Coaching: What is it and does it work?

By Adrian Furnham

Business coaching is big business. Two years ago, the International Coaching Federation had 53,000 members and estimated that there were 100,000 life coaches in the world. Another estimate of note is that it is currently a Billion Dollar business, estimated to generate $1.5 billion by 2025.

It is a booming business that claims it can significantly improve an executives self-efficacy, well-being, leadership skills and goal attainment.

A business coach might charge a client anything up to £10,000 for each of six to eight meetings of a few hours. But what do they do and how are they different from various other professionals? The business question is are they a good, even an essential, investment? If so, how do you select them: i.e. by what criteria? Also, how does the process work?

Definitions and distinctions

Are coaches like counsellors or therapists? There have been many attempts to make distinctions, Consider the “C” words and their definition

Coach: A Private tutor who instructs or trains a performer or sport players. They train intensively by instructions, demonstration and practise.

Confessor: A person who gives heroic evidence of religious faith.

Confidant: One to whom secrets are entrusted.

Consultant: Usually a business expert who gives professional advice or services.

Counsellor: A person who gives professional and personal advice.

Are they different from Trainers who deal with input of knowledge, skill and behaviour; Mentors, an industry or subject matter expert who helps to carve a pathway through the organisation or Management Consultants – diagnoses & recommends solutions to organisations at a macro level on strategic & cultural issues.

There is a lot of confusion and overlap in this world. All coaches talk of the very murky boundary between business and personal life; between boardroom and family relationships; between coaching and counselling and therapy.

So, coaching has a narrower focus than counselling. Its goal is more short-term and work focused. It is not aimed at exploring and addressing more deep-seated psych-social problems: it aims to make a person more happy and productive at work.

Years ago the CIPD in the UK defined coaching thus: It consists of one-to-one developmental discussions and provides people with feedback on both their strengths and weaknesses. It is aimed at specific issues/areas and is a relatively short-term activity, except executive coaching, which has a longer time frame. It is essentially a non-directive form of development and focuses on improving performance and developing/enhancing individuals skills. It is often used to address a wide range of business issues. Coaching activities have both organisational and individual goals. It assumes the individual is psychologically healthy and does not require a clinical intervention. It works on the premise that clients are self-aware enough or can achieve self-awareness. It is time-bounded.skilled activity.

Some managers hate the idea of having a coach. Other can’t wait to get one, sometimes as a “trophy” of rank or potential, but possibly because they believe they may be useful. So why have one?

Reasons for using a coach

Being on top of the company is a desirable and the same time very hard place. Controlling all work and having a good relationship with your employees might be a challenging task. You might have success in one area but the other may be a little different for you. For growing your business it is important to find a professional business coach who will help you to succeed in leading your company and gain your business goal.

Executives have many challenges: Work overload; Time pressures and deadlines; Driving through change; Being in the Media Spot Light; Understanding the dynamics of the board; Career planning; Work-life balance; Keeping up with legal and technical change; Strategic planning; The vision thing….

Reasons given for hiring a coach include?

Loneliness: Managers can, paradoxically, be very isolated at the top. Many feel the need to share confidential ideas and insights in a safe, wise outsider. This is the role of coach as confessor.

Sounding Board: For serious difficult, mainly people decisions, many highly technical managers feel it is a good idea to “bounce off” their insights, and intuitions on a person who understands the issues.

Outsiders Perspective: Getting salient disinterested advice from a person knowledgeable but not directly part of or effected by the organisation.

Stress Reduction: Feeling able to express weaknesses, learn coping skills and how to be more resilient in general.

Education: Being taught new socio-emotional skills and ways of appraising situations

Senior executives are often in the business of modelling to executives what Kets de Vries calls, having difficult conversations. They might be asked “Are you prepared (and unafraid) to say what you honestly think and feel about other people in your organisation? Are you willing to have tough, difficult discussions about others’ work? Are you prepared to address the “elephants in the room” without being afraid of negative repercussions Do you speak your mind about performance issues that most others are tempted to avoid? Are you mentally strong enough to face your boss about difficult issues? Are you prepared to have courageous conversations to learn more about yourself?”

So what are the goals of coaching and what can you accurately and reliably measure? Level of knowledge and skill acquired; Attitude, behaviour, relationships, impact; Personal effectiveness, eg decision-making, time-management, problem-solving; Business goals achieved; Ability to take new responsibilities; Career progress: retention, managed transition; Resilience to cope with pressure, challenges.

Choosing the Business Coach/ Implications for mentoring

By what criteria should one choose a coach: reputation, price, web-site, certification? It is very difficult to know. The following lists is a good start:

Training: Has the coach had formal, independent, accredited training in coaching or are they a re-invented “professional” reliant on their own life-experience?

Experience: What is their total experience of coaching and of business in particular? How many people have they coached at what level and in what sector with what effect?

Style & Chemistry. Do they inspire trust; seem similar in energy, politics and humour. In short, do you like them and feel you could “do business with this individual”

Intellectual Framework. What is their Theoretical approach/ process. Can they explain it? Can they do any better than sone bland models like the Grow Model. Get them to explain how the process works

Measuring success. How outcomes will be measured; when, why and how? What do they think they should target and how will be know whether they have been successful? This must involved more than the coachee reporting they are more effective. Does other notice it?

Supervision. Is the coach supervised and supported by others? In other words are they a one-man band or do they have a support team

Self-Awareness How aware is the coach of his/her strengths and weaknesses. What is their motivation for doing it? Do they come across as adjusted? And why have they chosen this career?

