Is coaching essential to the success of modern society?

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande stated “coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.” This is a radical and exciting view that could have a catalytic impact on individual growth and performance, and in turn on organizational performance and society.

We know the personal impact of coaching. We see this most often in the realm of sports – where coaches are essential to individual and team performance. On a personal level, I am a firm believer in the value of coaching. I have seen the evidence of it in my own life; coaching has been particularly valuable during times of significant personal transition. A good coach provides a safe place to reflect, to uncover mental models and assumptions that may be impacting performance or holding people back, and to spur forward movement towards goals and intentions.

Many leaders and business executives pay significant premiums for personal coaching, evidence of the importance of this growing industry. Business must be witnessing a tangible return on investment in terms of the shift in organizational performance that results from the shift in personal performance, in order to be willing to pay corporate coaching rates. So we can reasonably conclude that coaching also enhances organizational performance.

So what of the societal impact?

Organizations have a tremendous impact on society – intentionally or unintentionally, positive and/or negatively. By making the invisible more visible, and bringing more intentionality to personal and organizational performance, coaching can strengthen the societal impact of people and the organizations they work within and with. Indeed, coaching that helps people align their vision and values with their work can lead to dramatic impact improvement of organizations on society, as new energy, enthusiasm and creativity are unleashed in organizations and on things that matter to society.

The proliferation of business incubators is yet another indicator of the power of coaching and mentoring. And it is not just entrepreneurs that benefit from coaching and mentoring. Intrapreneurs within larger companies have shared with me how much they would have valued having a coach as they sought to effect change or bring new “bottom of the pyramid” focused businesses to fruition within their companies.

So with increasing evidence mounting on the power and value of coaching at the individual, organizational and societal levels, why have those involved in the social sector been slow to support coaching? Is it because resources are scarce and the return on investment is so difficult to measure? Perhaps. However, I have a feeling something deeper is at play.

In his New Yorker article, Atul Gawande states that when we talk about medical progress, “people think about technology.” This is particularly true in the social sector, and especially in global health. Those of us who have worked in global health know there are no magic bullets, and yet we can’t stop ourselves from hoping for a technological magic bullet – it would be easier to manufacture and disseminate than strengthening health systems or ensuring sustained behavior change, or so we suspect! While we intuitively understand the importance of leadership, capacity building and coaching, few investments are made to truly develop leaders or meaningfully unleash problem solving, creative and/or implementation capacity. And when those investments are made, our expectations of results and the timeline for results tend to be unrealistic.

It is possible that the quality of coaching is the problem. However Atul Gawande suggests that we are uncomfortable with the questions and implications raised by the coaching process. The “mirror effect” may be significant. Given our tendency to opt for linear solutions that appear more measurable, appear more controllable, and are easier to explain and justify to others, perhaps we do not want to see or hear the things that coaching may uncover. “The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure”, and calls into question the strategies we promote and the important elements we have not been able to move forward with for one reason or another. “For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see.”

As funders and advisors of social impact projects, will we ever be willing to cede control of the strategies and action plans that we have been party to, to allow for capacity development efforts to be truly effective? Can we accept that the path from investments in coaching to meaningful results may be winding and most effective when we are willing to let go?

As a former funder, I did my best to coach my grantees and to cede control. When it worked well, we both learned a lot and were able to play to our respective strengths. I like to think that the results showed and are still unfolding in positive ways that neither of us could have realized had we maintained control. Perhaps I am wrong. Time and my former grantees, clients and coach-ees will tell.

In the interim, I concur with Atul Gawande, “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance”.  From experience, I would go so far as saying that coaching done well not only unleashes human potential but can also lead to tangible and sustainable social change at scale.