by David B. Peterson, Harvard Business Review

Forty years ago, no one talked about executive coaching. Twenty years ago, coaching was mainly directed at talented but abrasive executives who were likely to be fired if something didn’t change. Today, coaching is a popular and potent solution for ensuring top performance from an organization’s most critical talent. Almost half the coaches surveyed in this study reported that they are hired primarily to work with executives on the positive side of coaching—developing high-potential talent and facilitating a transition in or up. Another 26% said that they are most often called in to act as a sounding board on organizational dynamics or strategic matters. Relatively few coaches said that organizations most often hire them to address a derailing behavior.

The research also revealed an important insight about what companies ask coaches to do and what they actually end up doing. Consider work/life balance. It’s rare that companies hire business coaches to address non-work issues (only 3% of coaches said they were hired primarily to attend to such matters), yet more than three-quarters of coaches report having gotten into personal territory at some time. In part this reflects the extensive experience of the coaches in this survey (only 10% had five years or less experience). It also underscores the fact that for most executives, work and life issues cannot be kept entirely separate. This is particularly true of senior executives who spend grueling hours on the job and are often on the road and away from home. Many of them feel some strain on their personal lives. Not surprisingly, therefore, the more coaches can tap into a leader’s motivation to improve his or her home life, the greater and more lasting the impact of the coaching is likely to be at work.

The problem is when organizations ask for one thing and get something else. Often companies have no idea what the coaches are really doing.

One reason seems to be that coaches can be very lax in evaluating the impact of their work and communicating results to executives and stakeholders. While 70% of coaches surveyed said they provide qualitative assessment of progress, fewer than one-third ever give feedback in the form of quantitative data on behaviors, and less than one-fourth provide any kind of quantitative data on business outcomes of the coaching engagement. Even this may represent a somewhat optimistic picture, given that this data comes from the coaches themselves.

Fewer than one-fourth of the respondents said they provide any kind of quantitative data on business outcomes of the coaching.

While it can be difficult to draw explicit links between coaching intervention and an executive’s performance, it is certainly not difficult to obtain basic information about improvements in that executive’s managerial behaviors. Coaching is a time-intensive and expensive engagement, and organizations that hire coaches should insist on getting regular and formal progress reviews, even if they are only qualitative. Judging from this survey, companies won’t get them unless they ask for them.

Read the full article here.