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Executive coaches: it’s time to get real feedback from your clients! by Hélène Seiler

Happy New Year! Eighteen months into my doctoral research, I have a very intriguing question to share. Why are executive clients so conspicuously absent in the debate about executive coaching effectiveness, and what can be done to increase their share of voice?

How to define executive coaching effectiveness?

In the fifties Donald Kirkpatrick developed a model for the evaluation of training. It’s been adapted to executive coaching and it continues to be very popular. Level one of the model is the level of satisfaction of executive clients with the coaching process. It can be measured by simple surveys or more sophisticated ones such as the Working Alliance Inventory. Level two is the level of cognitive change experienced by executive clients. It can be measured by surveying their increase in self-insight or self-awareness. Level three is the level of behavioural change experienced by executive clients and those who work with them. It can be measured through 360-degree assessments. Finally, level four is the level of impact for the organisation. Some attempt to calculate a financial ROI, others use work engagement surveys or workplace wellbeing surveys.

These surveys give a large voice to the executive client, but the problem is that they all happen after the coaching is completed…so by then, it’s too late to act.

How important is the executive coach in achieving coaching success?

As early as the 1930’s psychologists theorized that the success of a treatment resided not in a specific therapeutic technique but rather in other factors that were common to all approaches. These so-called common factors include the client, the relationship, the placebo effect and the therapist’s ability to use a chosen technique. The relative importance of the common factors was quantitatively measured through several decades of research. In coaching, a similar theory was proposed. While there is much less quantitative research available to support the common factor theory, it is likely that it is applicable as well. Can you guess the weight of each of the common factors, namely the executive client, the coach-client relationship, the placebo effect and the coach ability to use a chosen technique? The answer is at the bottom of the article*. In a nutshell, a key learning from the common factor theory is that the client is paramount in achieving coaching effectiveness.

Who gives feedback to the executive coach?

Despite their crucial importance in the effectiveness of coaching, executive clients have been largely ignored by practitioners and researchers alike as purveyors of on-going feedback. This is very surprising considering that executive coaching has roots in management, where it is widely accepted that feedback creates self-awareness and motivates the recipient to display more effective behaviours. While executive coaches routinely deliver feedback to their client during a coaching session, they generally don’t think of requesting it for themselves.

Today, executive coaches receive feedback from external observers through assessment centres or supervision sessions. While the emergence of supervision is to be applauded, it still does not give a real voice to the executive client. It is only the coach’s account of the client experience that is explored in a supervision session.

So, we have competency-based assessments. They are based on the principle that an evaluation of observed behaviours will support the review or prediction of performance. So far, so good. But the evaluation is based on a certain model, or a set of assumptions that certain observed behaviours will be effective. Fifteen coach accrediting bodies exist worldwide, each promoting a different model, none of which incidentally is grounded in rigorous research. External assessors will typically pledge allegiance to one of these models. They will tend to test compliance with their model of choice, and they will pay less attention to the needs of the executive client. In addition executive coaches in supervision may rely too much on their supervisors’ models in their conversations, which might increase the distortion in their recollection of the client voice.

This would be fine if the voices of the assessors, the coach and the executive client were singing in unison. Unfortunately, Erik de Haan, a coaching scholar and trainer, demonstrated that while executive clients and coaches tend to identify similar critical moments in coaching, external assessors do not agree with them and emphasize other moments that were not significant for the client. In two other studies, researchers compared the assessments of a coaching expert, a coach, and a client. The expert ratings were consistently lower than those of client and of the coach.

Why is it so difficult to come up with a unified way of assessing executive coaches?

The slow progress towards convergence may have its roots in the very nature of what executive coaching is. It is by nature multidisciplinary. It emerged from a number of different disciplines including, but not limited to psychology, existentialist philosophy, management, systems thinking and organization development. It has yet to possess a unifying theory. Since existing competency models and the description of what “right coaching is” have been developed for the most part, by surveying the perspective of practitioners, each coming from a different, and sometimes unacknowledged, theoretical stance, it has been very difficult to come together.

Can executive clients give effective feedback to their coach?

The research I have found does an interesting job of surveying client’s observations and judgments of utility of the coach’s competencies, based on a description of the outcomes they experienced during the session. However, we learn almost nothing about what the coach did or said to produce this outcome. There are rare exceptions. For example, the Australian Coaching Research Institute runs an on-going coaching outcome survey administered to volunteer coaches and clients. Recent results show that the three coach behaviours which have the strongest correlation with overall satisfaction are questioning, clarifying and inviting to expand the range of choices.

Feedback theory teaches us that, to be effective, it must be grounded in behavioural observations. This means that clients need to recognize which coaching behaviours have the most impact on them. Recent research shows that clients are struggling to do this unless they have been exposed to coaching long enough. One of my supervisors, Adrian Myers, conducted a fascinating investigation of the client experience of a coaching session. He found out that the client tended to interpret the actions of the coach positively even if it felt awkward or ineffective in the moment. When probed about moments when they sensed that the interaction was going well, clients had difficulty pinpointing exactly what the coach had done to such effect. Erik de Haan also noted the client’s difficulty in identifying specific interventions or behaviours of the coach leading up to or during a critical moment. Charles Jones, a recent graduate of Oxford Brookes doctoral programme, observed a shift in the client understanding of what coaching is as the process moves along. For example, a novice client expects the coach’s behaviours to be limited to sharing experience and giving recommendations. More experienced clients put emphasis on the importance of building a relationship and the coach effectiveness at promoting it.

What would an effective feedback process look like?

What could accelerate the learning curve of executive clients, allowing them to deliver effective feedback to their coach as early as possible into the coaching process? Many clients rave about the magic and the dance of coaching. Coaches love the term and talk about the art of coaching. I love the term too, but I truly believe that we need two artists. It’s a duet, not a solo. To make art, we need two scientists.

I am hoping that the feedback instrument that I will attempt to build over the next few months will contribute to giving executive clients a voice commensurate to their role in achieving coaching effectiveness. If you are interested in participating in the research which will kick-off in the next few weeks, please reach out. My doctoral student email is

*(40, 30, 15, 15)

Hélène Seiler, CSA Asia Pacific Graduate

Doctoral Student in Coaching and Mentoring

Oxford Brookes University