Management & Leadership

How coaching can bring about organisational change

Oct 20, 2017
Corporate Coaching

If used correctly, coaching is a powerful tool for organisational change. Pro coach John Paisley shares lessons on what helps – and what hinders – the process.

Key takeaways

  • If correctly applied, coaching is a powerful tool for organisational change.
  • Formal intervention is generally the most effective type of organisational coaching.
  • A set coaching strategy and model, together with overall commitment to the process, ensures the best results.
  • The agenda and methods of evaluation, feedback and reporting, as well as the management process should all be decided upfront.
  • A lack of commitment, understanding, coordination and trust, as well as resistance to investing in people, can all hinder the success of a coaching programme.

While not a silver bullet, coaching can be a powerful tool for change in organisations. “But,” says Procoaching’s John Paisley, “As with all tools, it needs to be used correctly.”

As a teacher, lecturer, and learning and leadership specialist who has been involved in education, training and development for more than 30 years, Paisley has undertaken numerous coaching interventions. Here, he shares the lessons on what helps and what hinders…

Broadly, business coaching can be grouped into three categories:

1. Random: Where individuals in an organisation find their own coaches and set off on their own journeys.

2. Pool: Where the organisation has a process to create a pool of coaches from which individuals can select their own coach. There is seldom much coordination to this process.

3. Formal intervention: Where a team of coaches is matched with clients and they set off on a shared journey, with common outcomes in a coordinated process.

From my experience, it is the last category of coaching – formal intervention – that is the most effective in achieving organisational outcomes and a positive return on investment.

What works best?

Formal intervention is best achieved when the following are in place:

A coaching strategy, policy and framework

The process of developing these within the organisation ensures that the coaching process is thoroughly understood. Often, employers and employees lack an understanding of the coaching process, and indeed may have their own agendas. The link between coaching outcomes and the business and human resources strategies should be clear and aligned.

A coaching model

The model for designing an effective coaching process developed by Professor David Lane, co-founder of the International Centre for the Study of Coaching at Middlesex University, is a great one. It lists five critical issues to be considered in the design:

1. Outcomes: What do the organisation’s leaders want to achieve as a consequence of the coaching process? Do they want to grow the business’s bottom line? Or are they more invested in growing talent? Perhaps they want to improve leadership or teamwork, or retain talent. Or maybe they’re after a cultural change. Once the goals have been clarified an evaluation process can be designed to determine if the outcomes have been achieved – and, if necessary, a return on investment calculated.

2. Context: What is the environment in which the coaching process will play out? What is the corporate culture like? And what commitment is in place for growth and change? Practical consideration such as locations, numbers of clients, languages, and so on will play a role.

3. Clients: Who are the coachees and how ready are they for coaching? Are they senior execs, in special fields, or with special needs? The more information that can be gathered about the prospective clients, the better they can be matched with the appropriate coaches. In this way, the coach can help the organisation select the coachee for both business and individual effectiveness.

4. Coaches: Which coaches will be suitable for the intervention? What qualifications do they have and what previous work have they done? What approach will they use? Choosing the right coach for the job is key.

5. Coaching process: This is ultimately where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Ideally, coachees should volunteer and be ready for the process; the more they are prepared, the sooner coaching is effective and change evident. In my experience, a formal process comprising a launch function, a workshop to prepare for coaching (together with a number of workshops during the programme), and a series of coaching sessions, starting with two a month over the first six months and one a month for the last six months – in other words, a 12-month, 18-session programme – yields the best results. Coaches are expected to have individual supervision, but group supervisions are held to share themes that run through the coaching. These themes are then fed back to the organisation for actioning.


It is worth spending time building commitment to the coaching process. As Margaret Wheatley, an American management consultant who studies organisational behaviour, says: “People support what they create and resist what they are excluded from”. In particular, it is important that the coachee’s manager is informed and committed. Failure is close to certain if the manager does not support the coachee by making time available, expecting and supporting change, and showing an interest.

Before starting

There are other important decisions that need to be made before coaching can kick off:

A free or fixed agenda? Is the agenda to be fixed by the organisation or is it free for the coachee to set? It is possible to have a “mixed agenda” – the organisation wants, say, three business goals, ones that are aligned with company strategy – to be set, agreed and reported on. The coachee, in turn, is also free to set three personal goals, which remain confidential.

Evaluation and measurement. While many organisations want any intervention measured, they often seem reluctant to undertake the work themselves. If there is to be an evaluation, the starting point needs to be set so that it can be measured at the end to determine the change. Some data, such as churn rate, is relatively easy to collect. Some is more challenging – measuring leadership development, for example, usually depends on subjective 360s. I use a modified version of the Kirkpatrick Model, a worldwide standard for evaluating the effectiveness of training, which considers the value of any type of training, formal or informal, across four main levels: Reaction, Learning, Behaviour and Results.

Feedback and reporting. Given the confidential nature of coaching, the feedback provided to the organisation needs to be agreed upfront. What feedback will be provided and how and when will it be provided? Monthly reports are the norm.

Coordination. Depending on the number of coaches, coachees and others involved, coaching interventions can be complex. The organisation needs to have a dedicated coordinator and the coaching service provider needs to have an efficient project manager. From invoicing and payments to travel, venues and materials, the smooth running of logistics is only possible with efficient coordination.

The coaching team. Interestingly, I’ve found that the coaching model used by coaches is actually not as important as the quality of the coaches themselves. Yes, it helps if a common coaching language or framework is used, but it’s more essential that the coaches involved be reliable, inventive, professional and able to work as a team. Supervision is also important – its power to improve the quality of the coaching offering is indisputable.


There are a number of factors that can hinder the success of any coaching programme. These include:

A lack of commitment. Ideally, the programme should have the support of the organisation’s leaders – they should talk coaching, encourage change, and make resources available. When commitment is absent a counter current results with both coaches and coachees left feeling like they’re swimming upstream.

A lack of understanding.  Some people expect immediate results from the coaching process. Others don’t understand the nature of confidentiality and demand private information. And for many, it is difficult to accept that people might leave the company as a direct consequence of having undergone coaching.

Resistance to investing in people. I have never understood the logic that invests millions in buildings, machinery or IT systems but skimps on investing in the people who run them. The bottom line: coaching is expensive but cutting corners is simply counterproductive.

A lack of coordination. Coaching programmes crash and burn if they are not effectively managed. Sensitive management – knowing when structure is important, and when to let it go – is also key.

A lack of trust. While a clear agreement and contract between client and supplier is obviously vital, so is trust. A good deal of time should be spent on collaboration and “being on the same page”, thus avoiding the creation of accidental adversaries. As in the nature of coaching itself, relationships are the name of the game.

Are you interested in becoming a coach? The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a range of coaching courses, all accredited by the International Coach Federation (ICF) and aligned with COMENSA. For more information, enquire now.

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