Management education has developed beyond wheeling out the latest guru to perform in front of a packed auditorium.

These days personalisation is seen as a key aspect of executive training.

Organisations increasingly turn to business schools or coaching organisations and ask them to incorporate coaching into their programmes either for small groups of employees, or in the case of senior executives on a one-to-one basis.

The past decade has seen the coaching market soar in popularity.

In its training survey, Training and Development 2005, the UK-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that almost nine out of 10 respondents used coaching, citing a desire to improve individual performance, tackle underperformance and improve productivity.

Lyndsey Masson, director of executive coaching at Ashridge in the UK, attributes the increase in coaching to changes in the corporate world: “The environment is more complex, organisations are getting flatter and it is lonely at the top as well.”

With such a plethora of coaching available, business schools and other bodies have been quick to recognise that some quality assurance or seal of approval is necessary.

Henley Management College and Lancaster University Management School in the UK now offer a certificate in coaching as a means of guaranteeing quality standards.

In the US, the International Coach Federation, a not for profit, individual membership organisation develops and implements programmes to help its members and has also devised and promoted an industry-wide Code of Professional Standards.

Michelle Hoover, associate director of the Global Learning Resources Network, part of Duke Corporate Education, based in Durham, North Carolina, says that before the global learning resources team selects coaches, it looks at their industry expertise and the kind of work experience they posses.

In the US, she adds, anyone can promote themselves as a coach and so the team has adopted a very strict vetting process which continues as the coaching progresses.

As coaching has grown in popularity, there has been a gradual shift in perception. Once, a vague embarrassment often accompanied a company summoning a life coach to help develop the management skills of its reluctant chairman. Now, however, chief executives are proud and even boastful that they have a mentor, someone to bounce ideas off.

“It is really lonely being a top person,” says Prinny Anderson, a coach with the Global Resources Learning Network. “Having a coach is like having a professional buddy you can bounce your problems off, dealing with the board for example.”

A coach, she adds, cheers alongside, helping executives think through problems and helping them properly understand their role, as well as reflecting back to the executive.

As a coach, Ms Anderson takes on the role of assessment and planning for individual change or development as well as supporting behavioural change for executives and high potential individuals. “I coach people into thinking into how to do it differently.”

Doug Riddle, global director, coaching and feedback services for the Center for Creative Leadership, an international, non-profit educational institution, says that successful coaching depends on several elements.

Not only must an individual be ready and willing to change, but the employee’s organisation must be ready to support change. Without these fundamental elements, success will be limited.

Leadership coaching, says Mr Riddle, especially for those such as chief executives can last for many years. It fulfils a very necessary function he adds.

“There are situations in which a person with leadership responsibilities needs to see themselves from a social perspective.” It is not that easy, he adds, to have diverse, professional, objective sounding-boards that are disinterested and with nothing to gain.

What makes a good coach? One who has the ability to think as part of the team says Mr Riddle. A high degree of interpersonal skills are also necessary, as well as the ability to be objective and self-aware.

A coach should want others to succeed without wanting to take the credit for him or herself.

“You also need to have personal courage. To be friends of the truth, or to trust that the truth of a situation is the most helpful despite its complexities and messiness.” Management or leadership or organisational experience is also important he adds.

At PwC in the US, executive coaching has become far more of an accepted training tool in recent years.

Previously, says Kathy Kavanagh, managing director of PwC in New York, coaching for executives had been on an ad hoc basis. But over the past three to four years, the company has developed a more strategic and organised approach to coaching and “we have developed some expertise ourselves around what we see to be effective”.

The company looks for coaches with extensive experience – at least 15 years – and ideally likes its coaches to have experience that extends into another professional services organisation.

Coaching at PwC lasts usually from two months to six months but in a handful of cases goes on for longer, says Ms Kavanagh.

The more senior executives are allowed to choose their coaches, and this, adds Ms Kavanagh, makes a significant impact on the success of the coaching.

One thorny issue is that of return on investment. How does a company ensure that its coaching investment has been put to good and lasting use?

One of the first things that must happen in leadership coaching, says Mr Riddle, is that there is an agreement with the individual and their stakeholders as to the objectives and the coach and coachee then work towards these goals.

Subsequently, the company and coach can review the process to see whether changes have embedded.

“Attempts to measure direct ROI are contaminated by market factors,” he adds. “But it might help you differentiate your core com-petencies and how you responded to market forces more rapidly than your competitors”.

At PwC in New York, Ms Kavanagh admits that some employees have not been as satisfied as others. PwC has initiated rigorous evaluation with feedback from the coaches and evaluation from HR of the coach as business person.

The fact that the company is continuing to use coaching underlines its commitment to it. Ms Kavanagh says the system has been especially useful when executives have used coaches to advise them in specific areas they wanted to work on.

“I see it continually evolving in terms of how we see the coaches. The coaches are giving better general feedback because they have an overall picture of the whole thing,” she adds.

When coaching works, it works very well, comments David Clutterbuck, a director at the European Coaching and Mentoring Council. But when done badly, it can be damaging, he warns.

Despite being a strong advocate of coaching, Mr Riddle believes it is most effective when used in conjunction with other tools, such as talent development.

However companies ap-proach the topic, personalisation is now seen as a rapid answer to management issues and coaching is set to be on the executive education agenda for some time to come.

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