Why executive coaching is worth $500 an hour

The difference between winning and losing.
The difference between winning and losing.
Image: AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens
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The most comprehensive and rigorous meta-analysis of professional coaching ever conducted was just published in print, and the results are unambiguous: Coaching in a businesses context “has significant positive effects on performance and skills, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal-directed self-regulation.”

Writing in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Tim Theebooma, Bianca Beersmaa and Annelies E.M. van Vianena of the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Amsterdam conclude that “In general… coaching is an effective tool for improving the functioning of individuals in organizations.” That’s good news, considering that, as the authors note, coaching is a $3 billion a year industry worldwide, and, as the Harvard Business Review estimated, the median rate for an executive coach is $500 an hour.

Theebooma et al. are so thorough in their analysis that they spend large sections of their paper outlining the flaws of many of the studies of the effectiveness of coaching, and their discursive style, while dense, yields a number of important takeaways

But we don’t know why coaching works

Plenty of studies have established, to one degree or another, that coaching makes people measurably more effective at their jobs, yielding a quantifiable, positive return on investment for most investments in coaching (pdf.) But there is a great deal of variability between studies in terms of how effective coaching can be. Is this because some coaches are better than others? Because some employees are more amenable to coaching or to different styles of coaching, than others? (There is even a term in the psychological literature for this trait: “coachability.”)

The authors elaborate: “Future research could investigate whether solution-focused coaching is indeed more effective than other coaching approaches and whether specific coaching effects also depend on significance and/or complexity of coaches’ problems.” By borrowing from fields with deep pools of literature, such as mentoring, training, therapy and education, the authors argue that professional coaches could begin to figure out which aspects of what they’re doing are particularly effective.

For example, effective coaching may be, like good therapy, primarily a product of the connection between the coach and coachee: “Recent work in the field of executive coaching indeed suggests that non-specific factors such as understanding, encouraging, and listening behaviors of the coach may be better predictors of coaching effectiveness than specific factors such as the coaching methodology.”

Of course, coaching is a highly subjective experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The authors note that while many studies of the outcomes of coaching rely on self-reported results (versus evaluations by the coach or by others working with the person being coached) there is evidence from other areas of psychology that simply believing that a therapeutic intervention is working—whether that’s mentoring, teaching, psychotherapy or coaching—inspires a positive feedback mechanism that is key to the kind of deep, lasting, underlying behavioral change that is the goal of most coaching. So when choosing a coach, a good rule of thumb could simply be: Does this person make me feel more effective?