Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders Model

Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders Model


Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders model:

coaches enablingtransfer of learning


Dr Janice Cook, Senior Lecturer,

Hertfordshire Business School, University of Hertfordshire,

De Havilland Campus, Hatfield, AL10 9UF


Purpose: to report on the findings of a post doctoral study exploring the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model and its transferability to a range of external coaches of leaders.

Design/methodology/approach: a collaborative action research study conducted by three external coaches and the author of the coaching model. The study explored the six categories and thirty-three themes of the coaching model with the aim of determining its transferability, if any, to a range of external coaches of leaders in order to enable the transfer of learning.

Findings: the model enables the transfer of learning from coaching sessions to outside the sessions when used by a range of professional external coaches of leaders. The categories of the model have remained the same, five of the themes have been identified for possible amendmentand data was collected which suggests other changes to the model.

Research limitations/implications: not a longitudinal study and therefore only covers the transfer of learning and not the sustainability of learning as in the original doctoral study. However, the findings have indicated that sustainability of learning is also possible.

Practical implications:this practitioner research study is showing some interesting results for both the professional field of coaching and those commissioning coaching in organisations with its emphasis on transfer of learning as a return on investment.

Social implications: could potentially benefit numerous leaders in organisations if adopted by more professional external coaches.

Originality/value: the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model continues to be the only model for coaching leaders which focuses on the transfer and sustainability of learning.

Keywords: coaching for leaders, transfer of learning

Why is this post doctoral research study important?

“If organisations are going to invest scarce resources ... [they] will need evidence that such an investment can produce desired results. Desired results could be interpreted as … learning being transferred back into the workplace and then sustained over time.” (Cook, 2011)

As a commissioner of training, learning and development activities for over 30 years (and most of those in limited resource environments in the public and private sectors), I know how important it is to ensure that both the individuals and the organisation are experiencing benefits from an investment in learning and development activities. This is important not just in terms of return on financial investment but also return on investment of time which is also very precious, both particularly important from an ethical perspective in public services and charitable contexts. Coaching leaders on a one-to-one basis is at the top end of the spectrum with regards to investment of both budget and time. Therefore, the benefits have to be commensurate with that investment.

In my article (Cook, 2013) I presented the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model as a way of preventing coaching from becoming simply an expensive conversation, it has to be much more than that to warrant the investment of money and time in this learning and development activity. In this same article I quoted one of the leader participants in the doctoral study from which this model emerged: “I know I have retained information and reused it so much, and will continue to do so. It will also support me as I move forward.” (Cook, 2013, p.123)

However, my doctoral study was focused on researching my own coaching practice and I was left with the question of the transferability of my model to other professional external coaches of leaders. In order to continue the contribution to the professional field of one-to-one coaching this question needed to be answered. By asking other coaches to experiment with my model in a research practice environment, this gave me the opportunity to explore the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders model from a range of professional perspectives and experiences, importantly keeping the focus on the model enabling the transfer of learning. This was not a longitudinal study; therefore it was not possible to include sustainability of learning in this post doctoral study.

What relevant research already exists?

For my doctoral study I reviewed both coaching for leaders literature as well as transfer and sustainability of learning literature and found that a gap existed with regard to exploring a possible link between coaching process and relationship and the transfer and sustainability of learning.

Coaching for leaders

The coaching for leaders’ literature focuses almost entirely on the coaching process and the coaching relationship with some interesting results emerging about the specifics of the coaching process, for example the coach challenging the leader being coached (Hall, Otazo and Hollenbeck, 1999), and the collaborative nature of the coaching relationship (Law, Ireland and Hussain, 2007). Over time, a common view has developed that coaching leaders is about learning and change as opposed to a dialogic environment which continues the status quo for the leader being coached, indicating a possible shift in thinking amongst coaching practitioners and researchers. However, thespecific issue of transfer and sustainability of learning in respect of coaching process and relationship was minimal; and the issue of return on investment in leadership coaching remains a thorny issue in coaching research with scientific rationalisation less attractive to some researchers than others. In accordance with my values and beliefs, I was mindful in my research to retain the humanity of coaching and not to “reduce coaching to a functional and instrumental practice” (Garvey et al, 2009), although keen to find the specifics of the coaching process and relationship which enabled the transfer and sustainability of learning for the leader being coached.

