Lisa A. Boyce, Institute for Information Technology Applications, United States Air
Force Academy; R. Jeff Jackson, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, United
States Air Force Academy; Laura J. Neal, Directorate of Plans and Programs, United States Air
This research was supported in part by the Institute for Information Technology
Applications and Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. We thank the coaches and
clients participating in the Leadership Development Enrichment and Development (LEAD)
Leadership Coaching Program for responding to the multiple surveys, applications, and feedback
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the U.S. Air Force.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lisa A. Boyce, HQ
USAFA/DFEI, 2354 Fairchild Dr., Suite 4K29, USAF Academy, CO 80840. E-mail:
Building Successful Leadership Coaching Relationships:
Examining Impact of Matching Criteria in a Leadership Coaching Program
Lisa A. Boyce
R. Jeffrey Jackson
Laura J. Neal
U.S. Air Force Academy
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Coaching Relationships 2
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Coaching Relationships 3
Purpose: This study employed a conceptual model to examine the relationship processes and
mediating role of client-coach relationship between client-coach match criteria and coaching
outcomes to advance the understanding of client-coach relationship’s impact on leadership
Design/methodology/approach: Data collected from 74 client-coach pairs participating in a
voluntary leadership coaching program at a military service academy during pre-partnering and
post-transition phases were analyzed to examine the impact of match criteria and client-coach
relationship processes on coaching outcomes.
Findings: Consistent with the conceptual framework, relationship processes of rapport, trust, and
commitment positively predicted coaching program outcomes, including client and coach
reactions, behavioral change, and coaching program results. The client-coach relationship fully
mediated two match criteria (compatibility and credibility) with coaching outcomes, suggesting
that complementary managerial and learning styles and relevant job-related credibility support
the development of client-coach relationships and therefore positively impacts leadership
Research limitations/implications: The generalizability of findings may be limited due to the
population studied. Future research needs to examine relationship processes in the larger context
of the coaching practice as well as formative and results-level outcomes.
Practical implications: The research findings provide support and understanding of the impact
of the client-coach relationship on coaching and the understanding of factors influencing the
relationship, which allows the development of selection tools to better match clients with
coaches, increasing the quality of the relationship and ultimately the coaching outcomes.
Originality/value: This study represents one of the first attempts to symmetrically examine
client-coach relationships and highlights the value of the conceptual framework for conducting
client-coach relationship research.
Keywords: executive coaching, leadership development, client-coach relationship, match
Article Type: Research paper
Coaching Relationships 4
Building Successful Leadership Coaching Relationships:
Examining Impact of Matching Criteria in a Leadership Coaching Program
Leadership coaching is an integral component of most organizations’ leadership
development strategy1(Fillery-Travis & Lane, 2006;Underhill, McAnally, & Koriath, 2007). In
the last year, the United Kingdom witnessed a nearly ten percent increase in the number of
organizations employing coaches (63% to 71%; Day, Surtees, & Winkler, 2008) and ninety-five
percent of United States organizations previously using coaches increased the practice
(Auerbach, 2005). Unfortunately, despite this popularity, coaching research has not kept pace
with practices (Latham, 2007; Linley, 2006). While there is little debate that “coaching works”
(Kombarakaran, Yang, Baker, & Fernandes, 2008; p.78; Peterson & Kraiger, 2003, p. 263),
practitioner articles and personal testimonies far outnumber empirical investigations. Research is
needed to understand why coaching works, including how to identify and build successful coach
client relationships (Feldman & Lankau, 2005; O’Broin & Palmer, 2006).
A quality coaching relationship is perhaps the single most important factor for successful
outcomes (e.g., Asay & Lambert, 1999; Kampa-Kokesch, & Anderson, 2001; O’Broin & Palmer,
2006). A recent American Management Association study (Thompson et. al., 2008) reported
sixty-five percent of terminated coaching assignments were due to ineffective client-coach
relationships. Thus a need exists to understand and improve client-coach relationships.
While not one of the 49 studies included in Ely et al’s (in press) quantitative examination
of leadership coaching research specifically investigated the coaching relationship, several
dissertations and articles discussed the components perceived as critical to the relationship,
1 In 2004, 56% of US and 51% of UK organizations used external executive coaches (Executive Development
Associates Trends in Executive Development and University of Central England Coaching Study, respectively).
