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How to Succeed in the Coaching Business


by Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

Study Reveals Key Practices for Success

What is essential to a successful coaching practice or program? Research presented at the 2017 SIOP Annual Conference examined differences in orientation between those operating internal coaching programs and those with consulting practices and provides valuable insight into the specific coaching practices that lead to success.

Recognizing that coaching skill is only part of the equation, SIOP member Joel A. DiGirolamo, Director of Coaching Science for the International Coach Federation (ICF), along with his ICF colleague George Rogers and Phil Heink of Ascension Analytical, set out to identify the other activities that can help a practice or program succeed.  Their results may help guide the efforts of internal coaching program managers and external coaching practitioners.

“If it were me, and I were an external coach starting out, “I’d look at the top 5 on all those scales and see which fit me the most to see what I should do to improve,” DiGirolamo said “The same logic applies for internal coaches. I would ask myself, ‘Am I in strategic alignment with the organization? Am I monitoring the program well? and Do I have my stakeholders, my champions or sponsors lined up? Do I have my funding lined up?’  That’s what we saw in the outcomes, and I think those factors could be critical for any coach wanting to be successful.”

The results showed a basic difference in orientation between those operating internal coaching programs and those running consulting practices. The researchers found the overall theme for the external coaches was a “laser focus” on the client. Their top concerns were getting the coaching sessions, engaging with the client, making sure the client was working toward the goals, etc.

“Even when they were doing administrative things,” DiGirolamo said, “it was still in terms of following up with the client, and maybe invoicing and that sort of thing.”

Those running internal coaching programs, in contrast, focused on satisfying the organizational client. Two of the tasks rated most important were “establish a strategic business case for internal coaching” and “secure internal coaching champion or sponsor.”

 “They wanted to make sure they had stakeholders who would support them and that they had alignment with the strategic direction of the organization to make sure the program would be valued overall,” DiGirolamo said.

Those differences weren’t surprising, but what the researchers didn’t anticipate was the uniformity of survey responses. DiGirolamo said they expected to find clustering in the responses, but that didn’t materialize.

Knowing that scoring methodology can have an impact on results, DiGirolamo said he used six different scoring methods.

“And it just didn’t matter,” he added. “The results came out the same.”

That output was validated through a survey of 376 external and 110 internal coaches from several countries. The study is also interesting because of the research process used, DiGirolamo added.

“The study is actually as much a method study as it is an outcomes study,” he explained.  

DiGirolamo compared the study structure to a job analysis. The researchers began the mixed methods study working with panels of 10 external coaches and 9 internal coaches in separate two-day workshops using a DACUM (Developing A CurriculUM) process. Each workshop yielded lists of required knowledge and skills, along with six lists of tasks required to develop and maintain a program or practice. The individual scales contained a number of activities, ranging from 7 to 28 items.

The quantitative survey used the “MaxDiff” program from Sawtooth Software, an application based on the best-worst scaling method developed by Jordan Louviere in the late 1980s.

DiGirolamo took a circuitous career path to I-O psychology and learned about the MaxDiff software along the way. He started his career as an electrical engineer, then got an MBA before getting his Masters in I-O from Kansas State University. He first used the software while doing consumer research.

“As far as I know,” he said, “nobody has ever used the MaxDiff or the best-worst scaling for any kind of study like this.”

DiGirolamo says the uniformity of results, and the fact that different scoring methods didn’t materially change them, make the scales a valuable benchmark for practitioners, both internal and external. The study results with the top five activities for each scale that were presented in poster form at the SIOP Annual Conference are currently available online here.

Executive Coaching is a core topic for I-O psychology practitioners and researchers. It was the focus of the 13th Annual Leading Edge Consortium, held in Minneapolis October 20-21, 2017. Read a recap of this event here.

More information on executive coaching can also be found on the SIOP website, including several publications in the Hot Topics and Science of HR white paper series.

Connect with Joel Joel DiGirolamo, author of the current study at joel.digirolamo@coachfederation.org.