SHRM Foundation Research
Not a Member?  Become One Today!

SHRM Foundation Research


Executive Coaching in Technology Supported Environments: Understanding and Guiding Effective Virtual Leadership Coaching Relationships

Funded: March 2009     Completed: November  2011

Stephen Zaccaro, Ph.D., George Mason University
Gina Hernez-Broome, Center for Creative Leadership
Lisa Boyce, George Mason University
Tiffani R. Chen, George Mason University
Tracy C McCausland, George Mason University
Gia A. DiRosa, George Mason University

Coach and Client Attributes and their Influences on Coaching Outcomes across Different Coaching Media:  A Summary of Four Studies

Executive Summary
While coaching has become an increasingly prominent tool for leadership development, systematic research on predictors, processes and outcomes of coaching is substantially lacking, with the result that the practice of coaching has outpaced its research base.  In this research effort, we focused on five sets of antecedents:  client attributes (cognitive flexibility, metacognitive skills, self regulation skills, social perceptiveness/empathy, emotional intelligence, leadership orientation, motivation to learn, learning goal orientation, extraversion, and conscientiousness/responsibility), coach attributes (cognitive flexibility, metacognitive skills, process regulation skills), the match or fit between coach and client attributes (cultural background, cognitive capacities), client training, and the medium of coaching (face-to-face versus electronically-mediated communication). 

We examined these antecedents across four studies.  Two of these studies utilized an archival data set from an international leadership development organization.  The first of these was an exploratory study that examined three sets of client attributes and their influences in a blended coaching medium (mixing face-to-face and electronically mediated coaching).  The participants in this study were 1330 managers and executives.  The second study used the same data set to examine coach client cultural homology, or the match of cultural backgrounds, on coaching outcomes.  Both studies were treated as exploratory because of significant limitations in the dataset.  The third investigation was a field study of coach-client cognitive heterogeneity as a driver of coaching outcomes.  The participants in this study were 52 coaches and 172 managers and executives.  Also in this study, a subset of 11 coaches and 28 clients volunteered to have their sessions in an online program (Second Life©), allowing us to explore differences between two coaching media.  The final study was a laboratory experiment that used academic coaching as a context, and was designed to test the effects of coaching medium and client training on coaching outcomes.  This study, which included 133 undergraduate students as participants, also examined client attributes that contribute to coaching success.   


• Client leadership orientation and social capacities were related to perceived improvements in personal leadership development in a blended coaching and self-development program.  Leadership orientation reflected a predisposition toward leadership positions, and included such attributes as dominance, self-confidence, and achievement motivation.  Social capacities included sociability and empathy.

• Cultural differences in individualism/collectivism and uncertainty avoidance between coaches and clients were associated with lower perceptions of improvements in personal leadership in a blended coaching and self-development program.  Coaches were from the United States, which is higher on individualism and lower on uncertainty than the world average.  Thus, clients from cultures higher in collectivism and uncertainty avoidance reported less leadership growth when paired with coaches from the United States than clients from cultures more similar to the United States on these dimensions.

• Coach global experience reduced the effects of coach/client cultural differences in individualism/ collectivism on clients' perceived value of the coaching session.  Such experience also reduced the effects of coach/client cultural differences in long term orientation on clients' perceptions of personal improvement from the leadership development program

• Executives' motivation to learn was significantly associated with his/her willingness to continue self-development of leadership skills after the cessation of a leadership development program that included coaching.  This relationship was not significant among students enrolled in an academic coaching program

• Clients higher in cognitive flexibility indicated a greater willingness to continue leadership self-development when their coaches possessed higher levels of metacognitive knowledge and high process regulation skills.  These skills of the coach complemented the tendency of more cognitively flexible clients to explore different ideas and perspectives in the coaching session.

• Clients who received coaching entirely through an online program using coach and client avatars reported less satisfaction and lower coach/client relationship quality than those who received coaching in face-to-face sessions.

• Students enrolled in an academic coaching program displayed higher engagement in coaching sessions and stronger rapport with their coaches when they possessed particular social and cognitive capacities.

• Communication medium influenced student engagement in their coaching session.  Students in the face-to-face coaching program had coaching sessions that were longer in duration than those in a phone-based program. 

• Client training on how to increase gains from coaching helped in face-to-face coaching programs, not in phone-based or e-mail coaching programs.  Students in the face-to-face condition who received such training reported a greater willingness to continue coaching and marginally greater rapport with their coach than clients who did not receive such training. 

Our findings across these studies point to the importance of client cognitive, social, and motivational for certain coaching outcomes.  These findings should help efforts to inform client selection for coaching interventions.  They also can help efforts to increase client readiness by emphasizing the utility of such skills in the coaching process.  Our findings on how certain coach attributes match with certain client attributes, in terms of similarity, heterogeneity, or complementary fit, can help coaching administrators in the process of assigning coaches to clients.  Our results regarding cultural heterogeneity and cognitive fit indicate that even highly rated coaches may not be able to entirely escape the consequences of a client mismatch. 

Using technologically- mediated coaching can increase the reach of this leader development intervention to more clients.  Nonetheless, such reach may come at a slight cost to coach/client rapport (we say "slight" because client satisfaction scores in our studies were still quite high in technologically mediated coaching).  We noted that, with more common access to and use of video-conferencing capabilities (e.g., skype), the full benefits of face-to-face coaching are being extended to technologically-mediated coaching.  Thus, we expect that coaching medium will show fewer and fewer deleterious effects as the capacity of technology increases.

View the full list of SHRM Foundation funded research.