Leadership behaviours change most significantly when coachees define the agenda

Fenella Trevillion analyses the findings of her research into the effectiveness of coaching programmes

We often hear about the excellence of executive coaching and how it engenders a ‘feel-good factor’ – but knowledge about its effects and the behaviours it changes is sparse, and the evidence is sometimes considered lacking.

A recent research study I carried out found a wide range of definitions of executive coaching, with some consensus that it is a one-to-one development tool used to work on behaviours, and it happens within a trusting non-hierarchical relationship between a skilled, experienced coach and a coachee who is working in an organisation.

The context of the research was a cross-government leadership programme to develop early talent. It had masterclasses supported by coaching, action learning sets and mentors. The two main findings were that coaching was seen to be the key change agent and, for it to be successful, the coachee defined the agenda – not the organisation. Using five case studies, I sought multi-source feedback, including before and after self-reports from the coachees and observations by their managers. While the data source was small, the reports from the coachees, and separate reports by their managers, were compelling.

All coachees were civil servants, including some working on high-profile projects who regularly had meetings with government ministers. In one case study, the manager noted a meeting where an agency CEO “railroaded the minister and the coachee was left speechless”. The manager would have expected the civil servant to challenge the CEO with data they knew would have strengthened the minister’s position, but, in the heat of the moment, the civil servant froze, and the opportunity passed them by.

Through executive coaching and “diving down and dissecting the challenge” the civil servant learned to “articulate their advice effectively and control their body language”. The manager found that in a similar meeting a year later, the civil servant made an interjection and “changed the course of the meeting”. “It was great to see,” said the manager. This case study illustrated how the coachee’s behaviour changed from suboptimal presentation to what was described by the participants as “high impact with presence: influencing and inspiring”.

Other examples are shown below: