US companies spend over $70 billion annually on training and development expenses, ranging from in-person seminars to online programs. Only a small percentage of individuals, however, have access to the customized services of an executive leadership coach. The costs of individual coaching are so high (up to $3,500 hourly) that only a select few can access and benefit from the service for their leadership development and career growth.
Does everyone actually need a live executive coach to reap the benefits of executive coaching? With the growing sophistication of various Internet technologies, we are poised in the near future to see a significant sea change (even a full blown “disruption”) of the executive coaching industry. Since a core principle of executive coaching is that individuals can (and should) proactively drive their own personal and professional growth, the field is well suited for the introduction of technologies that empower various forms of self-directed learning at a substantially reduced price point for workers at all levels in companies and organizations.
Most executive coaching experiences are comprised of a structured, stepwise process that includes 1) assessment of work challenges and goals, 2) feedback from colleagues and other stakeholders, 3) formulation of a developmental action plan, 4) accountability processes to ensure implementation of new behaviors, and 5) a sustainability plan to fuel continued growth after the official coaching ends. Coaching engagements generally run for approximately 6 months. Individuals can experience each step of the coaching via emerging technologies such as online coaching platforms, and without incurring the major expense of a live human coach.
For example, clients can be prompted by a coaching app to assess their own workplace challenges by various self-reflection exercises and completion of brief questionnaires, which they can upload onto their personal coaching platform. The process of receiving feedback from their colleagues and stakeholders can be explained via the app, and then the client can be guided to assemble a group from whom he or she can seek structured “360 degree” feedback. These and other self-directed learning activities all can feed into a developmental action plan, which the coaching client can share with a boss or manager -- and then work on implementing over the ensuing weeks and months.
At the same time, we need to consider seriously the potential benefits of working with a live human coach, whose creative conversational skills, nonverbal communication, and empathy are key components of the executive coaching experience for many clients. There are two major aspects of technology driven coaching that can mitigate against this objection. In fact, these two powerful factors suggest that technology based coaching might provide a non-inferior (or even superior) coaching experience for clients, as the technologies continue to improve rapidly.
First, coaching apps can guide clients to identify and develop their own network of people for mentorship and enhanced collaboration. There is growing recognition that leadership training ought to be embedded in the client’s actual work life. A recent article from Deloitte presented research suggesting that leadership training is most effective when learning experiences “build in real work, risk and accountability, intentional networking, exposure, collaboration, micro-learning, and on the job problem-solving.” Along these lines, coaching apps can stimulate clients to pursue more meaningful interactions with colleagues, thereby deepening the human relationships at work that can propel high performance. Rather than depending on interactions with a live human coach, coaching apps can empower clients on their own to enhance their human relationships with internal colleagues in the workplace.
Second, there are emerging technologies that could allow clients to connect with chatbots, avatars, electronic games, and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for powerful coaching experiences. Many of these technologies have emerged from the mental health world. In a randomized control study, the SPARX online game for treating adolescent depression was shown to be “non-inferior” to well credentialed, human cognitive-behavioral therapists. The study and its results were so impressive that it was featured on the cover of the prestigious British Medical Journal. Some groups are also developing AI programs for executive coaching which may hold as much promise as the programs already developed for psychotherapists. If these programs are “non-inferior” (or eventually superior) to live human coaches, then executive coaching is likely to become less expensive and more widely accessible in the years to come.
We have entered an exciting era for digital executive coaching, as new technologies are poised to lower its expense, increase its accessibility, and enhance the client’s self-directed learning experience. While a select few will surely continue to work with live human coaches, many will soon have the option of supplementing or replacing live human coaching experiences with coaching apps, chatbots, avatars, electronic games, and a host of other technologies under development for individuals aiming to enhance their executive skills in the 21st century.
This article was co-authored with Ryan Stelzer (Co-founder of Strategy of Mind, LLC).