Coaching Relationships 5
including rapport (Bush, 2004), mutual trust (e.g., Becker, 2007;; Bush, 2004; Hall, Otazo, &
Hollenbeck, 1999; Luebbe 2004), and coach credibility (e.g., Bush, 2004; Sue-Chan & Latham,
2004). The importance of effective client-coach relationships were also discussed (Seamons,
2004; Thach, 2002; Wasylyshyn, 2003) and the need for a “good match or fit between coach and
client” has been strongly emphasized (Hall et al., 1999; p. 45). However, no insights were
provided regarding factors that might predict a good match, as there is a shortage of published
scientific research on the topic.
This paper provides a conceptual framework for examining the impact of client-coach
relationships on coaching outcomes and the influence of client-coach matches in building and
maintaining the relationships. Further, by employing the framework, we provide support and
understanding of the influences of relationship processes on coaching outcomes and practical
insights on factors that contribute to effective relationships.
Modeling the Coaching Relationship
In order to frame coaching issues, an I-P-O (input, process, output) format was employed
to identify key factors that drive successful coaching experiences (Boyce & Hernez-Broome,
2010). The resulting framework organizes the factors and issues into matching input, relationship
processes, and outcomes. The match consists of three characteristics: commonality in personal
characteristics or experiences, compatibility in behavioral preferences, and credibility with
coaching abilities meeting client needs. The coaching relationship consists of four key processes:
rapport, trust, commitment, and collaboration. These components will be discussed in terms of
their relationship with leadership coaching outcomes. While conceptual articles provide insight
on match characteristics and coaching relationships, most have no basis in research to support
Coaching Relationships 6
their notions. Therefore, we often turn to the therapy and mentor literature to supplement the
experienced practitioners’ ideas.
Client-Coach Match Characteristics
Matching is described as the attempt to identify a coach tailored to meet the needs of a
client (Wycherley & Cox, 2008) and occurs in organizations using a list or “pool” of acceptable
coaches pre-selected based on certain criteria, such as competence factors, referrals, or previous
work with the organization. Coaches are also matched using external coaching companies or
with clients attending coaching programs or workshops but are often made by the coaching
[A good match or fit between a client and coach is critical to the development of a quality
coaching relationship.] While Joo (2005, p. 480) provides an emphatic argument that matching
coaches to clients “is critical in coaching effectiveness,” neither he nor the previously cited
literature provides guidance towards what factors should enter the pairing decision. However,
practitioners suggest possible factors to consider when aligning coaches with clients, including
commonality, compatibility, and credibility.
Commonality. Commonality refers to the client and coach sharing common
characteristics or experiences, which can be positioned into three categories: demographics,
professional, and personal. By demographics, we refer to the surface level attributes often
collected in surveys, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and age. Professional background
encompasses past work experiences as well as education and professional training. Personal
background can be quite broad subsuming interests, hobbies, volunteer activities, and even
religious and sexual orientation.
Coaching Relationships 7
If commonality is high, the belief is that rapport and trust will develop quicker. The
similarity-attraction hypotheses maintains that similarity is a major source of attraction between
individuals and that a variety of physical, social, and status traits can be used as the basis for
inferring similarity in attitudes and beliefs (Byrne, 1971; Harrision, Price, & Bell, 1998).
Findings from mentoring research suggest that homogeneity is preferable and perhaps a
prerequisite for mutual understanding and acceptance (Armstrong, Allinson, & Hayes, 2002;
Ragins & Cotton, 1999). Wycherley and Cox (2008, p. 43) argue that coaches from different
backgrounds than their clients “cannot understand the social and psychological conflicts of the
client and therefore deep levels of trust, sharing, and cooperation will not be achieved.”
Compatibility. Compatibility refers to the appropriate combination of client and coach
behavioral preferences or the characteristics the client and coach possess that influence their
cognitions and behaviors in various situations. These can include personality traits as well as
managerial, leadership, and learning styles.
