Does coaching help to bring career development?

Coaching is a goal-oriented change process by used by the human resource departments increasingly for purposes such as leadership and career development for employees. The assumption behind this practice is that professional development translates to organisational development. The global coaching market was worth $2.849 billion U.S. dollars in 2019 having grown 21% since 2015 according to International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) global study 2020. In practice, a coaching process takes place usually between two individuals: coach, who constructs question based discussions with the coaching subject, coachee, to empower coachee to create and follow-up strategies for meeting the pre-set coaching goals.

How does it work then? Ideally, coaching questions reveal the potential buds for personal growth. Hardly any of us work in isolation, thus our personal growth has likely effects on our inner drive, ways of working and people we work with. However, finding solid, scientific evidence of this link between coaching and career development is still hard to find.

In career research, career development is often observed and known as  career capital. Career capital concept is defined to consist of three ways of knowing: “knowing how”, “knowing why”, and “knowing whom” (DeFillippi and Arthur, 1994) and has been confirmed by several scholars (Suutari and Mäkelä, 2007, Dickmann and Harris, 2005; Inkson and Arthur, 2001). One of these three pillars of knowing  refer to individual’s skills, competences and knowledge as “knowing how” (DeFillippi and Arthur, 1994, Dickmann and Harris, 2005). “Knowing why” on the other hand relates to self-awareness of identify, choices, motivation, and energy (DeFillippi and Arthur, 1994, Inkson and Arthur, 2001), whereas “knowing whom” refers to social network relevant to coachees’ career (DeFillippi & Arthur, 1994).

Dickmann and Harris (2005) suggested that coaching and mentoring could enhance career capital in the context of global careers. Why then is coaching not used more widely for career development purposes? The respondents of the ICF’s Global Study 2020 saw three major obstacles in its wider adoption: limited support from senior leaders (50%), inability to measure impact of coaching (42%) and the lack of budget for coaching activities (38%). Without evidence, the support and budget from the senior leaders is likely to remain difficult.

To find empirical evidence of coaching impact from the systematic literature review of 49 peer-reviewed articles on coaching, I mapped 21 articles that presented evidence of career development building in one or more pillars of the career capital concept. “Knowing whom” pillar however did not appear to be directly impacted by coaching in these articles. Outside the mapped studies, similar finding has been concluded in Salomaa’s (2017) study on international careers, despite the research result that “knowing whom” appears to play an important role in long-term global careers (Makela and Suutari, 2009). On the other hand, these pillars have not been specifically measured either when gathering evidence of the coaching impact. Salomaa’s study is the only one of its kind so far studying career capital development through coaching; yet it was based on narrative analysis of general coaching benefits rather than on systematic questions testing the career capital development.

Within the mapped studies, impact of coaching towards “knowing how” and “knowing why” becomes evident in the study of Wales (2002) which shows that the coaching of leaders leads to substantial increase in the effectiveness of the links between self-development, management development and organisational effectiveness. Subsequently, the studies of Thach (2002), Luthans and Peterson (2003), Smither et al (2003), Fielden et al. (2009), Fischer and Beimers (2009), Grant et al. (2009), Nieminen et all. (2013), Anthony (2017) all showed coaching to improve leadership competence, e.g. “knowing how” and “knowing why”. Having said that, positive leadership development also appears to improve the leader’s social behaviour and thus have the “knowing whom” aspect linked to it. Therefore, drawing from the existing empirical research on coaching, “knowing whom” (among other pillars) deserves a specific study to test the strength of coaching as a relevant human resources tool to increase the career capital.