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What makes leadership coaching successful? Part II

Nov 18, 2021
Two black business men standing talking to each other and looking at a laptop

What does leadership coaching do? What makes coaching most effective? What qualities should you look for in a coach? In other words, what are the “ingredients” of successful coaching?

Earlier this year, I compiled data on my own coaching services by sending a survey to gather information and insights from leaders and key stakeholders who had participated in the coaching process with me. To build upon this subjective information, I turned to my friend and colleague, leadership coach Dr. Colleen Bastian, knowing that she was familiar with this topic through her research for her doctoral dissertation.

An interesting and thought-provoking article from Harvard Business Review that Colleen mentioned piqued my interest with the reference of “ingredients," as my upcoming book is "Gourmet Leadership: Turn Up the Heat on Your Secret Sauce!" HBR's McKenna and Davis made a bold claim that the active ingredients of clinical psychotherapy could be applied to coaching. Based on empirical research, McKenna and Davis explained that the active ingredients of clinical psychotherapy included:

  • client extra-therapeutic factors (which explain 40% of the variance in client outcomes),
  • the therapeutic alliance (30%),
  • expectancy, hope, and placebo (15%) and,
  • theory and techniques (15%).

The first ingredient is the client’s ability and willingness to change, which according to the authors, determines 40% of the positive outcome. As Colleen described, “Even though the article was somewhat controversial, since many people see psychotherapy and coaching as very different disciplines, there are certain things that we know are similar. 

For example, the success of the coaching engagement is directly impacted by the client’s desire to change.” Colleen went on to describe how she uses this technique in “chemistry” meetings with her prospective clients: “I look to see how open they are to the process of development and change and how suspicious they are. For example, are they worried who’s going to know that they are being coached? I listen to their voice, the way that they talk about it, and the way they express their curiosity vs. skepticism about coaching. And if overall they seem to have a relatively high level of commitment, then I have a good sense that we should proceed.”

The second ingredient is the relationship between the client and the coach, which attributes to 30% of the success. Colleen says, “When I think about the coaching engagements that I’ve had, the ones that I find that are truly successful usually have a strong relationship component. There’s a lot of trust that we have in our working relationship. They’re hiring me because they want me to challenge them, in a respectful and empowering way that helps them grow. So that’s what they come to me for. And that’s why I’m able to help them be successful.”

I find this to be true my own coaching practice as well. This quote from the survey I conducted earlier this year illustrates this ingredient:

“I felt seen by Carolyn. In her own quiet way, she helped me identify strengths I was underutilizing and encouraged me to think bigger and aim higher in my goals for my team and the faculty. After working with her, I now feel excited about exercising my leadership in areas that are important to me like diversity, inclusion, and equity.”

An interesting phenomenon that Colleen and I discussed regarding the relationship was the aspect of “fit” in coaching—the chemistry between the coach and the leader. We both have had the experience of meeting a client whom we initially wondered about in terms of fit—stylistically, would we click and resonate? And yet, inevitably, once the choice was made and the coaching relationship ensued, those issues of fit abated as we delved into the issues and solutions generated from the coaching conversations. So both of us have learned that a strong coaching relationship can be built among many different types of leadership and style of coaches.

The third ingredient, the client’s expectations and hope, determines 15% of the coaching success. Colleen pointed to suggestions from the article on how the coach can activate hope within the clients, including sharing stories of success with other clients, connect clients with others who have faced and surmounted the same issues, and recognize that the coach is part of the successful equation. This quote from my survey exemplifies this ingredient: “As I was trying to find my footing in a new role with greater responsibility, she was both a sounding board and a support, validating my observations, encouraging my decision-making, and providing ideas and strategies for addressing certain problems.”

The fourth ingredient is the coach’s theory and techniques, which is 15% of the successful outcome. Colleen and I agreed that it is an essential aspect of coaching to assist the client in clarifying what they hope to achieve in the coaching process. To achieve that, the tools coaches use need to be customized to achieve the outcome of the coaching to the clients. Colleen said, “ I might use a specific assessment tool, or use a visual technique like metaphor, or hold reflective space to encourage the client to think deeply in quiet for a few minutes.”  Helping the client focus on what they want to achieve, and finding the tools and path to achieve that, is an essential ingredient of the coaching process.

Colleen and I agree that the most important ingredients that make coaching successful are the client’s desire and willingness to grow and change, and the relationship between the coach and the leader. So, if you are considering engaging with a coach, consider the areas of your leadership and work that you’d like to change and improve, and then seek a coach in whom you have confidence and has the skills and experience to help you grow in those areas.


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