How Executive Coaching Can Help in Times of Organizational Change

If someone asked not so long ago what might happen to dramatically impact various businesses, a pandemic and worldwide lockdown probably wouldn’t be top of mind. The lockdown has led to many businesses shutting their doors, and others having to pivot and adjust to new circumstances. In a time like this, with more turmoil in organizations than what was previously considered typical, could executive coaching help executives and managers navigate organizational change? Finding an answer to this question was the main focus of an empirical study used to provide the valuable insights in this article.


The study, conducted by Grant, A. M. (2014)., was entitled The Efficacy of Executive Coaching in Times of Organisational Change.


The Context of Grant’s Study

Grant’s study was conducted in cooperation with an organization that had global capability in strategic consulting, engineering, and project delivery, which, at that time, was operating in 17 countries across Asia Pacific, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In the times leading to the study, that organization underwent several significant changes such as onboarding a new CEO after 15 years and introducing a new business-operating model that required shifts in the way various sectors operated—all while undergoing restructuring. As Grant emphasized, these organizational changes are usually a source of significant stress for employees and managers. All of this created a context in which the impact of executive coaching in times of organizational change could be studied successfully.


The participants were 38 executives as well as senior and middle managers from the organization's business units and functional areas, which covered 14 geographical locations. The coaching sessions were conducted by 14 experienced executive coaches. The coaching sessions used a cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused framework that supports the assumption that understanding the reciprocal relationship between one's thoughts, feelings, behavior, and environment—and the appropriate structuring of these four domains—best facilitates goal attainment.


The aim of the coaching program was to help participants:

  1. Meet the challenges associated with significant organizational change;

  2. Improve their leadership and management skills, and develop their personal leadership ‘brand’;

  3. Develop their ability to collaborate more with other organization’s business sectors, and;

  4. Improve their professional development and career opportunities.


Participants set two goals that they then worked on over a three- to four-month period. These individually chosen goals were closely aligned with the organization’s goals. This goal alignment between individual and organizational goals has shown to be a key facet in facilitating organization change (Thornhill et al., 2000, as cited in Grant, 2014).


Both quantitative and qualitative measures were used to collect the data. The value of this practice is in the fact that some important insights might be overlooked when using only qualitative or quantitative measures. For example, self-efficacy was mentioned in only a few qualitative statements in this study. However, quantitative measures showed that self-efficacy was a key variable which improved across the whole group. On the other hand, if qualitative measures weren't used, the broader impact of coaching on a participant’s personal life, such as better work-life balance or a greater sense of purpose, might have been overlooked. The combination of both measures enabled the overcoming of these limitations.


Quantitative measures:

  • Goal attainment - Goal Attainment Scaling (GAS)

  • Solution-focused thinking - Solution-Focused Inventory (SFI)

  • Change readiness - Coping With Change Scale

  • Leadership self-efficacy - four self-efficacy questions

  • Depression, anxiety, and stress - The Depression Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21)

  • Resilience - Cognitive Hardiness Scale (10-item version)

  • Workplace satisfaction - Workplace Well-Being Index (WWBI)

Qualitative measures:

  • Two open-ended questions

  • What specific benefits (if any) has the coaching had on your leadership abilities?

  • What specific benefits (if any) has the coaching had on other areas of your life?

A within-subject study design was used, and the measures were taken at Time 1 and Time 2 (four months later).


The Results


Source: Grant, A. M. (2014) Study
Source: Grant, A. M. (2014)

Grant's study showed that participation in the coaching program was associated with increased goal attainment. Participation in the coaching program was also associated with increased solution-focused thinking, change readiness, and leadership self-efficacy.


Furthermore, the results showed that the participants reported decreased levels of depression after participation in the program. Regarding resilience, the results demonstrated that participants had higher levels of resilience following coaching. Surprisingly, there was no significant difference between pre-coaching and post-coaching levels in reported stress, anxiety, or workplace satisfaction.


Goal Attainment

The findings of Grant’s study show that, during times of organizational change and turbulence, executive coaching might have a positive impact on achieving goals. As previously mentioned, when individual goals are aligned with organizational goals, organizational change is facilitated.


