Return on investment (ROI) for coaching initiatives is notoriously difficult to prove. The confidential nature of coaching, particularly executive coaching, can make it seem like an expensive perk that takes place behind closed doors. So while HR professionals are seduced by coaching as a concept, they struggle to measure its impact.
“We are finding that a lot of HR people are feeling under pressure to deliver,” explains Jessica Jarvis, adviser for training, learning and development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Coaching ROI has become such a thorny issue for HR departments that Jarvis has devoted a chapter to its evaluation in her forthcoming book, The Case for Coaching. However, she advises HR managers to take a deep breath before rushing to find and impose a return-on-investment model. “You can’t prove ROI in a day,” she says.
Jarvis suggests that coaching programmes should not be allowed to meander along without proving their value, and HR should look at conventional measurement data, such as staff attitude surveys, to assess the impact of the coaching.
But how will HR know whether it is paying for valuable conversations or cosy chats? At fashion retailer Claire’s Accessories, learning and development manager Gillian Ince says there are ways of respecting confidentiality while also ensuring that the executive coaching sessions are going in the direction the organisation wants.
“Agree with the coach and coachee what the evidence of change will be,” she says. “Let them know which mechanisms, such as 360-degree feedback, can be brought in after a certain time.”
It’s not impossible to measure the benefits of executive coaching either, according to Barry Broe, director of transport planning and policy at Transport for London.
Broe has had a coach for two years to help to him change his leadership style from a technical focus to an ’empowering’ one.
“The coaching programme was one of individual change, leading to team and organisational change,” he says. “At an organisational level the programme would be measured by project outcomes, such as winning London’s Olympic bid which, of course, we did.”
Winning the chance to showcase the UK on a world stage may, for some, be the ultimate ROI, but many coaching providers feel that they are not pushed enough to prove that an organisation is spending its money wisely. They say they would welcome more clarity.
“People don’t ask for ROI information, even though we want them to,” says Fiona Silerbach, managing director of coaching organisation Changing Perspective. “We encourage them to do this because then the coaching becomes specific and helps us to target our approach,” she says.
Kevin McAlpin, head of performance coaching at Performance Coaching International, says it is important to establish the identity of the ultimate customer.
“Is it the HR department because it is paying, or the coachee’s line manager, because they need to see the benefits?”
When a major coaching and development programme is launched at financial company Co-operative Financial Services in March 2006, its head of talent management Pat Ashworth will know exactly how to measure its effectiveness.
Ashworth’s confidence comes from the groundwork for the programme. A set of key competencies, such as relationship building and influencing, had been agreed from the outset, when the company received 111 application forms for the final 19 places. A series of one-to-one coaching sessions will build on these competencies.
There is a clear aim that in two years’ time the 19 managers will be able to fit in anywhere in the organisation. “We’d like to see this talent pool getting jobs one level up from where they are now,” says Ashworth. “This is our ROI.”
Elsewhere there is a sense that the unmeasurable benefit – the time for reflection – is still of value to those receiving coaching.
Elaine Swan, the research project director at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, Lancaster University, says: “Many feel that it is a unique space for them.” Swan is interviewing coachees as part of a Department for Education and Skills-funded project into leadership practice in the learning sector.
The question employers need to ask, says Swan, is why their people need to talk to a coach in the first place. Only then can the ROI be measured.