Learning and development professional Susannah Baldwin has been satisfied with her track record of late. One of her students, a senior director, was recently promoted. Another was moved to lead a different part of the organization.
But Baldwin, a leadership development veteran with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, isn’t an in-house practitioner or a training manager. She’s an executive coach.
Coaching, traditionally associated with athletics, is taking the executive education world by storm. In a 2012 study by the International Coach Federation, or ICF, the coach credentialing body said there were 41,300 active business coaches worldwide, with North America representing about a third of them. The study also estimated the industry’s annual revenue at about $2 billion — a pittance compared to other industries, but noteworthy considering the industry’s youth.
Coaching is increasingly being used in executive education, shaking off the method’s reputation as a fix for remedial performance problems. In a 2012 survey from executive coaching firm CoachSource, 97 percent of organizations reported using coaching for leadership development. Thirty-five percent said they use it to fix performance, and 42 percent said it’s used for executive transition.
A number of factors powered executive development’s shift toward coaching. For starters, most coaching is personalized; individuals are given targeted learning to address specific skills gaps. Also, the one-on-one nature of a coaching relationship provides a sense of trust and engagement that other learning mediums may not be able to — a boon, experts say, when the goal is to change behaviors.
Executive coaching is also convenient. At the pace most executives move, coaching sessions can spread out over months and happen over the phone. The learning content is also the job content as coaches help address real-time issues. Instead of taking a weeklong retreat for soft skills development in a classroom, coaching provides constant feedback without taking extensive time away from the job.
This is especially the case in the high-tech industry, where Baldwin, based in San Francisco, does most of her work. As the tech industry grows, technical skill-based youngsters are increasingly being asked to lead public or soon-to-be-public companies with little formal business leadership experience.
“You go to Twitter, you’ve got a million senior directors who are 29 years old, don’t know jack about leading,” Baldwin said. “… It’s much easier for a hiring manager to just insert someone into their process and help them with the flow of their work.”
But coaching is not as much an alternative to executive education as it is a supplement. Many coaches, practitioners and executive education experts say coaching is most effective when used as a situational tool for high potential or top-level executive officers. Instances where coaching is applied to broad employee populations, while effective for some, are generally few and far between.
Of course, not all executives are receptive to coaching. And forced coaching, experts say, is a waste of time and money. “It’s not a quick fix,” said Kathleen Sack, senior director of talent and organizational development at the American Red Cross. “It’s not like sewing a button on a jacket.”