So let me take a slightly different tack by saying that ROI is not a truly meaningful calculation for determining a coaching initiative's value. The relationship between changes in how people think, feel, believe, and behave – which is the stuff of coaching – and the changes that occur to a company's bottom line, is indirect, at best. There are just too many variables at play to assume that any one – even if it's coaching – is solely the reason. Attribution at that level of specificity is make-believe.
Consider other confounding variables in calculating the ROI of coaching.
Like time. Let's say that you calculate the ROI for a coaching engagement two weeks after it ends. Now let's say that 45 days later the executive coached initiates a major project that significantly improves next year's financial results. Is that impact likely to be attributed to the coaching? Probably not. Should it be, though? But what if it's 60 days later? 90? What if it's 3 years down the line? That sort of thing can happen when people think, feel, believe, and behave differently than they once did.
Or how about downstream impact? Let's say a sales executive (who received coaching) has what she thinks is an excellent conversation with a sales director and, lo and behold, revenues increase. Is it because of the coaching? Is it because one of the director's manager hired a stronger salesman because of a conversation with the sales director that resulted from a conversation the director had with the VP who was coached? Or maybe it was because the salesman just happened to contact a perfect prospect at the perfect time. Or that new Salesforce CRM system you installed. You have the financial deltas to calculate a Return, but what's the right Investment to attribute it to?
But before concluding that coaching provides NO 'capturable' benefit, let's look at a few independent, fact-based, methodologically-valid, research studies:
In 2009, Grant, Frith, & Burton conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) evaluating executives provided with 360-degree feedback and just four coaching sessions for over a ten week period. In doing so, they proved that coaching enhanced goal attainment, resilience, and workplace well-being and helped participants deal more effectively with organizational change. How much more? A statistically significant amount more.
In 2008, Spence, Cavanagh, & Grant (2008) conducted a RCT evaluating adults taking part in mindfulness-based health coaching over eight weeks. They proved that coaching enabled greater goal attainment than using an educative/directive format (which is how company's typically 'teach' their people). How much greater? A statistically significant greater amount.
In 2007, Spence & Grant conducted a RCT of adults participating in a Solution Focused/Cognitive Behavioral (SF/CB) life coaching program (not unlike the type of coaching that's typically part of an executive coaching initiative). In doing so, they proved that professional coaching was significantly more effective than peer coaching in increasing goal commitment, significantly more effective than peer coaching in goal attainment, and significantly more effective than peer coaching in environmental mastery.
And in 2006, Green, Oades & Grant conducted a RCT of adults taking part in SF/CB life coaching program that proved that coaching increased goal attainment, increased well-being, and increased hope – and that a 30-week follow-up found that those gains were maintained.
Is executive coaching expensive? Yes. Is it TOO expensive? I actually believe it is. But that's a separate issue.
As to the issue of how to evaluate the success of your engagement objectively? My answer is don't even try. Instead, I suggest that you hold the executives who've been through the process to a higher level of performance. Raise the bar for them, as it were – post-coaching – in whatever ways you feel will benefit the company best. And then see how they do. Let THAT be your litmus. And if you start seeing too little continued growth/performance across the board, you'll do well to factor in whatever things you typically factor when evaluating an executive's performance level...and consider cutting back on coaching, regardless of any ROI figures you might have calculated along the way.