Executive coaching: a scientific review

This post focuses on an academic journal article entitled “Executive Coaching:  A review and Agenda for Future Research” (Feldman & Lankau, 2005).

I chose this article for two reasons: first, it was in a prestigious publication and second, it has been cited (referenced by other authors in other publications) over 500 times.  Below is my summary of the article in my (hopefully, easy to read) words.

Executive coaching kicked off proper-like in the 1990s, targeting mid and senior-level managers.  The aim of coaching was to change managers behaviours, at a time that management failure rate was argued to be around 50% (poor sods, I feel their pain).  When this article was published, less than 20 academic studies had been undertaken on executive coaching, despite tens of thousands of executive coaches offering their services in America alone.

What is executive coaching?

Executive coaching is commonly understood to be the “process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective”.

Perhaps more importantly, executive coaching is not:

  • Developing technical expertise,
  • Mentoring,
  • Advising,
  • Therapy.

Who coaches?

woman more than menIt would seem that every person and their dog are equipped to coach, in that there is a serious lack of regulation (read none) for executive coaches.

In terms of the demographics of who coaches, few studies had been done at the time of this publication.  The studies that did exist found that highly educated folks often coach: 90% of coaches surveyed had master’s degrees and 45% had a doctorate.  Another study showed 71% of coaches were woman and coaches had an average age of 49 years.

In terms of what clients want in coaches, one study stressed – psychology training, business acumen, established reputation, listening skills and professionalism.

Who is being coached?

Coachees were usually CEO level or one below.  Other professionals were being coached too including; lawyers, architects, and doctors.  Around half of coachees sought coaching themselves, the other half had it organised by their employer.

But what are the outcomes?

This hurts me a bit …. rigorous academic articles are massively outweighed by practitioner ones on the topic of coaching effectiveness.  No surprises … the practitioner ones wax rhapsodic about the beauty and glory of coaching (maybe I should be reviewing them?).

It gets worse – my reading of the summaries of the (independent scientific) studies that do exist on coaching effectiveness is; they are all a bit rubbish (double ouch).  One reasonably sound study did show improved ratings by others a year after coaching.  This is encouraging as most of the others, showed only increased self-assessed performance.

How is coaching done?

The following approaches were discussed:

  • Psychodynamic approach: This is all a bit deep and tell-me-about-your-mother-ish (note: don’t try this at home without the proper training).
  • Cognitive therapy approach: The cognitive approach is more present-focused and future-oriented (and less tell-me-about-your-mother-ish) than the psychodynamic approach.
  • Person-centered approach: This approach is about taking personal responsibilities for work situations. It depends on a strong and empathetic coaching relationship.
  • Systems-oriented approach: This (complex) approach asserts the executive’s behaviours can only be considered within the larger systems in which they operate.


I have to say … I am not sure I or any of my coaching buddies fit nicely into any one of these boxes, and I also think many boxes are missing.  I would describe my coaching approach as person, systems, and tools oriented, with a dash of intuition, flexibility, and swinging-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-ness.  I try and stay well away from my client’s mothers (although I have coached a friends’ mother if that counts).


The authors of this review conclude by stating that the coaching literature has something of a ‘black box’ feel to it.  I’m not surprised.  I am a coach and a researcher – my clients tell me I make a difference, however coaching all feels a bit ‘black box’ to me too.

References and notes

This blog is part of a series on the scientific research behind executive coaching.  I understand that scientific research is inaccessible, due to costs to: access, time to read, and let’s face it the language is often a bit obscure and the structure tedious.  I see it a bit like gold mining and am committed to sifting through these tomes for my coaching practice and your benefit.

Feldman, D. C., & Lankau, M. J. (2005). Executive coaching: A review and agenda for future research. Journal of Management, 31(6), 829-848.

Picture Credits: Nandhu Kumar (pexels), Marily Torres (pexels), Skitterphoto.com



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