The practice of coaching as a tool for work force and leadership development has gained popularity in recent years. In theory, coaching asks supervisors to spend more time giving constructive, individualized feedback on performance to subordinates, rather than barking orders and sending their troops to boot-camp training programs. Does this softer style of leadership produce hard results?
Three researchers believe so. Ritu Agarwal and Corey M. Angst, professor of information systems and research assistant professor, respectively, at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, along with Massimo Magni, assistant professor of organization and MIS at Bocconi University, studied the sales force of a multinational manufacturer whose managers had undergone a two-day coaching workshop in 2003. They found that instilling a coaching culture in the sales organization paid dividends.
Three months after the workshop, the researchers surveyed salespeople to find out if their sales managers spent more time coaching them — and whether that coaching produced results. Sure enough, those salespeople who reported more intense coaching from their sales managers also reported real performance improvements over the time period.
Thus, Agarwal concludes, “You will get a significant boost in productivity and performance when your supervisor employs a coaching culture.” In fact, the differences in coaching represented 36% of the differences in reported performance among surveyed salespeople. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that means there would be a 36% [boost in productivity],” adds Agarwal. “But coaching works well, because coaching is set up to address specific performance deficiencies or gaps, as opposed to general purpose training.” Coaching’s benefits remained even when controlling for salespeople’s level of job satisfaction — often thought to be a determinant of employee performance.
In their February 2006 working paper, “The Performance Effects of Coaching: A Multilevel Analysis Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling,” the authors distinguish between developmental coaching — the focus of the study — and executive coaching. “Executive coaching is a different brand of coaching and requires a different type of coach,” says Agarwal. Developmental coaching empowers a supervisor to address specific individual knowledge gaps, such as a better understanding of how a widget works or why invoicing is done a certain way. Nevertheless, “When you get to the senior level, you are talking . . . less about functional knowledge, and more about behaviors,” says Agarwal.