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Michael Cavanagh explores opportunities for coaching measurement, competencies, and frameworks

Learning, developing, and implementing coaching competencies has become essential within the coaching profession. In this talk, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Michael Cavanagh dives into coaching competencies and frameworks and discusses benefits, drawbacks, and opportunities for future coaching research.


Today’s coaches need an update to the competency models of the 1970s


Client context and intended outcomes shape successful coaching strategies


A range of competency models and methods meet the diversity of client needs

Wisdom Weaver

Researchers define essential knowledge and skills for successful coaching

In his groundbreaking research during the early ’70s, American psychologist David McClelland defined a competency as “a personal characteristic, motive, behavior, skill, or knowledge that is proven to drive superior job performance.” He states that these competencies are “task and organization-specific,” which means that the organization’s culture and environment establish the context for determining whether a task is classified as a competency. For example, being efficient at computer literacy is a competency only to the extent that it is essential to a person’s role.

In his presentation at the 2021 Future of Coaching Convening, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Michael Cavanagh goes even further within these competency models first proposed by David. For example, he offers that coaches may use different strategies or require different skills based on client context and intended outcomes. 

Because clients seek coaching for nearly every aspect of life, narrowing down competencies through expert opinion muddles which coaching attributes are essential and which are objective-driven. Michael wrestles with the idea that coaching may need both universal and specific competencies or that perhaps there are ways to differentiate between competencies and tailored skills.

To explore the different roles of coaches, Michael explains that team or organizational coaching requires an understanding of interlocking relationships that must be balanced with the needs of the individuals served. Yet even on an individual level, a client seeking professional growth will have very different needs than someone hoping to practice a skill. He showcases how, in the Australian model, these coaching objectives are differentiated based on client needs to guide intentional personal and professional development.

Coaching can enhance client success through competency models by:

  • Considering a client’s context and specific needs
  • Balancing the need for both universal and specific competencies
  • Differentiating between competencies and tailored skills

Executive coaches can support clients by identifying key competencies

Michael finds the lack of clarity about competencies can lead to ineffective guidance for coaches, as well as the tendency of coaches to rely on assumptions. Ideally, researchers would conduct a study that uses large sample sizes of coaches with multiple groups of clients who are then randomly assigned to different types of coaching. 

The benefit of a randomized control trial is that by comparing each client group, researchers can see which types of coaching are most effective. Unfortunately, this method is also costly, difficult to organize, and often requires a long-term investment from participants.

“The empirical evidence for competencies is very, very weak…What I did find [was] a different sort of qualitative studies…mostly at the level of collated opinion. You get a whole bunch of experts together, and you say, ‘well, what are the competencies?’ and then that becomes a competency framework.”

Dr. Michael Cavanagh

As Michael explores existing competency models, he references research by Arturo Maxwell at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Arturo’s work recognizes that organizations use executive coaching as a primary form of professional development; however, with no standard measurement for determining the benefits of executive coaching, it is difficult to justify the investment. His team set out to identify essential competencies in the field by polling experts using a modified Delphi approach.

With a Delphi methodology, researchers asked a panel of experts to complete multiple rounds of questionnaires and ranking exercises until meeting consensus. Michael is not disregarding the benefits of expert opinion, but he presents an opportunity to strengthen and confirm Arturo’s research. He notes that consensus work is valuable as a first step towards establishing universal core competencies for executive coaches.

However, validating these competencies through quantitative outcome research is needed to objectively determine which practices lead to lasting change. According to Michael, focusing on outcomes is essential for success. When the desired outcomes are unclear, both the coach and clients are at a disadvantage.

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

Equipped coaches have the tools to help their clients identify strengths, find connections, and meet their highest potential. For coaches working with women and clients from underserved backgrounds, coaching is an especially potent tool to enhance equity and contribute to a more inclusive company culture. United Nations Global Goal 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Having clear competencies will only further support coaches as they serve their clients.

About this Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations on Shaping the Future of Coaching across three separate Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening.

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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