Is executive coaching a con?

Executive coaching gets a bad press as difficult to measure and populated by unregulated charlatans. But organisations are beginning to use it more strategically, argues Virginia Matthews.

Coaching as a concept harks back to the 19th century, when Oxford University students used the word ‘coach’ as slang for the tutors who carried them through their exams. These days, it is a well-established means of getting people to give their best in every field, from sport to education and the arts.

Performance or executive coaching, however, is a relatively new and not always popular phenomenon in the business world. According to Jonathan Perks, managing director of leadership development at Penna, our “typically English reluctance to talk about personal matters” means that many senior directors feel an investment in coaching would not be worth it.

Coaching cynics

A common response, he says, is: ‘This company already has enough talking shops and staff support networks, and we certainly don’t need yet more theorists from outside the business world to tell us how to do things better’.

But are the cynics right? Not according to Craig Shaw, head of operations at decorating materials company Dulux. He has been attending coaching sessions with Arabella Ellis, managing director of the OCG Group, and feels they are invaluable.

“I describe this process as self-indulgent and one-step-back coaching, because 90% is about me, and 10% is about the business, but I recognise it is a fantastic opportunity and I am grateful to the business for investing in me,” he says.

In some sectors, coaching is now considered a routine perk, but some long-standing senior managers fear it will expose incompetence – or worse, outdated thinking. And given the average cost for a four-month coaching contract will exceed £4,000, organisations need to be sure that it will deliver.

But HR professionals don’t always subject a coaching investment to the usual checks and balances. A report last year by Personnel Today found that two out of three companies do not measure the financial return on their investment in coaching.

For some, the value of a discipline that involves a lot of sitting around and chatting, and stereotypes of psychologists with transatlantic accents who talk about ‘the organisational miasma’, is not easily measured.

Yet it is only now that executive coaching is proving its real worth to the business world, says Myles Downey, who co-founded the School of Coaching in 2002, and whose client list includes BAA, the BBC, the Home Office, Rolls-Royce, the NHS and Nationwide.

“Executive coaching is really only 10 or 15 years old in its present form, and I am aware there are problems with its image, not least with the senior director who famously punched a clinical psychologist in the face because he considered his questions impertinent,” he says.

Return on investment

In the early days of executive coaching, he says, buyers used to deploy coaching as a way of imposing training on very senior staff to whom something so demeaning could not even be suggested. Today, he says, it is beginning to be handled strategically.

“HR directors are starting to ask challenging questions about the value of coaching and the returns they can expect, as they would do with other high-spending areas, and we believe this is all to the good,” he adds.

But can the value of the confidential, one-to-one sessions underpinning the coaching relationship really be quantified in this way?

No, says Gil Schwenk, who manages the Bath Consultancy Group’s coaching excellence and supervision capability.

“I’m not surprised there’s scepticism out there about what coaching can achieve, but I’m concerned that ‘return on investment’ is being bandied about to such an extent right now that HR is going to tie itself in knots over it,” he says.

As with all training and development, the direct effects of coaching will always be hard to measure in stark financial terms, but Schwenk advises those investing in it to start with achievable goals. “If you start with clear objectives for your coaching programme – such as changing coachee behaviour in some way, or changing other peoples’ perceptions of them – then it should be fairly easy to gauge whether it has all been a waste of money or not.”


Schwenk also warns against managers using coaches to absolve them of their own responsibility. “Managers outsource all sorts of things to outsiders, and that’s fine. But there comes a point – typically with someone’s acute communications failings – where the individual’s in-house manager, not the external coach, should carry the can.

“I am finding that more organisations are seeking to use coaches to do their managers’ dirty work for them and, in some cases, even help manage people out, which I am extremely uncomfortable with,” he says.

Schwenk suggests that organisations build a three-way agreement between the coach, coachee and coachee’s manager or HR representative before coaching begins, so that all parties can understand the agenda.

Ultimately, though, executive coaching can be a very personal experience, so what occurs between coach and coachee is difficult for an organisation to monitor. According to ex-Army officer Jonathan Perks, most business problems are personal anyway.

“We believe that around 80% of the problems that organisations face are to do with communications failures rather than technical problems,” he explains. “With clashes between egos and silo mentalities, business is like a battleground nowadays.” Often, he adds, chief executives are lonely figures in need an external and trusted friend.


One thing businesses must ensure, though, is that the coach has the appropriate commercial experience to understand the challenges their client faces.

“In my experience, bigger firms will often have at least some coaches who aren’t very good or don’t have the key skills of psychological-mindedness, as well as business and relationship awareness,” says Ellis. “Commercial understanding will be useful, but it won’t help people to change, and while lots of very good psychotherapists are turning to coaching because they’re very good at the psychology, they may not have any business nous, and that is also a problem.”

Above all, know why you’re bringing in a coach, adds Ellis. “There is little point bringing in an expensive coach to show a director how to fill in a finance budget, which they can learn equally well via a textbook, a training course or a DVD,” she says.

And with executive coaching by its very nature being focused on the top brass, how can HR ensure its investment cascades down through the organisation? “Many organisations report that having undergone coaching, senior managers are more relaxed and better motivated, and that inevitably impacts on the entire workforce,” says Downey. “However, most of the people I work with are still too concerned with delivery and execution when they should be looking at overall strategy.”

The best way for everyone to benefit, argues Downey, is for coachees to pass their expertise on to their direct reports, becoming a mentor themselves. This way, an investment at the very top has a benefit for the entire organisation.

Executive coaching: measuring the benefit

  • Discuss and agree desired outcomes with the coach, coachee and their manager before sessions begin.
  • Develop some measures so that you can recognise the outcomes when they happen.
  • Get feedback at regular intervals.
  • Create a coaching budget and track the costs and hours of coaching against it.
  • Establish whether the coach is accredited, and always take up references.
  • Involve business leaders in measuring the success of coaching.
  • Don’t expect neat answers – coaching is all about helping individuals arrive at their own solutions.

Source: Chiumento

It worked for me: law partner

Jonathan Poole is a partner with Thring Townsend Lee & Pembertons, a specialist law firm. He has received coaching for three years and currently sees Gil Schwenk of the Bath Consultancy Group.

“I used to be very sceptical, but now I feel that it’s everyone’s right to be coached,” Poole says. “I’ve had one bad coach who I didn’t want to spend time with, but Gil is very business-focused and he instinctively understands the political goings-on in a firm like this.

“I like to think I’ve changed since coaching and I know that others have – always for the better,” he says. “Although there are moves to turn all of us into coaches, the lines of questioning they use can sound a bit formulaic unless you are a professional, and anyway, what’s the point in coaching your own staff when it’s probably you they want to talk about?

“I consider my coach a wise friend and if the firm didn’t pay for his services, then I would probably buy into it myself,” he adds.

It worked for me: farming expert

Coaching may be de rigueur in other sectors, such as retail, but in agriculture, it is almost unknown, says David Cribbin, managing director of farming organisation Masstock.

He is currently coached by Catherine Sandler, of Sandler Lanz, and describes the experience as “an investment, rather than a cost”.

“After coming back from a residential course at Harvard, I was full of theory, but I needed someone to help me apply the techniques I had learned to my new job as managing director,” Cribbins says.

“I have two or three hours with Catherine every six weeks, and I find her both business-savvy and intuitive. While she is never directly critical, she is always questioning and provides a strong sounding board. There is no psychobabble in our sessions and, if anything, she has taught me to speak in clear, concise English.

“Last year, our profitability rose by 60% and our £200m sales rose once again. I have no doubt that coaching has played a huge part in that,” he says.

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