Performance Coaching: The Missing Link to Level 3 Impact

Donald Kirkpatrick single-handedly delivered to the training and development community a way to formally evaluate an organization’s investment in learning way back in 1959. His four-level model has stood the test of time as being the cornerstone approach

In the post-Enron world of business, it’s more important not to just look at the numbers. Reducing training efforts to an ROI is, of course, very powerful from a marketing perspective, but from a cultural perspective, the meaning of measurement is all about being accepted, trusted, respected and needed. Those are very real conditions that must be in play if an organization expects to provide quality development, relevant programs, real growth, competitive advantage and strategic impact in terms of business goals.

Level 3: Just Do It
Level 3 learning impacts, simply put, are behavior changes. Behavior change is all about application and integration—“doing it.” Is the learner actually applying new skills, tools, methods and processes on the job? Is the learner now doing something differently? And if so, how well? These are simple questions that have proven very tough to answer. In addition, these questions have also proven to be giant resource-suckers in terms of gleaning any kind of meaningful answer. But what are Level 3 measurements, really? Jack J. Phillips, Ph.D., and the Jack Phillips Center for Research, building on Kirkpatrick, have boiled this down to a manageable and concise view. (See Figure 1.)

Keep your focus now on the gray circle—the performance infrastructure. This aspect of both learning and evaluation of learning is what I call the “black hole of success.” It is critical to successful Level 3 impacts. Alternatively, it is also the primary reason that training fails to deliver its intended outcome(s).

The performance infrastructure is a term for the environment or climate in which the change must occur. These are the external factors that influence a person’s ability to actually apply and integrate on the job. These are influences outside the control of the individual. For example, a manager may want a job done a certain way, regardless of what organizational training says. Or there may be reasons that act as demotivating factors for people when performing the job according to what they learned in the training.

In addition to environmental considerations, there are other conditions necessary in order for change to occur. All of these conditions have a direct relationship to the “gray area”—the performance infrastructure. That being the case, it begs the question, “How can you effectively address or create these conditions to achieve a significantly higher degree of training success?” To which I reply, “Performance coaching.”

Performance Coaching—The Link to Impact
Coaching, now with its own section on the business bookshelf at your corner bookstore—is a very-much-talked-about tool, competency or program that is being embraced by companies worldwide. However, even with its own “industry” on the horizon, it’s very much in debate as to what it really is, whether it really works and what are the best practices.

For the purposes of this article, I define coaching as a practice through which an individual supports the learning or performance improvement of another individual through interactive questioning and other means of active input and support. A coach identifies performance gaps, wins commitment to learning, constructs applied practice and drives continual application and reflection to actually lift competence. A coaching relationship is built on discipline and trust. A coach is a change agent, responsible for driving behavior and performance change in a supportive yet demanding environment.

Look carefully at your coaching competency. Does it require a dedicated effort in developing skills and behaviors? Or does it merely require “support” and “encouragement” or “problem solving” in terms of overcoming performance issues? Based on research and experience, well over 90 percent of you are engaged in standard or advanced forms of performance management where you are seeking ownership for performance choices. You are getting employees to identify what it is they are doing, helping them find solutions or assistance (training, application exercises) for doing it better and then creating a plan to make it happen—this is taking ownership and is only half of what needs to be done for permanent behavior change. This is a good thing—but it’s just not coaching. Most organizations currently do not understand the difference. Driving ownership will certainly give you much better training impact. However, it won’t give you long-term, permanent behavior change. So why does it make a difference? Because coaching is a direct influence on the gray area. Coaching not only influences the gray area, but it also produces the necessary four conditions stated by Kirkpatrick to get a Level 3 impact.

Condition 1: The Person Must Have the Desire to Change
The performance coach’s role is one of a change agent. Their job is to ensure significant lift (fundamental change) in performance on the job. In our coaching methodology, we call this “keeping the change point hot.” This includes clearly identifying the desired change and driving the learner to 100 percent ownership for the change by identifying and describing the current level of performance against what the change looks and feels like and how they are going to get there.

Condition 2: The Person Must Know What to Do and How to Do It
The coaching is directly linked to the training as an integral part of the development experience. (This is key.) The training module provides the theory, rationale and initial “how-to” of the desired skills and behaviors.

The coach then works with each individual participant to take that one step further—the “how-to in the participant’s specific job role and job circumstance.” It’s a specific how-to in relation to the gray area. The whole idea of a coaching session is not to discuss “how it’s going” or make a plan, but to work on, to implement and to specifically practice how to enact behaviors and apply skills in specific situations as determined by the participant. The result of a successful coaching session is immediate change in skill applications and behaviors. This change is gradual on a scale of novice to mastery; however, fundamental behavior change is immediately noticeable. The degree of excellence in the actual application is what accelerates over time as the coaching continues. Again, if you are not witnessing immediate changes in skill applications and behaviors, then you are not coaching—you are having conversations about performance. Coaching involves practice. To know is to do. It’s that simple.

Condition 3: The Person Must Work in the Right Climate
Kirkpatrick delineates five climates, which are relative to and determined by the learner’s immediate supervisor or manager. These range from “preventing” (forbidding the participant from doing what they have learned in the training) to “requiring” (knowing what the participant has learned and making sure the learning transfers to the job). The other three climates are the ranges in between. When coaching is tied to training as a mandatory experience, the expectations of training—explicit behavior changes—suddenly have much greater weight. The rules for engagement shift, placing much more focus on the participant to achieve the changes regardless of outside circumstances or the gray area. The climate, so to speak, becomes an internal issue more than an external issue, driven and therefore controlled by the learner. (What’s the desired change, and how bad do you want it?)

