Executive coaching for organisational change

Written by
Changeboard Team

08 Dec 2014

08 Dec 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Organisational change trends

As Buddha said: “Everything changes.” 

Or, as Heraclitus said: “The only thing that is constant is change.”

Steering clear of an existential discussion, there is no doubt that change is something to which professionals and organisations alike must be sensitive. Most organisations are continuously experiencing change at an increasingly rapid pace. Taking technology as a single example, innovations such as artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, biometrics, and ‘big data’ look set to change the face of business in unprecedented ways  –  and soon.

In light of such changes and focusing on HR in particular, a number of trends seem set to change the landscape in the coming years – such as the democratisation of work driven by social media, increasing complications around risk and privacy, and the rising instances of mergers between HR and marketing departments. Even on a less future-focused level, companies must deal with change: for example, 14,000 mergers and acquisitions were announced in North America over the last couple of years. 

Put simply in Darwinian terms, one must adapt in order to survive. The professional who cannot adapt to changes within the business – and the business which cannot adapt to changes within the market – is likely to go the way of the giraffe with the shorter neck. Yet, dealing with change can often take up considerable resources; it is therefore vital that organisations and their leaders are able to manage change efficiently. In this piece I would like to focus upon dealing with change in a collective manner, in a way that empowers groups to share a common vision, goal and build upon each other’s talents to drive though and survive the perils of change. 

Executive coaching

For many, this is where executive coaching comes in. Organisations spend over $2bn a year, worldwide, on external executive coaching services alone and 82% of British organisations use it for leadership development, according to the CIPD.  I often love the definition given by Jo Rolfe who states that: “Coaching is the art, and some say the science, of facilitating the professional learning and development of others through personal, one-to-one, on-the-job training for skills and competence.”

Coaching uses self-directed learning to achieve personal growth and to consequently improve organisational performance. Central to most definitions is its collaborative nature. 

As Grant (2001) asserts, coaching is different from training in that the latter is content-focused and operates in a fixed environment to which the recipient must adapt; coaching, meanwhile, is process-focused and is customized to the recipient. Coaching therefore gives executives innate and flexible insights, which allow them to enhance their performance across all activities, meaning they can perform well in spite of changes to their environment or job description.

Coaching also can provide executives with  ‘resilience’ and the ability to ‘bounce back’: it gives them the tools to set and achieve their goals whatever the nature of the task. Executive coaching also, however, facilitates change in another way. In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch (2010), the authors highlight the importance of the System 1 / System 2 dichotomy when it comes to change. The primitive, emotional brain (System 1) contains hardwired behaviours: to change these requires effort, focus and attention. However, change can be painful.  

The executive coaching process can provide what the Heath’s call a “practice stage”, in which the new behaviours required to change can become learned, thus requiring less effort to enact. As David Rock (2006) explains, when change occurs, employees “need time to rewire their own minds”. Furthermore, coaching can provide a helping hand to the rational brain (System 2). It does this by enabling employees to outsource to their coach some of the effort deliberation required of them.

How to make executive coaching work

While executive coaching is, in theory, a powerful tool for facilitating organisational change, an important question remains: Does it actually work?

At a superficial glance, it appears to. For example, one study found that 86% of participants were very or extremely satisfied with the executive coaching they had experienced. Although, as many researchers have noted, the support for executive coaching appears to be beset by a significant lack of reliable, empirical evidence. Much of the literature in favour of executive coaching is qualitative, anecdotal, subject to methodological concerns like hindsight bias, uses explicit (rather than implicit or behavioural) methodologies, or lacks sufficient scientific rigour.

However, there have been some promising developments in recent years: as executive coaching research has seen a shift towards controlled studies. As an illustration, Evers, Brouwers and Tomic (2006) divided a group of 60 managers in the US federal government into two groups: those given coaching, and those not. A number of measures were recorded at two points in time (i.e. before and after the coaching programme). The authors found that the coached group showed improvements relative to the control group in terms of beliefs of self-efficacy and making balanced decisions.

How to maximise effectiveness

In order to maximise the effectiveness of executive coaching, there are some provisos of which to be aware. Somewhat ironically, one of the most critical factors influencing coaching effectiveness is the coachee’s motivation to learn. In fact, Lambert and Barley (2002) conducted a study which found that client readiness accounted for 40% of the variance in coaching effectiveness outcomes. Other important factors include the employee’s wider support network and the quality of the relationship between coach and client. 

Executive coaching, it seems, has the potential to help employees perform well even in the face of significant change. Delivered appropriately, within a number of group-based interventions can be one of the most empowering developmental strategies for growth and team cohesion. Indeed, this is feasible when one is empowering their employees and managers to base their behaviour and leadership style upon the key axioms of coaching (listening, goal setting and targeted performance).