As orgs take a more standardized approach to coaching, utilizing similar models, similar metrics, and tech that helps track both, more data is available about general themes, whether or not similar models are used; completion rates can be tracked without surveys or follow up; and coach evaluations can help to maintain a cadre of the most effective coaches. The data is helping to both scale and improve the coaching experience.
All of that said, good data relies on a tenacious employee development team and good feedback mechanisms. It also relies on the desire to actually obtain and analyze the data. Many leaders we spoke with felt no impetus for this final step because it was universally assumed that coaching is a valuable development opportunity, worth the effort and money invested in it.
We asked of every interviewee, “How do you measure the success of the coaching initiative?” Answers varied widely. But some of the most common responses fell into 3 categories:
- Participation / satisfaction
- General coaching themes
Participation / satisfaction
By far, the most common ways coaching is currently being measured is by gauging participation and satisfaction. That is, orgs are measuring how effective coaching is by how many people participated and liked their coaching sessions.
“I know we do everything from the basic level, like how many coaching sessions have there been. And then we have a scale of when somebody has finished a coaching session, for each coaching session, they get a quick assessment that pops up in the tool and says, how was your session?”
– Head of People Development, large software company
This is by no means a bad thing. It gives leaders a sense of how much coaching is being utilized and if adjustments need to be made. It is also understandable, considering the challenges orgs have faced to this point when measuring coaching.
But it should only be a place to start. As more tech is utilized to guide coaching initiatives, more data is available, which can provide richer and more useful data.
General coaching themes
Some of the more data-savvy (and data-rich) org leaders we spoke with are also looking at consolidated data on general coaching themes. General coaching themes help leaders understand what challenges employees face, but they can also help the L&D function (or other talent function) understand where their development initiatives may be missing the mark. For leaders utilizing internal coaches in their initiatives, data that specifies the areas where individual coaches feel confident enough to coach on is also available.
"I actually can see the goals and skills that people are most seeking on, and what goals and skills people are most willing to offer on. And that can translate into the skills that we should think about potentially supporting from a central learning perspective."
– Leadership Coach, Hospitality Company
This data may also be key to the larger skills discussion happening in most orgs. Coaching themes can help leaders understand both the skills they have (from the coaches), and skills they need (from the coachees).
Correlations with business results
Finally, there were a few valiant leaders looking at correlations between their coaching numbers and KPIs important to the rest of the organization. Specifically, leaders told us they were looking at 3 major areas.
Forward-thinking orgs are correlating coaching data against engagement scores, retention, and even performance.
Most orgs nowadays conduct an employee engagement survey that includes questions about engagement, development, and other important human matters. Some leaders we spoke to utilized the information from those surveys to correlate against coaching data, particularly where the manager was acting as coach, to understand how the most effective managers addressed these concerns.
"We do an annual employee insight survey, so we do look for clues through the questions that we ask in that survey and they may not be directly called out to coaching, but a subset of those questions give us indication—particularly when you talk about diversity and inclusion, building trust with your supervisor—those kinds of questions help us to understand where we have made an impact and where we have a missed opportunity."
– Director of Global Coaching, Assessments, and Facilitation, (another) tech company
In light of recent social disruptions, including movements like #BLM and #Metoo, coaching has become an even more important tool for engaging with certain populations. Some orgs are paying more attention to both the coaching initiatives associated with these groups and their retention numbers, to understand how better to meet their needs.
Finally, some org leaders mentioned that they were actually looking for a change in performance. How this was measured varied. Some orgs track performance scores year over year, looking specifically at those who have received coaching. Others provide 360s or other assessments at the beginning, midway through, and at the end of a coaching engagement to determine performance improvement. Still others rely on manager observation to understand if changes were being made.
"What we actually look for is, has your thinking changed, the way you think, the way you feel, the way you act—are those things changing."
– Global Head of Coaching Center of Expertise at a large healthcare company.
Measurement is unsexy, we understand. But as talent leaders have increasingly more choices for employee development, it’ll become more important to understand which of those are actually impacting the org. Understanding – from the outset – what success looks like and how you’ll measure it can help talent leaders get out ahead of the ask surely to come from senior leadership.
At the beginning of this report, we mentioned that coaching is going mainstream. We’ve introduced a lot of ways that is happening: more flexibility in what we mean by coaching, more coaching configurations, more reasons for coaching, and more experimentation.
It’s that last point, the experimentation, that we think has driven a lot of the progress we’ve seen. Leaders have recognized the value that coaching can bring and they have, sometimes through brute force, found ways to make it available to more people. We think this resonates particularly well right now because the world is uncertain. We’re all looking for ways to connect with each other and we’re all looking for direction. Coaching helps us do both.
While we have no crystal ball, we’d bet that we’ll continue to see new iterations and configurations of coaching, and that leaders will continue to push the boundaries of what coaching is. We are excited to see what’s next.
Appendix 1: Research Methodology
We launched our study in the summer of 2021. This report gathers and synthesizes findings from our research efforts, which include:
- A literature review of 60+ articles from business, trade, and popular literature sources
- 1 roundtable with a total of 27 participants
- 16 in-depth interviews with leaders on their experiences and thoughts on coaching
For those looking for specific information that came out of those efforts, you’re in luck: We have a policy of sharing as much information as possible throughout the research process. Please see:
- Coaching Premise: https://redthreadresearch.com/coaching-the-newest-old-way-to-develop-people/
- Coaching Literature Review: https://redthreadresearch.com/coaching-lit-review/
- Coaching Roundtable 1 Readout: https://redthreadresearch.com/coaching-roundtable-readout/
- Coaching Infographic:
And please read our sister report on coaching tech: https://redthreadresearch.com/coaching-tech-landscape-humans-and-robots/
- 2020 ICF Global Coaching Study Executive Summary, International Coaching Federation, 2020.
- Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton, PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. June 2010.
- Coaching as an employee benefit is a win-win, Sarah Gallo, Training Industry, 2019.
- Grow Model Guide, Performance Consultants International, 2020.
- Albert Ellis’ ABC Model in the Cognitive Behavioral Spotlight, Joaquin Selva, 2021.
- Collaborative overload, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, Harvard Business Review, 2016.
- Team Coaching: a literature review. Ben Hicks, Institute for Employment Studies, 2010.
- Hunter Roberts – Combination coaching and its implications for creating high performance teams. R. Tate, Hunter Roberts, 2018.
- Coaching Circles: Leveraging Coaching Skills in a Truly Inspiring Environment. Charles Brassard, Coaching Federation, 2019.
- The surprising power of peer coaching, Brenda Steinberg and Michael D. Watkins, Harvard Business Review, 2021.
- The Evolution of Peer Coaching, Beverly Showers and Bruce Joyce, Educational Leadership, 1996.
- True North: How Marriot International’s People-first Culture Paved the Path Forward Despite Global Turmoil. L. Bloomberg, Marriott & meQuillibrium, 2020.
- Global Executive Coaching Survey, Conference Board, 2018