The reality of measuring business coaching success

The term “coaching” has gained a significant presence in corporate development programs over the past 10 years. It’s now come to a point where clients (corporate HR professionals) have a much clearer understanding of what type of coaching they want for diverse levels of leadership and issues in their organizations. Still, as professional coaches, we often face situations in which it is necessary to explain the effectiveness of coaching on people and organization performance, as well as how it impacts on the bottom line can be assessed.

This is a quite complex issue. And since “differing experiences” have happened to HR professionals, where abused trust, failed expectations and overpromised returns took their toll, it is also a hard task to perform. Many of these client experiences may have been different if the coach insisted on a very simple question before the intervention; “What will you use as a measure of the success of this coaching intervention? Unfortunately, this is a question many coaches stay away from, since clients often have a difference in understanding of what can be an outcome of a coaching intervention with their employees, and many coaches are not familiar with a clear “system” of how to clarify and manage the client’s success criteria. Luckily Donald Kirkpatrick introduced “Kirkpatrick’s 4L model almost 50 years ago to help us with this task, and today professional coaches understand better how to use it for measuring the success of a coaching intervention.

Let’s try an analogy to first understand the context of an “intervention” better. Say that you were told by a physician that your obesity is a health risk and that you have to slim down. You might assume then that a true measure of the success of your efforts to do so would be the actual amount of weight you’ve lost (i.e. 5 kilos). Although this does have its logic, you would, in reality, be very wrong. In order to assess if your intervention was a success, among many other things, you would first have to understand where you are prior to the intervention and measure the initial STATE (if you are weighing at 130 kilos, a 5-kilo loss does not make for much of a difference). Additionally, understanding the TIME it was achieved in, is crucial (it is a medical fact that human weight can vary up to 20 kilos within a 48-hour period – losing weight fast is not good, but losing it too slow also means the loss is not sufficiently contributing to improving your health). And HOW you achieved this 5-kilo loss really matters (did you introduce healthy eating habits or just stopped eating at all) because bouncing back can happen extremely fast. To make things harder, if the physician didn’t check your thyroid hormone levels, and missed the fact that underlying disease is responsible for your health problem, he may have just given you a “mission impossible” which may compromise your health even further.

To conclude; any type of intervention success is relative, and measuring it is not easy. It must be viewed in the context of the situation as well as from different stakeholder perspectives. This is especially true for coaching interventions.
Kirkpatrick introduced ROE® (Return on Expectations) in his seminal book on development intervention evaluation called The 4 levels. Much of this concept is based on people reactions and their involvement, and since coaching interventions are based on this as well, Kirkpatrick’s methodology can help us (coaches) help our clients (corporate HR partners) achieve their coaching goals with MEASURABILITY.

When working with a corporate client, the coachee is not the only party involved in the coaching process. The SPONSOR plays a significant role, and EXPECTATIONS are important, taking many forms and coming from different stakeholders when a coach is engaged in a corporate environment. Often, the coachee may not be a willing participant to the process. Moreover, large corporations have their internal coaching programs often “rolled out” and are looking for a coach to fit their internal agenda and expectation from a coaching intervention. Also, in many cases coaching is organized due to performance failure of an individual (or team), and on other occasions, it is genuine attempt to prepare an individual for more responsibility and a new role in the changing organization.

Expectations are tough, they come from many sources but most important of all the coach must take on the responsibility to make them REALISTIC.

This begins with the coach clarifying with the client WHO besides the coachee has an expectation from the coaching intervention in the organization. It may just be that these individuals are not sitting at the table at that moment, but might be very present when the coach presents the final report and discuss the OUTCOME of his work.
The next step is addressing an extended part of the “4 levels” model (thus called Level 5) and this is to discuss with all relevant expectation stakeholders defined above, what is the REALISTIC BUSINESS IMPACT of coachee’s “transformation” or “transaction” (depending on type of professional coaching required) as a result of the coaching process and WHEN can it be expected.

After this is resolved a healthy discussion must be led around REALISTIC PERFORMANCE (Level 4) defined in a SMART manner, which can be expected from the coachee after successful participation in a coaching process.
Next topic to talk about is what are the KEY BEHAVIORS (Level 3) that could be observed as part of the “transformation” or “transaction” resulting from the coaching process, which will contribute to the coachee delivering the expected result concluded for Level 4.

For some types of coaching interventions LEARNING (Level 2) has more significance as an expectation from and must be discussed as well as documented throughout the coaching process. This especially true for “transactional” coaching interventions, whereas the learnings happening in “transformative” coaching interventions are of more personal nature.
Of course the participants’ positive REACTION (Level 1) is something which HR professionals justly pay a lot of attention to, and is usually easiest to document and discuss with the client and the sponsor. The initial expectation is always a positive rapport with the coach, which guarantees continuity of the coaching process to its end. However, although crucial, in many cases this is the least objective (and thus least significant) measure of the success of a coaching intervention.

Thus, analyzing all “4(+1) levels” from both perspectives (coachee’s and sponsor’s) provides a strong framework in which measurability of success and effect can be executed to the full benefit of a corporate client.

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