Coaches matched to clients based on compatible personality and behavioral styles are
expected to have a better working relationship, particularly with securing commitment and
supporting collaboration. However, the factor is more complex as matching on similarity may
achieve rapid rapport and goal attainment but perhaps at the expense of personal development
opportunities and long term learning. So while personality mis-matches or personality conflict
result in the relationship prematurely ending (Gerstein, 1985; Hunt & Michael, 1983), should the
relationship survive, Scoular and Linley (2006, p. 11) offer limited evidence that learning is
better when temperaments differ. They suggest that in dyads differing on temperament, “the
coach may instinctively come from a different perspective and perhaps challenge client
Coaching Relationships 8
assumptions more,” with the result of this more complex interaction leading to higher
Credibility. Credibility refers to a coach possessing the necessary credentials to meet
client needs and include coaching competence and experience. Matching a credible coach to a
client in terms of their coaching needs establishes trust, confidence, and openness in the
relationship. The client’s perception of the coach’s qualifications and experiences will influence
the degree to which trust is enhanced. One could argue that any coach who possesses knowledge
and experience will be effective (Stern, 2004). The appeal to match coach’s expertise with client
problems has been consistent and vigorous (e.g., Kampa-Kokesh, & Anderson, 2001; Fillery-
Travis & Lane, 2006; Gregory, Levy, & Jeffers, 2008). Sue-Chan & Latham (2004) provide
evidence that the lack of sufficient professional credibility negatively impacted client
performance and lowered satisfaction ratings. In addition to coaching competence, business,
management, leadership, and political expertise were identified as important credibility
considerations and particularly important to the establishment of trusting and effective
relationships (Alvey & Barclay, 2007; Kampa-Kokesch & Anderson, 2001).
The leadership coaching relationship is a one-on-one helping relationship between a
client and coach which is entered into with mutual agreement to improve the client’s professional
performance and personal satisfaction. The relationship between the client and coach is one of
the most essential processes of coaching with numerous authors suggesting that an effective
client-coach relationship results in successful coaching outcomes (Baron & Morin, 2009;
Gyllensten & Palmer, 2007; Hall, et al., 1999; Thach, 2002; Wasylyshn, 2003). While dynamic,
Coaching Relationships 9
establishing the relationship is generally the first step in a coaching engagement (Feldman &
The key processes associated with the client-coach relationship are building and
maintaining rapport, establishing and maintaining trust, and encouraging commitment (Boyce &
Hernez-Broom, 2010; Ely, et al., 2008; Ting & Hart, 2004; Ting & Riddle, 2006). These social
constructs involve a mutual responsibility between a coach and client and as a result may be
difficult to develop as the coach can not accomplish the process alone. Relationships with these
elements provide a context that in conjunction with other aspects of the coaching process (i.e.,
mechanics, program content, coaching tools and techniques) support effective coaching
Rapport. Rapport is about reducing the differences between the coach and client and
building on similarities. Rapport includes the mutual understanding, agreement, and liking
between the client and coach that allows each to appreciate, recognize, and respect each other as
individuals. The applied and scientific communities discuss rapport in terms of the ease,
warmth, genuine interest (Ting & Riddle, 2006) and coordination, mutual attentiveness, and
positivity (Tickle-Degnen & Rosenthal, 1990) experienced between individuals.
A coaching relationship with strong rapport between the client and coach is expected to
increase satisfaction with the coach and the program. Rapport behaviors, particularly as
demonstrated in clinical and mentoring literature, are associated with retention, higher levels of
self-disclosure, compliance, satisfaction, and effective treatment outcomes (Duggan & Parrott,
2006; Heintzman, Leathers, Parrott, & Caims, 1993; Joe, Simpson, Dansereau, & Rwan-Szal,
2001; Leach, 2005). Qualitative research offers support for the impact of rapport in executive
Coaching Relationships 10
coaching relationships and is described as essential to achieving coaching outcomes (Gyllensten
& Palmer, 2007).
Trust. Trust in a coaching context refers to the mutual confidence that supports the
client’s willingness to be open, honest, and vulnerable, and allows the coach to be supportive,
non-judgmental, and challenging. Trust and confidentiality provide the mutual security needed
to manage expectations, establish boundaries, and develop an open and honest dialogue.
Mutual trust in a coaching relationship provides a safe environment that supports
personal growth, while the absence of trust reduces satisfaction with the program. Establishing
and maintaining trust is “critical to the success of a particular intervention” (Lowman, 2005, p.
94). When trust is present clients are more likely to share sensitive information and coaches
have greater influence over their clients (Gyllenstein & Palmer, 2007; Kampa-Kokesh &
Anderson, 2001. Both are also more likely to engage in risk taking behaviors (Colquitt, Scott, &
LePine, 2007) Violations of trust, on the other hand, are associated with resistance to change and
lower satisfaction (Ford, Ford, & D’Amelio, 2008).
Commitment. Commitment reflects the dedication of both the client and coach to
perform the work associated with the coaching experience. Commitment includes the mutual
assurance to fulfill responsibilities in the relationship, which includes both task (e.g., attending
scheduled appointments, preparing for meetings, being accessible) and social-emotional
behaviors (e.g., acknowledging limitations, persevering through setbacks or progress pauses,
identifying and creating motivators).
