In this article, I want to examine what makes coaching work.

A friend of mine recently went to a business networking meeting. The speaker was a business coach. After the presentation, three separate business people expressed their opinion that coaching is a waste of time and money. It simply doesn’t work.

Those of us in the coaching game believe coaching works, therefore, I am not going to ask whether it works. I want to ask a related question; “What makes coaching work?”

Before we get into the question, let’s address two issues. First, what does ‘work’ mean? Let’s define ‘work’ as ‘effective’. Is coaching effective? Does it really help clients perform better and achieve their goals? The second issue is; how can you tell it works?

Let’s make some comments about that second question. In the ‘hard’ sciences, it’s often easier to tell whether something is effective. Take medications for example. They undergo clinical trials with large sample sizes over a lengthy time span. The effectiveness is measured scientifically. It’s not a perfect system, but it delivers reliable evidence on the effectiveness of new drugs. But it’s often much more difficult to measure how effective a coaching engagement has been.

So, let’s get back to the first issue – What makes coaching effective? The effectiveness of coaching is dependant on 5 factors. Let’s look at them.

  1. Coach factors – these are factors relating to the coach as a person and the kind of relationship they can establish with the client. How relatable are they? How empathic? How present? How insightful? How approachable? How trustworthy? How balanced? How do their worldviews impact them as a person?
  2. Strategic factors – How does the coach’s methodology and approach affect outcomes? How actively do they listen? How good are they at asking the right powerful questions at the right time? How good are they at analysing, understanding, and sometimes challenging what the client is saying? How does their coaching philosophy impact the client relationship and the outcomes? What tools and resources do they use? How do they structure, engage, and assess learning?
  3. Timing factors – how much contact time does the coach have with the client? Over what duration and in what context?
  4. Change readiness factors – how ready is the client to make significant, positive change?
  5. Change fitness factors – what’s the client’s capacity to make significant, positive change?

You will notice that the first two factors relate to the coach and their approach, and the last two factors relate to the client and their readiness and fitness for change. If I could use a nautical analogy, I would say that the first two relate to the professional capacity of the captain to guide and navigate and the last two relate to the capacity of the ship to weather difficult seas.

Most coach training programs focus on building the capacity of the captain (the coach). When you analyse the 11 Core Competencies from the ICF, that’s where the emphasis is. There’s nothing wrong with that, because the capacity of the coach is really important.

But what about the readiness and capacity of the client? What do they need readiness and capacity for? They need readiness and capacity to succeed at the change process. The effectiveness of the coaching relationship ultimately depends on how successfully the client makes significant, positive change.

Coaching is a co-operative venture over time between a coach and a client. Both need readiness and capacity, but they need readiness and capacity for different things. Coaches need positive coach and strategic factors, and clients need change readiness and change fitness. But coaches also need to know how to help their clients build more change readiness and change fitness. When all 5 factors come together, coaching becomes very effective.

An advantage of change fitness coaching is that you can tell how well it worked. The coach can scientifically and quantitatively measure how effective the coaching was – client progress can be mapped over time.

If you would like to know more about how to add change readiness/fitness coaching to your suite of services, reach out to me and we’ll have a chat.

Dr Steve Barlow

Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at