Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of resources were published in 2016 alone reviewing the benefits of executive coaching – in peer-reviewed journals, in personal and business blog posts, and in the media. In recent years, coaching has become a buzzword, something that many organizations offer to employees who are identified as having a high potential to succeed.

Despite its popularity, executive coaching is often misunderstood in terms of how it differentiates from performance management and other leadership development offerings. The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment.”

As a development process, it can be hard to define what coaching is as it happens largely behind closed doors. The coaching process is highly personal, and structured to meet the needs of both the leader taking part as well as the sponsoring organization. Different leaders focus on different goals; different approaches or methodologies are effective for different leaders; and different coaches are needed for different leaders.

In seeking to understand more about executive coaching directly from its providers, a team from the Harvard Business Review developed an online questionnaire that was distributed to coaches and consultants throughout the country. The 140 individuals who responded to the survey provided feedback and insight into their own practices and the realities of coaching. In reviewing the feedback from the survey, there are three factors that are critical to the success of a coaching engagement:

Coaching Engagement

Level of motivation of the executive. According to the survey, executives who get the most out of coaching are those with a fierce willingness to learn and evolve – these individuals are often referred to as “coachable.” I frequently use Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change, also called the transtheoretical model, to assess an individual’s readiness to engage in intentional behavior change. In this model, there are five stages ranging from pre-contemplation (not intending to take action, may be unaware that their behavior is problematic) to maintenance (have made overt and conscientious changes and are actively working to prevent relapse of ineffective behaviors). Leaders who are motivated and prepared to make changes are more likely to advantage of the opportunities offered in coaching.

Chemistry between coach and leader. The relationship and dynamic between the coach and the leader is critical to ensuring success. Allowing the leader the opportunity to meet several coaches in person, or to consider their biographies, allows the leader to make the determination of which coach is best suited to working with them. There are many factors that are involved chemistry on the part of the coach – background, advanced degrees or training, expertise or niche, etc. This alliance will allow the coach and leader to build trust and rapport.

Commitment from top management to developing the leader. The final key element to a successful coaching engagement is support and commitment from the organization. There must be a desire to develop and retain the leader who is taking part in coaching; at the same time, there must be alignment on the goals and objectives that the leader is undertaking during the coaching program. Conversations with key stakeholders, such as the leader’s manager or Human Resources business partner, ensure buy-in and support.

These elements are just three of the many factors that are critical to support the coaching engagement. Others include utilizing appropriate assessments to understand personal leadership capabilities and environmental dynamics; creating an individual develop plan with actionable or SMART goals; and having an underlying methodology or process to follow, with milestones to track progress.

What other factors have you found to be important? Please share in the comments below!