How all therapies work

Over the years people have asked what works for whom: meaning what evidence is tthere that some intervention (counselling, therapy, training) actually works? It is a difficult and expensive question to answer. But some early work surprisingly showed that rather different types of coaching all “worked about the same” for the following four reasons:

  1. The Therapeutic alliance: Through coaching/therapy/counselling clients get acceptance, attention, care, respect and support. It is this sense of being understood and assisted that is essential to cure.
  2. Self-examination: The whole therapeutic process encourages greater self-monitoring and self-analyses which often in-and-of itself suggests solutions.
  • Morale: Clients often report being happier and more optimistic because they believe their coping mechanisms and strategies have improved and that the overcoming of their personal difficulties is possible.
  • Commitment to change: Agreeing to, and indeed attending, regular meetings/sessions voluntarily and paying for them is a reaffirmation of commitment to change and growth which is the best predictor of change.

The factors that lead to success

Why are some people coachable and others not? Why are some coaches more successful than others? Academics have tried to provide both an answer and a percentage; that is, how important each explanatory factor is.

Interestingly the four factors they have identified apply (roughly) equally to all forms of counselling, therapy, coaching or what-ever the help is called.

First, client factors. It is, in short, more important to know who (what kind of person) has “the problem” than what the problem is. This accounts for a whopping 40% of the effect. It is accurately reflected in the old joke “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one. But the light bulb needs to want to be changed.”

It’s called readiness for coaching. It is a mixture of willing and able to learn, to change, to embrace challenge. The new world is agility. The coach needs to assess and then stimulate readiness, remove barriers and resistance to moving on. Further, the professional coach needs to respond to the clients preferences. Some (they are called internalizers) want insight, others (called externalizers) want symptom-focused approaches.

Much depends on whether the client is a conscript or a volunteer; if the latter what they think they are signing up for. This is why there is a first meeting, prior to the “sign up”.

There is a bit of a paradox here. If 40% of the success of coaching comes from client dispositions then coaches can, at most, take only 60% of the credit for the magic they perform. So, it’s dangerous for the coach to develop hubris, unless of course their skill is in choosing those who can/will/want to change and grow and learn Some clients are eminently coachable (whatever much you do) and others are not. Often, those who need it most resist it most, and vice versa..

Ingredient two: the nature of relationship The coach can explore and exploit the therapeutic alliance. It’s about collaboration, consensus and support. It’s the effective and affective bond. Again, this has to be tailored to the client. It is about building and maintaining a positive, open, productive and hopefully transformative alliance. The coach therefore needs to be highly emotionally intelligent: being very sensitive to their own and the clients emotional state, but also to manage both during the relationship.

However, it should be pointed out that it is the client and not the coach’s explanation of the alliance that is important: coaches need to check this fact with their clients regularly. The distracted, fatigued or unprepared coach is a poor coach. The alliance is usually based on set and agreed goals and tasks.

The third ingredient that buys you 15% of the result is that old fashioned quality sometimes called hope, now called client expectations. It is about expectation of improvement, finding new paths to goals and “agency thinking”: the belief one can if one tries. It is also crucially about how easy and difficult and painful the process might be.

No permanent change is easy or frequent: all diets fail: only life-style changes maintain weight-loss.

Coaches speak and leak the message that successful change or progress is possible with appropriate effort and commitment. They actuate hope by credibility building at the beginning of the relationship. Clients can detect loss of faith in the project by the coach.

The final ingredient is the application of every/any theory and therapy. It accounts for 15% of the power of coaching. The use of healing rites and rituals; exercises and recommendations. The coach’s background learning and orientation influence their focus. Whilst some look at organisational competition, conflict, dominance and power, others may look at self-awareness and encourage personal SWOTS: the standard old strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats.

Theories organise observation: Freudians look for and interpret signs differently than behaviourists. Some coaches share them with their clients, others don’t. Clearly the good coach needs to know what works for whom.

But coaches also need to know about the business world and the dilemma of conflict of interests between the client and the organisation. Coaches really have to be business savvy. They need to know how to translate their insights into practical, relevant business behaviours.

The client-coach mission and relationship is a bit like the patient-therapist one. But there are differences. Typically, patients have more serious problems and poorer adjustment than business clients. Therapists work at a deeper emotional level than a coach. Therapists see more of the patient and contact is nearly always face-to-face. Coaches focus on the workplace, therapists on all aspects of functioning.

Patients often seek personal growth and alleviation of suffering, coaching clients enhanced work performance. Coaching clients seek to enhance their emotional intelligence, political prowess and their understanding of cultural differences.

So there we have it. Coaching only works if the client is able, ready and willing. It works well if the bond is good, and if the coach instils hope for change. Would an internal mentor do as well? Perhaps. But the external, unbiased, objectivity of an outside coach is often very preferable.


Everybody acknowledges that in difficult and demanding jobs, socio-emotional and informational support is invaluable. Having a “sounding board”, “critical friend”, or “wise counsellor” can make all the difference in periods of important decision making. They can also help dealing with success as much as failure. The question is how you find these people?

There are many “self-help groups” that offer this service. There is also the coaching industry. Neither are panaceas or substitutes for a good appointment, but they can make all the difference. The trick is finding the right manager-coach match at the right time.

This article was originally published on 25 August 2020.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham is Principal Behaviour Psychologist at Stamford Associates in London. He was Professor of Psychology at University College London 1981 to 2018, and now Professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo. He has written over 1300 scientific papers and 90 books.


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