How Technology Is Transforming Executive Coaching

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Years ago, executive coaching was stigmatized as “remedial help for underperformers.” More recently, it’s transformed into an elite, high-cost activity, often reserved for the highest-status executives.

But in both cases — whether helping the worst or the best performers — executive coaching has been inherently small scale, due to its bespoke, one-on-one nature. Organizations have increasingly embraced the idea of internal leaders providing more coaching to their direct reports.

Now, technology is now making it possible for far greater numbers of employees to benefit from outside executive coaching at scale. At a basic level, platforms are making it easier to find and select a coach, to do long-distance coaching via video conferencing — or potentially even holoportation in the future — and to manage the administration involved.

Additionally, some “coaching tech” has enabled coaching conversations without the involvement of a human at a much lower cost. Bots allow people to ask questions, work on simulation challenges, and practice their skills in competitive games. Technology and AI permit this to happen anytime and anywhere. Some companies, such as Axa and IBM, are encouraging their adoption to provide large-scale access to coaching.

But perhaps the biggest impact of technology will come from how it enables individual executive coaches (or leaders who act as coaches) to better connect with and serve their clients. This will help to supplement their powers of recall, observation, interpretation, visualization, and encouragement. There are four key areas where technology can transform the act — and the impact — of coaching. In many cases, the tech solutions have emerged from applications in other contexts, such as sports coaching and customer research.

  • Monitor progress towards goals against a clear baseline. Technology can help to create a single view of the client’s context, capabilities, and self-awareness by collating the output of psychometric tests (e.g. Big Five personality traits, MBTI, Firo-B) and feedback. It can then help to track progress against goals agreed upon at the beginning of the program and capture notes of the discussions.
  •  Build a richer picture of what the client is saying (and not saying). Apps can generate recommendations on what an individual or team can do to improve their communication skills. Sometimes an individual doesn’t say what they think or feel, whether as a conscious decision or not. Interpreting facial expressions, eye movements, and physiological changes may give additional insights into a client’s interest, emotional state, or commitment to a course of action.
  • Develop options based on scenarios, simulations, and extrapolations. Virtual reality, with gamification, avatars, and holograms, can help the coachee visualize future scenarios using softwares. This is an approach that is already being used in sports. AI algorithms can also suggest lines of inquiry based on an analysis of previously recorded conversations or those of other coachees, suitably anonymized. This approach has been adopted in other aspects of corporate life, such as customer call centers.
  • Use “nudges” to encourage and reinforce target behaviors. Some platforms distribute personalized recommendations for articles, podcasts, videos, and events to this effect.

Of course there are perils to avoid. Too much technology could impede the efficacy and experience of coaching. Coachees could become overly dependent on the answers provided by a bot. Coaches and coachees may hold back, editing what they say for fear of how the app will use their information. The coach may feel overloaded with information, which could result in inertia or confusion.

But in many instances (think humans and chess), we’ve seen that the mix of human and machine insight is superior to either alone. It may even become harder to coach without technology as its application increases. Coachees will expect it over time, not least because AI and analytics are playing more prominent roles in their lives, from Netflix recommendations to AI-enhanced customer service. Indeed, there are some scenarios in which people prefer the judgement of algorithms to that of humans — for example, when they are given advice in response to a question.

Coaches have always sought to help their clients improve. Moving forward, strategically applying technology — alongside their own judgment, warmth, and integrity — will be an increasingly important way for them to do so.