Book review: what works in executive coachinG

De Haan, Erik. (2021). What Works in Executive Coaching: Understanding Outcomes Through Quantitative Research and Practice-Based Evidence. Routledge.


In 2019 I completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Executive Team Coaching at HultAshridge where Erik is Director of the Ashridge Centre for Coaching.

I have completed the Foundations in Coactive Coaching and am not a formally certified coach.

It needs to be said from the outset that this book is for the research, academic and theory based nerds amongst us. Those looking for a “how to coach” book will be disappointed. Readers however will be rewarded with a journey into the research literature that examines the arguments and evidence behind the use of executive coaching.

Coaching is experiencing a boom, and as such there is an ever growing body of research into the field, coaching practices and techniques. As with all research, some is better than others. Erik’s book pays close attention to the quality of the research out there and draws conclusions based on those articles which meet a pretty high standard. 

It is not my intention to provide a précis of the book. I would not do Erik’s work justice. Rather what I would like to do is share what jumped out at me as I worked through the various research references.  Following Erik’s format of starting each chapter with controversies, it may be so that this review suffers from confirmation bias. As I read through the various chapters, articles and summaries, I caught myself seeking out findings that were inline with either my own style or held beliefs about coaching. 

The book aims to explore the following questions:

  • Does executive coaching work?
  • What works in executive coaching?
  • Is the coaching relationship the best predictor for success or impact?
  • Which outcomes does coaching actually deliver?
  • What perceptual biases my be at play? Can we trust a coach’s perception of coaching?
  • What about the negative side effects of coaching?

I actually want to begin well into the book where Erik provides what I feel to be a great description of coaching. “Coaching is a highly personal and ‘holistic’ intervention, which should flex seamlessly around the wide-ranging needs, challenges, and objectives of the coachee and even the coachees organisation. Through reflection these needs, challenges, and objectives are explored in terms of meanings, origins, and still deeper-lying issues and needs” (p. 122).

I find this statement powerful on a number of levels:

  • Despite some certification processes, there is no single approach to coaching that works.
  • As a coach, we need to be present and situationally aware to the needs of the coachee and their organisation
  • Organisations need to acknowledge that coaching results will differ widely between participants in any coaching programme.

Now to some of the findings that jumped out at me:

I, and I am sure many others, are pleased to discover that “large scale randomised controlled trials … agree that coaching works” (p.37). Sigh of relief. Although the challenge is in how such effectiveness is measured. 

Things get really interesting when we move into the question of what works in executive coaching. Again, putting aside that much of the research measures effectiveness on self rated assessments, what I found interesting was the following (in no particular order):

Reputation and status of the coach matter…a lot according to Sue-Chan and Latham (2004), even if they are not necessarily a skilled coach. Having an academic background in psychology was also positively related to executive coaching effectiveness. (p74) 

There is little or no distinction amongst a wide spectrum of specific coaching interventions or types of coaching. They all correlated significantly with a positive outcome. Coachees don’t make much of a distinction between the various coaching approaches. Rather they assessed coaching behaviours or common coaching factors. Let the debate between coaching schools continue… (p45-46, 75). 

On the subject of virtual coaching, which has expanded during Covid-19, there have already been a few studies conducted. It appears that telephone coaching is as good as face to face and can be more practical for clients. (p72-73). My own experience of coachees in a corporate environment has been that our coaching sessions are squeezed in amongst the relentless back to back Zoom / Teams calls. Either coachees are not fully prepared for our sessions or it takes long for them to become truly present. An advantage is that it does make coaching more accessible to a wider group of individuals.

I found some of the findings on coachee preparedness and pre-coaching motivation fascinating. (p79-80). In particular that “the coachees learning goal orientation (focus on development & mastery) correlated with a positive outcome, whilst performance goal orientation (focus on achieving goals and comparison with others) did not.” Going forward, I will work with corporate clients to encourage them to have participants invest time upfront on shaping their development goals ahead of kicking off the coaching. These can then be refined as we go.

Reflecting on my own coaching stance, I valued the discussion on the research showing that coaches develop perceptual biases when looking at their own skills and the accompanying Heron model of counselling and coaching behaviours (p135-136). This forced me to pause and consider where am I most comfortable. Whilst I believe I can employ all behaviours, I do have a tendency for challenge & push – something I need to be more conscious of. 

In summary, a valuable book to browse, even if you don’t read every review of every piece of research. The above is just the tip of the coaching iceberg. The findings are thought provoking and I feel will help me better scope and shape the coaching element of development programmes with my corporate clients.

So, do yourself a favour, buy the book and enjoy the read!  


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