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What makes coaching work in the business environment?

Former CEOs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Eric Schmidt, and even celebrities like Oprah and Leonardo DiCaprio all had one – a coach, that is. Should you?

“Coaching turns problems into challenges, challenges into opportunities and opportunities into gifts.” ~ Milton Erickson


Coaching as a bourgeoning industry

The coaching industry has been experiencing tremendous growth in recent years. In their 2016 Global Coaching Study canvassing 137 countries, PwC and the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the largest global organisation of professional coaches, estimated there are approximately 53,300 coaches worldwide. This illustrates the widespread growth of the profession, fueled by the demand for coaching internationally, including in the Middle East and Africa.


A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) found that 90 per cent of organisations surveyed in the UK used coaching and even increased or continued coaching during the economic downturn.


While quantifying the return on investment (ROI) of coaching may be challenging, a study of Fortune 100 executives in The Manchester Review reported that coaching can result in ROI of five and a half times the cost and a 77 per cent improvement in relationships, 67 per cent improvement in teamwork and 61 per cent improvement in job satisfaction (among other factors).


A more recent study conducted by the ICF, PwC, and Association Resource Centre Inc. found that coaching can result in an ROI of over three times the cost for an individual client and up to 50 times for a corporate client (the latter was disclosed by 19 per cent of corporate clients surveyed) while the median corporate ROI was about seven times the cost of coaching services. What this means is that for every dollar spent on coaching, the average corporate respondent believed that they derived about seven dollars’ worth of benefits from coaching.


The respondents also disclosed that, as a result of coaching, they had improved in the following aspects: self-confidence (reported by 80 per cent of respondents), relationships (73 per cent), communication skills (72 per cent), interpersonal skills (by 71 per cent), work performance (70 per cent), work/life balance (67 per cent), amongst other areas. Coaching has also been correlated with increased sales and employee engagement.


In addition, unlike some common perceptions, coaching is not merely for underperforming employees or only for those in senior management or the executive suite; rather, it is about further developing employees in both soft and technical skills, and particularly high-potential employees into leadership roles, and about improving organisational relationships and corporate strategy.


Given the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world in which we live coupled with the increased risk of job automation, coaching in the corporate context is now likely to be more valuable and needed than ever before.


Defining coaching

As coaching is still a relatively young profession, there is no one set, agreed-upon definition of what it means. The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential”.


Or as Emma-Louise Elsey, owner and CEO of the Coaching Tools Company, succinctly describes it: “Simply put, coaching is where you work with someone to connect with yourself, redesign your environment and your life, and then take action to implement it”. Despite the variance in definitions, a few key attributes about coaching emerge that contribute to its success in sustaining positive change.


What makes coaching work?


A. Provoking thoughts and increasing awareness


Through the use of powerful questions designed to gain clarity and understanding, challenge limiting beliefs, and inspire new insights, coaches are able to elicit reflective thinking and self-awareness, a key aspect of emotional intelligence, in their clients. In her Journal of Change Management paper, Suzy Wales describes self-awareness as including the following four elements:


  • the ability to understand our past and learn from it, thereby helping us improve our current relationships;

  • being open to our own feelings and those of others, reducing conflict and miscommunication;

  • the ability to reflect on situations before reacting to them, developing relationship management skills;

  • and making appropriate choices in a rational manner by appreciating how our own beliefs may influence our behaviour.

It is through mirroring, where the coach reflects back what the client has said, and through questions designed to provoke reflection that deeper learning is achieved and awareness heightened, both of which are essential to personal development.

To borrow a quote from the sports world, Tom Landry, an American football coach, aptly states “a coach is someone… who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”

In her study, Wales’ respondents described how their self-awareness resulted in greater self-acceptance and confidence, which in turn, led to improved leadership and management abilities, assertiveness, understanding of different viewpoints, and even stress management and better work/life balance.


B. Empowering clients

Because the coaching process is client-centred and driven by the clients, they are in the driver seat and are empowered to visualise, create, and choose the route to get to the destination of their choice.

In addition, since clients determine their own goals and action items, they are more motivated to commit to and take action to create positive change. The coaching process also positions clients as experts on themselves with the coach being a mere facilitator to help clients uncover learnings for themselves. This is a marked difference from training or consulting where the instructor or consultant is the expert who provides the answers


C. Positive psychology and strengths-based coaching

Many coaches incorporate positive psychology, pioneered by Dr Martin Seligman, which, in contrast to its traditional counterpart, focuses on the strengths and positive emotions that enable people to thrive and lead meaningful lives. When clients face a difficult situation, positive psychology can shift their perspective since it is predicated on the premise that they already have the ability to surmount the obstacle, reinforcing clients’ strengths and resiliency, thereby propelling them forward.


Likewise, employing a strengths-based approach can help clients reach their greatest potential by helping them recognise their natural abilities and further developing those talents. By emphasizing successes as opposed to deficiencies, coaches keep clients motivated and empowered to continue developing themselves.


D. Present- and future-focused

Coaching, unlike therapy, is not concerned with why something happened or what has happened in the past to cause the client to act in a certain way. Instead, coaching operates on a clean slate, removing the focus on negative emotions or past experiences. It helps clients believe that anything is possible despite whatever shortcomings they may have faced in the past and emphasises moving in a forward orientation as opposed to looking backwards in the rear-view mirror.

Not only does coaching incorporate goal setting and anticipate ways to surmount barriers to goal achievement, it also addresses the client as a whole. The awareness and empowerment aspects mentioned earlier develop emotional intelligence skills that enable the client to not merely address a challenging situation at the present, but rather helps equip them for life-long success.


E. Holding clients accountable and celebrating little wins

A key benefit coaching provides (particularly over training) is the ability for coaches to hold clients accountable in achieving their goals. A coach is also an enthusiastic ‘cheerleader’, supporting clients throughout their journey, helping them celebrate the small wins. This helps keep clients motivated and empowered to complete their goals.


The power of coaching

The impact coaching has in effecting sustainable change explains its current popularity as personal and talent development for clients and as a chosen career path for professional coaches.

The coaching profession is a privileged one where coaches are honoured with the clients’ trust in partnering with them in their development and, most importantly, chosen to be a part of their exciting journey of transformation and positive change.


“Coaching helps you to take responsibility for your life, let go of what others think and become your true self. It’s about you creating the life that you want – and deserve.” Emma-Louise Elsey, CEO of The Coaching Tools Company


Jeanette Teh is an ICF Certified Transformation Coach. A former lawyer, Assistant Professor, and corporate trainer, she loves applying her background in Psychology, DISC behaviour styles, MBA, and Innovation to help people achieve their highest potential. Jeanette is a Bessern Advisor and Coach


Previously published on www.gulfbusiness.com in 2018

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