The keen resilient coachee: how coaching attitude leads to success

Erik De Haan, Director of Ashridge Centre for Coaching

There is clear evidence that coaching helps to produce well-rounded leaders by enhancing positive behaviours and mitigating negative ones. But what factors contribute to this success? The answer is not what you might think.

My latest research questions a long-accepted belief in executive coaching: that successful coaching outcomes depend on the strength of the relationship between coach and coachee.

From the findings, we can see that organisations might be investing their time in the wrong place if they focus on only matching aspiring leaders with the right executive coach. Instead, they should also focus on finding coachees with the right mix of optimism and a willingness to engage. They should look for those committed to working at building a strong relationship and achieving the desired outcomes. They should identify aspiring leaders who already have the seeds of leadership: hope, persistence, and a strong urge to connect.

Why do I say this? During the research, my eyes opened to two findings:

1 - Coaching had a big impact on the development of well-rounded characteristics so important to leadership

2 - Successes stem more from the coachee’s existing personality traits than from the relationship with their coach

Let me explain.

Executive coaching has become an increasingly popular tool for professional development. It pairs a younger leader with a mentor coach in a series of close conversations that help the leader develop their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.

Our understanding of leadership is also improving - 21st century leadership rests not on a single trait but on a more rounded set of subtler characteristics such as patience, emotional stability, compassion, empathy, and the willingness to listen. It takes introspection and reflection to nurture those characteristics.

Executive coaching facilitates that and has now been demonstrated to be successful., but we don’t know much about why it works and what the ingredients really are.

So we conducted the largest-ever randomised controlled trial studying executive coaching relationships to help us understand over two groups of people.

The first was in a global healthcare company with more than 100,000 employees spanning over 120 countries. It involved 161 female leaders and 66 coaches, also drawing feedback from another 140 line managers.

The second tested 210 business school students at a London university.

(Both studies included control groups and gathered reports from students and coaches, coachees and line managers alike to avoid biased perspectives.)

Overall, coaching is worth the investment: an effective intervention in the eyes of coachees and their managers. We found that executive coaching nurtures positive leadership behaviours, while dampening negative ones.

So that’s good.

But when we went into what made coaching effective, the interesting findings popped out.

More successful participants showed a particular increase in Prudence - a trait on the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) that psychologists use to predict job performance. This characteristic, which encompasses self-discipline, responsibility, and conscientiousness, spiked among coachees in the first study.

Conversely, we found another trait on the HDS (Hogan Development Survey), called Excitability, dipped significantly in the same group. This trait, associated with moodiness, has the potential to derail leaders, making them unpredictable and difficult to please. Coaching’s ability to curb this trait shows some promise, although it isn’t yet clear how deep this transformation goes or how long-lasting it is.

We also found the traditional metric to measure the strength of the relationship between coach and coachee - Working Alliance Inventory (WAI) - didn’t correlate with any increase in coaching outcomes over the course of the coaching sessions. In fact, WAI was more a measure of the coachee’s readiness to relate to their coach than of the strength of that relationship.

In other words, successful outcomes look like they depend on how prepared someone is to be open and to develop – as opposed to having a great relationship with the coach.

We learned that coachees who rated themselves high on self-efficacy, psychological well-being, and social support were more likely to have positive outcomes from their coaching experience. Resilience in particular - the trait typified by the ability to persist in the face of adversity - was a strong indicator of positive outcomes.

These findings were so strong that they detract from the importance of a good match between the coach and the coachee, and even from the sessions themselves.

Our future work will focus on success ingredients in the coaching sessions themselves, but from what we have seen so far, companies should consider there is more to coaching than just putting two people together and hoping they get along.

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