Transfer of learning

There have been several ways of interpreting transfer of learning over the years including transfer of training and transfer system. Transfer of training usually refers to the transfer of learning from a training programme (Baldwin and Ford, 1988) and it is difficult to see the usefulness of this interpretation to the one-to-one coaching environment. Ruona, Leimbach, Holton and Bates (2002, p.220) prefer the expression “transfer system” in which “transfer involves the application, generalisability and maintenance of new knowledge and skills.” However, a new researcher (Spencer, 2011) has studied the transfer of training using coaching as a tool for that transfer. She reviews the work of Holton, Bates and Ruona (2000) and concludes that “the LTSI [Learning Transfer System Inventory] model may be inadequate to consider coaching’s contribution to training transfer” (2011, p.4); the limitations of previous transfer of training and transfer system theories are also recognised in the work of Stewart et al. (2008).

My doctoral study with a focus on the transfer and sustainability of learning has therefore helped to fill a gap in the literature byaugmenting the research of Stewart et al (2008) with a focus on learning, and complementing the seminal work of Olivero, Bane and Kopelman (1997) in respect of the use of coaching to transfer learning from a formal training programme to the workplace. My study also added to the work of Stern (2004); Natale and Diamante (2005); and Law, Ireland and Hussain (2007) on the concept of collaboration in coaching, although my study looked specifically at the collaborative coaching processes and relationship required of both coach and client.

Cox (2013, p.138) sums it up very well when she states that “one of the unwritten goals of coaching is to ensure enduring learning and development for the client that can be sustained long beyond the end of the coaching intervention”. Similarly, the definition for both the doctoral and post doctoral studies is the transfer of learning from a coaching session to outside the session, with that learning sustained over time without any additional coaching intervention.

In preparation for the post doctoral study, I reviewed the contemporary literature and found that there is a continuing lack of additional empirical research studying the transfer of learning from an external, one-to-one, stand alone coaching experience to outside that experience. Although, there has been some more recent published work on the transfer of learning from training programmes (De Ridjt et al, 2013; Weisweiler et al, 2013).

Whilst there is some literature on the coaching relationship and the person being coached in respect of transfer of learning (eg Stewart et al, 2008); there is also a clear gap in the literature regarding what actually happens in the coaching process in respect of transfer of learning. In an attempt to demonstrate to the business world that coaching can have a good return on investment, Cook’s (2011) Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders model has an additional focus on application of learning in the workplace as well as what facilitates the learning and enables the transfer of learning back into the workplace (Styhre and Josephson, 2007; Allan, 2007).

If a commissioner of learning and development in an organisation is searching forleadership coaching which enables a return on investment, then the Collaborative Action for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model provides the option of considering transfer and sustainability of learning as such a return on investment. Therefore the model’s possible use by a range of professional external coaches is an important topic for research.

How was the post doctoral study conducted?

Within a paradigm of social constructivism in which meanings are constructed as people engage with the world they are interpreting (Creswell, 2009), we were trying to answer the following questions:

  1. Is the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders model transferable across a range of professional coaches?
  2. Does the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders model enable the transfer and sustainability of learning when implemented by a range of professional coaches?

As the doctoral study had been successful in its collaborative action research methodology with the methodology itself influencing the content of the model, it seemed important and relevant to continue with this methodological approach. In my doctoral study I created a new Collaborative Action Research approach for coaching research (Cook, 2010) and therefore applied this model to this post doctoral study (see Figure 1 below).

However, I was mindful that we were not creating a new theory but exploring an existing theory. In this regard, Carr and Kemmis (1986, p.162) helpfully suggest that “Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out” (Carr and Kemmis 1986, p.162). Also, the methodological approach could still be regarded as a “living theory form” of action research in that it is grounded in the ontological “I” of the researcher and uses a “living logic” of experiences at the moment (McNiff and Whitehead, 2006, p.41). The focus of the research remained entirely about creating meanings from experience, in particular the experience of the coaches using the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model. This retained the sense of a type of living theory(McNiff and Whitehead, 2006) which allows the individual experiences to dictate the research journey. This was important when researching with a range of coaches and their unique experiences and contribution as individual coaches to the coaching experience in the study.