Solution-focused Thinking

The participation in coaching improved the participants’ solution-focused thinking. That finding was supported both by quantitative and qualitative data in this study.


Solution-focused thinking is vital in times of organizational change. While problem-focused thinking is a skill well-developed in many leaders, it might not be as useful in the circumstances of organizational turmoil. Problem-focused thinking is more fixated on understanding the cause of the problem, which should eventually lead to effective action.


However, when the context is quickly changing, and there is not enough time to think about the problem and understand its causes, focusing too much on it might be an issue. In such circumstances, it is necessary to focus on finding the solution and realizing how the desired state and goals can be achieved.


Successful leaders need to use both problem-focused and solution-focused thinking effectively and switch between the two depending on the needs and the circumstances.


Change Readiness and Leadership Self-efficacy

The increased change readiness in participants after they had participated in coaching indicates that executive coaching might help clients become more capable and confident when dealing with organizational change. As Grant emphasizes, such confidence is important because it is a core competence of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a significant predictor of behavioral change. According to Strauss et al. (2002), as cited in Grant (2014), leadership self-efficacy plays a vital role in motivating and engaging team members, which is particularly important during times of organizational change.


Resilience and Mental Health

Participants of the coaching program reported higher levels of resilience and decreased levels of depression, although neither was specifically targeted during the sessions. However, as people work towards their goals and overcome challenges that arise, they become more resilient. Dealing and overcoming challenges also helps them realize their strengths and become more confident in their skills and abilities, which might lower depression.


The unexpected finding was that coaching didn’t help reduce anxiety or stress in clients. However, the author explained that the levels of anxiety, stress, and depression were already in the normal range before the beginning of the process. There wasn’t a lot of room or need for improvement. Depression, even though still in the normal range, had the highest reported levels of the three, and the possibility of reduction was higher.


Workplace Satisfaction

Although it was expected that coaching would be associated with increased levels of work satisfaction, that wasn’t supported in this study. Grant explains that most items on WWBI include job satisfaction components that participants don’t have control over, such as satisfaction with workplace conditions or pay. Although workplace satisfaction wasn't targeted in the session, if the measure focused on workplace satisfaction issues that participants could control, findings might have supported the expected hypothesis.


Impact on Leadership Abilities and Other Life Areas

The qualitative data showed that coaching positively impacted the participants’ leadership abilities in various ways. Participants reported that coaching helped increase their self-awareness and clarity of thought, helped them build leadership skills and leadership brand, and achieve professional goals and better communication within the organization. It also increased their confidence and trust in the team and made them more aware of career possibilities.


Additionally, participants reported that coaching had a positive influence on their personal life. It could be concluded that they were able to take the insights they have gained during coaching and apply them to other life areas. Participants' statements showed that coaching helped them develop better work-life balance and better relationships with the family, increased their sense of purpose in life and the awareness of their personal values, and helped them feel better about themselves and life in general.


Actionable Steps

There are certain limitations to this study which might reduce the possibility of generalization, such as all participants being employed by a single commercial company or the fact that the within-subject design was used, meaning there was no control group.


However, the findings of this study are extremely valuable and might be beneficial in current circumstances. In a time like this, when there is more turmoil in organizations than what was previously considered typical, there might be a greater need for executive coaches to help individuals deal with the challenges that are occurring.


These insights might help coaches gain new perspectives or ideas when working with clients in organizations during times of organizational turbulence.


Key findings that coaches should keep in mind include:

  • Effective coaching during organizational change might increase goal attainment, and focusing on goals that are aligned with organizational goals facilitates change

  • Solution-focused thinking, which is a key skill needed in times of quick change, can be positively impacted by coaching

  • Coaching might help individuals feel more confident and capable when dealing with organizational change and increase their levels of self-efficacy, including leadership self-efficacy

  • Working towards employee goals and overcoming challenges increases resilience and might positively impact an individual’s mental health

  • Although the coaching sessions target professional life, participants are often able to take what they've learned and apply it to improve their personal lives as well


References

Grant, A. M. (2014). The Efficacy of Executive Coaching in Times of Organisational Change. Journal of Change Management, 14(2), 258-280. DOI:10.1080/14697017.2013.805159




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