Executive Coaching or Training – Which is best for leadership development?

December 09, 2011  |   Executive Coaching Blog   |     |   0 Comment

You might expect an Executive Coaching Company to say that executive coaching is best for skills development. But it is true to say there may not be one easy answer to this question. It also depends on what is meant by the word ‘best’. Is that in relation to giving knowledge, cost or enhanced performance? The answer to the question may well also vary based on the type of skill that is being given e.g. leadership versus changing a tyre. In this article the focus is on those skills that require a behavioural change. So these include such things as leadership, negotiation, presentation and delegation.


The Holy Grail for most Trainers is to get 100% of the skills trained in the class room transferred into the workplace. Unfortunately what little evidence there is of the transfer of training suggests that the level of skills transfer could be as low as 10% (Cromwell and Kolb, 2004). Yet the investment in training is huge. The American Society of Training and Development estimated the 2008 spend on training in the USA to be $56 billion. The CIPD in a 2010 survey of organisations estimated that each UK employee receives an average of 8 days training per annum. So the sums invested in training are huge but there are significant concerns that this money may not translate into improved performance (Burke and Hutchins, 2008).


In 2006 Fillery-Travis and Lane estimated the value of the coaching market to be $2 billion. There is little empirical research on the return on investment from Executive Coaching, although the Manchester Study found a return of around six times the cost of coaching. There are other studies, but these are mainly in the form of 360 feedback (for example, Thach, 2002, Smither, 2003)) or self-reports.


What follows is based on research, as well as my own experience as an Executive Coach and an HR Director. Training does seem to be effective in terms of cost and giving knowledge when related to specific practical skills. This works well in many industries ranging from the automotive sector to the hospitality industry. In these circumstances the training should work if it is correctly designed and the trainees have the right level of ability. Where I have more serious doubts is where training is related to giving new behavioural skills, in particular where these are about leadership, motivation and management.


Training can clearly play an effective role in giving management education, in other words enabling delegates to understand leadership theories or models of delegation. However there are significant potential barriers to transferring new behaviours in to the workplace. This may well be the reason for the low rate of training transfer of 10% quoted above.


The main barrier to changing leadership behaviour in my experience is related to an individual’s beliefs and values. Although there is also evidence that the environment may also play an important part i.e. the line manager, peers, or the company culture. Because trainers can only focus on the group they cannot work on individual self-awareness and learning styles. This is however an important focus in executive coaching. I have worked with many senior managers who have been through very expensive company leadership development programmes. They understand the skills and changes required, but are often extremely apprehensive about the idea of putting them into practice in the work place.


More often than not the reason for this relates to their underlying belief system and values. So for example where a leader has succeeded up to now through an autocratic approach, he or she is unlikely to adopt a new consensual approach because someone has said it’s a better way of doing things. It requires the individual to understand the reasons why an autocratic approach is preferred, an awareness of his/her concerns about the new approach, as well as some evidence from his/her team that it will lead to an improvement in performance. Executive coaching enables these aspects to be explored and as a result the individual is more likely to contemplate the change more positively.


Executive coaching allows the individual to create a plan of how to make the change in a risk free manner and then provides ongoing support for it. I have found with my executive coaching clients that once they have tried a new behaviour, and it has worked well for them, that they have the confidence to keep going. With behavioural change I am of the view that it takes a lot of practice and requires plenty of positive support. There will be times when things go wrong and that’s just the time that a leader needs the encouragement to ‘get back on the horse and keep riding it’.


There is evidence that some companies already see the benefit of executive coaching in helping leaders transfer new behaviours into the work place (Fillery-Travis and Lane, 2007). This function of executive coaching is cited as one of the two reasons that organisations hire an executive coach. As a practising coach this also reflects my own experience.


In summary there is not one definitive answer about whether executive coaching or training is best for improving skills. It does seem to depend on the topic and whether there is a requirement for a new behaviour. Executive Coaching is a relatively expensive intervention when compared to the cost per person of a training course. However the economic argument goes out of the window if, as suggested, there is minimal transfer of skills into the work place. Recognising that in the real world costs will always be a consideration, it does seem to me that there has to be a strong argument to support leadership training with a few executive coaching sessions, at least at a senior level. This is a cost effective way of introducing new leadership behaviours from those who have most influence on the organisation. With the senior leadership team demonstrating the required behaviours there is much more chance of those further down the organisation being prepared to try out the leadership behaviours themselves after their training.



Tony Goddard


Key words; Executive Coaching, Executive Coaching Company. Training, Leadership Development

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