What Works in Executive Coaching?

We interview Erik de Haan, director of the Ashridge Centre for Coaching on his latest book - What Works in Executive Coaching?

Erik de Haan's latest book 'What Works in Executive Coaching?' comes out in April. Ahead of the launch, we caught up with him to learn more about how to book came to be.

What was your motivation for writing the book?

There were several reasons why I wrote the book last year, not least because I had more reading time at home with the onset of Covid. 

I still have remnants of my original motivation to study Physics. I still want to know about the smallest particle and the elementary forces of nature. I studied the Higgs boson and the Standard Model in Physics in my final dissertation, because I wanted to know the building block of nature and why it all works so beautifully. 

I have very much the same motivation in coaching – wanting to know why, and how much, and for whom it works. I’ve been intrigued by that question for the past 25 years. Most importantly, there has been a big ‘boom’ in coaching research over the last few years.  There are so many new findings that had not been summarised or integrated into the standard body of literature, that I felt I had to write the book. 

What was your approach?

I started with an inventory of all quantitative coaching research that I could find. Through checking a sprawling array of sources and references, I ended up with 35 randomised controlled trials. I summarised these in terms of what they show about effectiveness, about the ‘ingredients’ of effectiveness, and about the possible outcomes of coaching. 

We know that statistical research is important as it provides the only ‘general’ knowledge about coaching that we have. Any significant patterns found in quantitative research, however small, are predictive and are thus a reliable indication for future contracts and sessions. They can therefore legitimately inform client/stakeholder decisions regarding whether to invest in coaching, and what type of coaching to invest in. 

Research Findings

The learning from my year of research can be summarised in 5 main themes:

Theme 1: mounting evidence that coaching works

At Ashridge, we have undertaken a meta-analysis study comprising 34 of all 35 randomised controlled trials, including seven very recent ones.2 We can say with 95% confidence that coaching will produce a palpable effect. We can even argue that coaching is better researched than a lot of adjacent fields such as mentoring, consultancy, training and management-development programmes – some of which are harder to research because the interventions have fuzzier boundaries.

Why is this important?

That is powerful information, and all we need to know for considering coaching worth the investment. It tells us that real, palpable change is likely to result from engagement with coaching.

Theme 2: coaching really flexes around objectives

Although the randomised controlled trial invokes the medical model, coaching does not behave like a simple ‘pill’ that enhances or dampens a very specific function. Quite the contrary: coaching has been demonstrated to be effective for a wide range of goals, ranging from efficiency savings, to effectiveness improvements, quality improvements and career transitions to name a few.

How does this impact leadership development, specifically?

For me personally, the most fascinating finding about the ‘range’, is actually the ‘depth’ of some of these outcomes of coaching: several studies show that coaching has a positive impact on a leader’s personality: assuaging neuroticism, anxiety and fears, impostor tendencies and emotional volatility. These are still early results, nevertheless they begin to confirm what many coaches and coachees report from their coaching sessions, namely that coaching offsets the risks of leadership derailment.

Theme 3: evidence for an uncanny meta-understanding between coach and coachee

I have seen evidence in the coaching outcome literature that coaching may achieve the effectiveness that it does, irrespective of the total amount of sessions.  What does it mean if coachees achieve the same overall outcome for any number of sessions they negotiate? In my view, this finding points at a particular form of ‘placebo effect’, where coach and coachee implicitly negotiate, or accommodate themselves towards, what feels like the ‘right’ amount of sessions.

What could this mean for the coaching profession?

If that continues to be shown to be the case, then it is very heartening for our profession. It means we can trust our coachees even more than we already do, based on the demonstrated effectiveness, as summarised above. To be precise, we can trust coachees with the ‘number’ of sessions, ie, that they will mostly do well with any number of sessions they agree to attend.

Theme 4: the quality of the relationship matters, but not in the way we thought it would

All research that explored the quality of the coaching relationship as one of the ingredients of successful coaching, found the relationship to be of great importance. Whether described as ‘rapport’, ‘trust’ or ‘working alliance’, the relationship usually emerged as the strongest predictor of coaching outcome.

However, it was only very recently that careful longitudinal trials were carried out, where the impact of the coaching relationship was measured from session to session, and the results of these were very surprising.

It turned out that although the strength of relationship correlated strongly with outcomes overall, there were no significant findings that the alliance also correlated with outcomes per session. In fact, we found in our own research that there was no link between an increase in outcome after the first session, and any measurements of the working alliance that we did after each of the six sessions of coaching. This means that working alliance is only an independent variable, nothing to do with the sessions themselves, similar to the coachee’s overall self-efficacy or resilience. Alliance may not even be related to the quality of the relationship as experienced, or as could be observed by an outsider.

What does this mean?

This means that we must now go back to the drawing board in terms of measurement of the relationship or of relational coaching in the moment. We know relational interventions are powerful, we just do not know how they link with outcome. So the link between alliance and outcome has become a lot more tenuous, even controversial.

Theme 5: some evidence that the youngest coaches are the best coaches

In the course of my research, I came across a recent article by George et al. who undertook a retrospective study to determine which external coaches of nurses for safe childbirths in India had been the most effective. Demographics were collected for 10 coaches and (observation-based) practice-adherence criteria for their coachees, by observing 1052 child deliveries. A highly significant (p < 0.0001) inverse relationship was detected between the coach’s age and the nurses’ adherence to the practice checklist. So, it seems, at least in that special context, younger coaches seem to be more effective than older, more experienced ones. The effectiveness of the coach seems inversely related to both the coach’s age and years of experience, according to the authors because young and relatively inexperienced coaches were less directive.

Where can we find out more about your research and the book?

The book ‘What Works in Executive Coaching’ is available from April. We’re hosting a virtual launch event where I’ll be interviewed in more detail about the book, on 9th April and we’ll offer 30% discounts as well.

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Critical Moments in Coaching - Q&A with Erik