As mentioned above, we followed my model of Collaborative Action Research (Cook, 2010) adapted to reflect the specifics of this post doctoral study:

Figure 1: Developing a coaching theory from researching your own coaching practice, through collaborative action research (Cook, 2010) (adapted)

In the first action research cycle, each coach/researcher coached one or two leaders each. These coaching sessions were mainly face-to-face with one coach conducting some sessions by telephone. They were required to conduct at least 3 sessions for two hourseach time over a period of about six months, with one coach conducting some sessions for one hour. Each leader being coached was encouraged to keep reflective research diaries in whatever format they chose and to gain feedback from colleagues at work about their transfer of learning. Most leaders did both of these although formal feedback provider sessions were not popular, most leaders preferred to gain feedback informally from colleagues instead; this is different to the doctoral study but this change did not undermine the model in Figure 1 because the informal feedback was collected as data by the coach/researchers. In the second action research cycle, the coach/researchers did not coach the leaders but kept in touch with them to check about the sustainability of their learning. This second cycle was shorter than the first cycle and therefore the data collected was limited.

The coach/researchers were recruited on a voluntary basis via various professional coaching networks; they were not required to have any specific qualification or experience as long as they were external coaches who worked one-to-one with leaders in organisations with the coaching not linked to any development programme. The leaders were recruited by the coach/researchers in line with their usual process for working with clients. All ethical procedures were followed including the use of a participant information sheet, signed consent forms with confidentiality and anonymity for the leaders guaranteed. The coach/researchers gave permission for their names to be included in any papers or presentations about the study but confidentiality of their individual contributions has been maintained.

The practicalities of the study were potentially a challenge. In particular, I was mindful of the potential practical problems of conducting more than one action research cycle with a range of volunteer coaches and their clients with uncertainty at the beginning about the ability to sustain the study over a sufficient period of time to explore transfer of learning. I am indebted to the volunteer coach/researchers (Hilary Price Jones, Jane Molloy and Helen Smith) for their sustained and continuous commitment to this study and to the development of evidence-based research in our professional coaching community.

The Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model continues to be the only model for coaching leaders which focuses entirely on the transfer and sustainability of learning and its transferability to a range of professional external coaches was explored in this study.

What is the Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders model?

The Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011) model emanated from a professional doctorate study: “The effect of coaching on the transfer and sustainability of learning: coaching for leaders, a collaborative action research study” (Cook, 2011). I researched my own coaching practice over a period of about 15 months, coaching and researching alongside leaders in the charitable sector. It was a highly qualitative study within a social constructivist paradigm focused on improving practice in the professional field of coaching.

As an experienced coach practitioner for over 20 years, at the time, I had a sense that my coaching practice with leaders was enabling the transfer of learning but I was unsure what it was about the coaching experience which might be enabling such a transfer. I was also interested to explore if and how the coaching experience could enable that learning to sustain over time. Hence the need for a longitudinal, in depth study. As mentioned above, a review of the literature showed that this specific focus in coaching had not been the subject of any prior research studies which indicated a potential contribution to the development of coaching practice in general, not just a development of my coaching practice.

There were two main findings from this doctoral study:

  1. Coaching can help the transfer and sustainability of learning
  2. Both the coach and the client have individual and shared responsibilities in the transfer and sustainability of learning from the coaching sessions to outside the sessions

My research found that the six categories of the model enable this transfer and sustainability of learning:

Figure 2: Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011)

The 33 themes underneath these six categories are:

Coach In Charge Of The Process / Encourage Practice Back In The Workplace / Contracting: Start Point / Colleague Feedback / Comfort / Reflective Diaries
Tailored Tools/
Techniques / Share Experience To Facilitate Learning / Client Bringing Content / Transfer Of Learning Measures Identified / Safety/
Trust / Feedback Provider Sessions
Support / Suspend Judgement / Being Open To Learning / Coach And Client Match / Record-Keeping
Client Context / Not Therapy / Client Takes Responsibility For Their Learning / Face-To-Face / Coaching Supervision
Physical Environment / Lasting Impact Of Coach / Reflective Practitioner / External Coach
Setting Goals / Coaching Consultancy / Honest Dialogue
Sounding Board / Primary Role As Coach
Friendly Support / Keeping In Touch Outside Coaching Sessions

Figure 3: Collaborative Action Coaching for Leaders (Cook, 2011), 33 Themes

Each theme emerged from the qualitative research process, identified as important in the transfer and sustainability of learning. No weighting of categories or themes was found.

For the post doctoral study I produced briefing notes for the coach/researchers providing the practical detail of the model to help them when implementing the model with their clients. In addition to these notes, I also held a group briefing session for all the coach/researchers and answered queries by email or by phone as they coached their clients using this model. These briefing notes bring the model to life for practice purposes and are detailed in Appendix 1 using the six categories and their themes as a structure. But is the model transferable to other coaches of leaders?