Tying coaching to learning and development in and of itself fundamentally changes the gray area in that the company now bears witness to the fact that it’s serious about the training it provides and is raising the bar of expectation by supporting an employee’s individual learning curve and successful lift. The climates, as described by Kirkpatrick, become irrelevant to the overriding organizational expectations of training and development, as well as the desires of the individual learner. They no longer require the support of the immediate supervisor or manager as they are supported by the coach and are self-driven in their desire to change. This isn’t to say that supervisors and managers who hang out on the low end of the support-and-encouragement continuum shouldn’t be confronted on their own poor performance, or that there will be no trouble, or that participants who don’t invest in the coaching experience won’t be part of the picture. They most certainly will. The capability of the coaching team is what makes or breaks the success of the coaching and the degree to which the gray area can affect success of the training and the ultimate degree of Level 3 impact.

Condition 4: The Person Must Be Rewarded for Changing
Absolutely! Achieving personal best should be celebrated. Affecting divisional-goal outcomes or business-unit objectives or monthly numbers by virtue of personal best demands recognition. Coaching actively supports recognition through the continual feedback given at each session. This provides individual rewards through the direct effects on self-confidence and job satisfaction. Qualitative or quantitative, if the measurements indicate success, reward that success. How is up to you. The organization should put formal strategies in place to acknowledge the time and effort committed and benefits received. Coaching will force those benefits out into the open.

Coaching Is Process-Driven
Coaching is process-driven, and like any business process, it becomes part of the organizational culture of how things get done. This is why it is important to consider coaching not only from a senior executive perspective, but also from a management perspective. If your current coaching process (or experience) is that senior executives get external coaches if needed or desired for specific, targeted development, and management is given an additional competency requirement (to coach subordinates) with a two-day training experience or self-driven learning, who will be more successful? The breadth, scope and consistency of your coaching process have everything to do with the degree of impact you can achieve.

The coaching process includes both the nature of the coaching event itself as well as the implementation of how coaching interfaces in the organization on a daily basis. In studying the onslaught of coaching books now on the market, there is very little attention (if any) paid to how coaching gets implemented within the organization. Most experts choose to focus on the coaching event—the process of how individual change will occur and what competencies, from a coaching perspective, are driving those changes. No ink is given to how to harness coaching organizationally. This seems incredible, as its reputation for dramatic impact is so high.

This brings us to a brief discussion of the three levels of coaching within the organization: the experience level (getting coached), the education level (training coaching competence) and the enactment level (coaching others).

All three levels are critical to a superior process. Why? Until a manager has undergone the experience of coaching for development, realizing his own capacity as an effective manager-coach is nearly impossible. Having a model from which to work, that is, a live coach, is a more effective stepping-stone in shaping the expectation than simply presenting a set of behaviors. Anybody who is expected to coach as part of the job should always be coached (in another competency) first—focusing only on personal development and what that experience is like. Then they should move on to enhancing or developing their own coaching capability. By doing this as a process, they have a better understanding of the experience they are trying to create for others.

Now take a look at the event itself. What is happening within the 45 or 60 minutes that a person is being coached (assuming, of course, that you’ve got a dedicated effort as opposed to an on-the-fly approach)? This is where methodologies are made or broken. Remember, Level 3 impact is about actual behavior change. What part of the coaching event drives behavior change? There are a lot of coaching techniques out there based on discovering mutually agreed-upon solutions, mutually agreed-upon actions to be taken, probing instead of telling, motivating and delegating, resourcing, counseling, observing and getting buy-in to do things differently. But mutual agreement and discussion are a far cry from enactment in real time. When Tiger Woods is standing on the practice fairway, does he just talk to his coach about his game and what he should do, intends to do or can get help doing? Does he merely create an action plan on when and how to hit the ball? No. He hits the ball! He hits it over and over again until he’s got it down and he’s significantly improved from what he’s done previously.

Coaching is about practice. Coaching is about getting people out of their comfort zone and doing things they’ve never done before. A new skill or behavior is unfamiliar. It’s awkward. Coaching is a safe and supportive way to fail and to get feedback on doing something new—because chances are you won’t get it right the first time. Coaching gives you the confidence to go out there in the public arena of the workplace and do things you’ve never done before and do them with a growing degree of success. Be wary of a coaching process that does not explicitly state practice as part of the coaching technique. I would challenge those programs as merely versions of performance management. Conversations and plans are just another part of the gray area.

In Conclusion
The desire to change behavior is always self-determined. No one can initiate change no matter how important to the organization if it is not adopted in the first instance by the individual who must make the change. A coaching relationship is the ideal forum for this kind of development due to its unbiased, directed, disciplined and supportive nature. Training programs are designed to provide information, knowledge, understanding and some idea of “what” and “how” an individual is supposed to do a task or behavior. Combining the two closes the circle, eliminating any excuses for not walking the talk. When you implement coaching as part of the training—primarily in terms of skills development (the soft stuff)—there really is no reason your training program should not succeed (barring, of course, poor coaches), making substantial Level 3 impacts. Your training will never be the same again. The organization’s experience of learning will never be the same again—ever. So come on out of your comfort zone.

Jennifer Long is the senior vice president of program development for The Source International, a 30-plus-year company delivering executive skills development and a 17-plus-year global leader in skills and performance coaching. Send e-mail to Jennifer at

February 2004 Table of Contents