Introducing the Concept of “Coachability”


Coachability, noun, “an individual’s receptiveness and capacity to capitalize on guided learning and development.”

Any HR professional and business leader has a number of options at his or her disposal to try and fix an employee’s performance or help him or her get to the next level. Ultimately, though, it comes down to a choice between (A) structured learning or (B) guided learning. The former essentially refers to systematic learning programs that typically evolve around specific skills or subject matters of expertise. The latter refers to highly personalized coaching sessions during which the participant is learning nuanced skills.

So, since we all know that anything personalized and time-intensive is – more often than not – rather costly, the question to answer is the following: When does coaching offer the highest ROI?

Generally speaking, there are three scenarios in which coaching best lends itself as the most impactful and (cost) effective tool to be used – those being:

  • Change: In organizational advisory, “change” has always been a buzz word – here, we are talking about organizational change that comes about as a result of two companies merging, for example. It could be a change in business strategy that is triggered by senior management pursuing an alternative strategic avenue or it could be a deliberate cultural change enforced by executives of a firm to foster innovation or collaboration. Other times, change may be more personal in nature – it could be triggered by personal difficulties, health and/or marital problems.
  • Performance/Leadership: Often, performance-related problems can easily be fixed by providing training to executives in a particular area. Here, however, we are referring to performance-related issues that come to light and that are more often than not linked to “leadership”.  For example, there might be performance issues that are based on difficulties in making a department work together as a team or it could be problems that arise and that are based on communication and/or cultural differences.
  • Advancement: Progressing in one’s career is based on a number of different variables. Certainly training is an important component – but when you are stepping out of your comfort zone and considering to take the next position further up the corporate organizational chart how are you supposed to know what you need to excel in this new job? Have you ever heard a well-meaning superior say to you “tell me what you need to advance your career and I will give it to you?” – well, how are you supposed to know what you don’t know?

It is in those three circumstances where an HR professional should consider coaching as a tool to “fix the problem”. Yet, aside from those situational circumstances there is another component that is equally important to be considered before actually kick-starting any elaborate coaching programs. For the argument of this article let’s just say that based on resources available and the situation on hand coaching is the best way forward – but who should be eligible for such a program? And does everyone respond equally well to coaching? How does one as an HR professional know that you are not wasting the firm’s money?

A Million Dollar Business Question: Who Best Responds to Coaching

As performance management consultants, one of the most popular and pressing questions we hear from leaders concerns the concept of “coachability”. The question appears in many forms, including:

  • Can you tell if an employee wants to be saved?
  • Is coaching a wise investment for a specific employee?
  • Will this employee likely turn around their negative attitudes and behaviors?
  • Is this person a rising star and can be actively nurtured for hospitality leadership?

Answering questions like these accurately and efficiently is a valuable business tool. For example, research reveals that even for low-level positions a failed hire costs a company double the person’s salary. At higher levels, the cost can be six times the salary. Hiring people is arguably the most important thing any organization does — the cost of failure is significant. And so is the cost of maintaining mediocre performers and the less-than-optimal “fits” with a company’s culture.

Coachability goes beyond the simple notion of training or trainability, which often involves teaching a specific set of skills in a highly structured manner.  Coaching, for lack of a better term, is a more intuitive process whereby an individual “absorbs” knowledge, attitudes, and skills via guided (versus highly structured) learning and development. It’s more nuanced since it partly involves an employee’s self-directedness in identifying and seizing learnings opportunistically, as well as an employee being positively motivated to devote time to attend structured learnings too. In other words, the most effective coaching clients have the insight, awareness, and self-directedness to recognize and seize learnings wherever they reside.

Five Critical Coaching Characteristics

Analyzing nearly ten years of psychometric testing and session notes from coaching clients has revealed a basic profile of who will likely be coached successfully versus not.  Aethos Consulting Group™ is actively researching the most effective way to measure this set of characteristics, but for now the profile is offered as a general heuristic in the way to assess the degree to which an employee is coachable.

It’s important to note that these characteristics seem to build on one another in a prescribed way. Here’s the outline of the Aethos™ Coachability Model which is captured by the acronym “CHIC.” This model assumes that the employee has at least an average level of Cognitive Ability – the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, and learn quickly. Research in workplace psychology consistently identifies cognitive ability as the strongest predictor of job performance, even more powerful than traditional personality testing. Cognitive ability is therefore the precursor of Aethos’ CHIC coaching model.

But to be sure, cognitive ability alone doesn’t ensure coaching success. Here’s where the four CHIC characteristics work together in a process with cumulative and positive impact:

  • Curiosity: First, an individual must have the curiosity to explore his/her knowledge and skill gaps and the available resources and opportunities to improve personal and professional performance.  It just so happens that highly intelligent people also tend to be naturally curious, so it’s an extension of Cognitive Ability.
  • Humility: Curiosity motivates exploration, but a sense of humility determines an individual’s capacity to perceive and accept performance feedback, new information, and overt or subtle learnings in a constructive way. Humility is a grounding force that is critical to maintaining a measured perspective of one’s performance and potential.
  • Internal Locus of Control: Humility motivates awareness, but locus of control (LOC) determines an individual’s sense of control over learning and mastering new knowledge, attitudes, or skills. People tend to have one of two general outlooks on the world – they believe either life events are due to their own behavior and attributes, or they believe that life events happen because of uncontrollable circumstances like chance or the actions of others. Social scientists refer to these mindsets as an “internal locus of control” versus an “external locus of control,” respectively. Individuals with internal LOC take responsibility and know they have power to affect their circumstances and address skill or knowledge gaps. Those with strong external LOC make excuses and feel like victims of circumstance.
  • Competitiveness: Internal LOC motivates accountability, but competitiveness determines an individual’s sense of urgency and achievement-orientation. This is a core part of service orientation, which is a driver across all aspects of the hospitality industry.  The drive to constantly improve and succeed kills complacency by keeping an individual engaged with ongoing learning and education in all its forms. Competitiveness motivates action.

Putting the CHIC Coaching Model to Work

Stay tuned for the results of Aethos’ quantitative research on a psychometric measurement that clients can use to screen candidates and incumbents against the CHIC model. In the meantime our qualitative research that inspired this model offers some immediate takeaways for HR practitioners and leaders.

First, determining whether an employee “can be saved” or “coached to greater success” are not simple “yes or no” questions.  The answers appear to be grounded in several variables that define a continuum of likely coaching success. Careful and critical contemplation and discussion of the CHIC characteristics in relation to the employee is a more accurate and fair approach for all involved than making a decision based on emotion and whether the leader “personally likes or dislikes” the employee or not.

Second, even for those employees who would likely be receptive to coaching all practitioners and leaders must balance the cost and time involved in a coaching program against the anticipated ROI of that program. Some businesses don’t have the luxury of time to give to an individual’s development, or an ample budget or other resources to invest in coaching. Therefore, the CHIC model speaks to the employee-side of the equation, whereas budget and time realities speak to the employer-side of the equation.  Both perspectives should be weighed when evaluating the feasibility of a coaching scenario.

Finally, there are probably many significant subtleties and nuances to the CHIC variables. This means that leaders should not assume that they are best qualified to evaluate employees against the CHIC model. Seasoned HR practitioners, industrial psychologists or other performance and talent management experts might need to be consulted in the process – at least until an efficient and effective tool is available that streamlines and partly automates the evaluation process. Until then, the CHIC model is a qualitative heuristic that focuses attention on the right issues to contemplate when looking at a specific employee with a million dollar business question in mind.