A strong personal commitment from coach and client translates directly into behavioral
performance. Encouraging and sustaining individual commitment is considered essential to
coaching effectiveness ensuring the difficult tasks and necessary discussions are completed
Coaching Relationships 11
(Kilburg, 2001, Gregory, et al., 2008, Peterson & Miller, 2005). Mentoring literature supports
that commitment relates positively to relationship quality (Allen & Eby, 2008) as well as
program effectiveness (Allen, Eby, & Lentz, 2006).
A highly accepted framework for categorizing training outcomes is Kirkpatrick’s (1994)
taxonomy, which includes reactions, behavior, and results. Reactions refer to the subjective
evaluations, including both satisfaction and value aspects; individuals make about their
experiences and include both affective perceptions (e.g., satisfaction) and utility judgments about
the value of the program. Behavior refers to the influence of the intervention on leadership or
job related behaviors. Results refer to the achievement of organizational objectives. We direct
you to Ely et al. (in press) for a comprehensive discussion of these as well as summative and
formative leadership coaching outcomes. These criteria provide a framework for assessing the
effectiveness of the coaching relationship and the coaching program and ideally each would be
Based on our conceptual model and the supporting literature, we hypothesized the
(H1) Individuals in client-coach pairs systematically matched on commonality,
compatibility, and credibility will evaluate coaching outcomes more positively than
individuals randomly assigned by indicating (a) a higher degree of coaching
satisfaction and utility, (b) higher perceived leadership performance effectiveness,
and (c) more favorable perceptions of the coaching program
Coaching Relationships 12
(H2) Relationship processes will predict coaching outcomes, such that positive rapport,
trust, and commitment will result in higher (a) coaching satisfaction, (b) leadership
performance, and (c) program outcomes for clients and coaches
(H3-H5) Relationship processes mediate (H3) client-coach match commonality, (H4) client-
coach match compatibility, (H5) coach credibility impact on client coaching
outcomes, including (a) coaching satisfaction and utility, (b) leadership performance,
and (c) coaching program outcomes
Volunteers included 145 cadet clients and 85 senior leader coaches participating in a
leadership development coaching program at a U.S. military academy. Pre-and post-data were
available for 74 clients. While 76 coaches also had complete data sets, only 48 of the coaches
overlapped with the clients’ data set. Both clients and coaches voluntarily participated in the
coaching program using their own personal time.
The clients were undergraduates between the ages of 17 and 24, 65% male; distributed
across academic disciplines, leadership positions, and class years; and 87% White, 7% Hispanic,
and 4% other (African-American, Asian, etc.).
The senior leaders were faculty members or commanders responsible for academic
instruction or leadership guidance. These military (86%) and civilians (14%) were between the
ages of 26 and 58, 75% male; with a range of military, leadership, coaching, and education
experiences; and were 81% White, 3% African-American and 7% other (e.g., Hispanic, Asian,
Coaching Relationships 13
The purpose of the leadership coaching program is to support the development of
leadership competencies for leadership performance improvement in current and future
leadership roles while building life-long learning skills. The data collected for this study was
collected over four academic semesters or two program cycles. Coaches and clients met both
face-to-face and virtually with an average of eight face-to face meetings lasting between 10 and
90 minutes and 77% communicating at least once every two weeks.
During the study the number of applicants exceeded the availability of coaches. Forty-
seven or 55% of the available coaches agreed to support at least two clients. Therefore,
opportunistically, coaches and clients were either randomly or systematically matched on
commonality, compatibility, and credibility scores based on application responses. Clients were
randomly divided into two groups, such that coaches agreeing to take two clients were randomly
assigned to one and systematically matched to the other. Coaches electing to support only one
client were randomly selected to either receive a random or systematic matched client. Matches
were completed using spreadsheet calculations and potential client-coach pair score comparisons
on each match criteria.
End-of-program (EOP) surveys were completed by both clients and coaches, which
included perceptions regarding the client-coach relationship and outcome measures. The survey
was administered on-line following the termination of the coaching engagement.
The application and EOP surveys included both historic items for trend analyses as well
as items developed to operationalize the relationship issues. Most variables were measured in a
straightforward manner (e.g., “What are your extracurricular interests?”); any exceptions are
detailed in this section. The measures are divided into three sections: the predictors
Coaching Relationships 14
(commonality, compatibility, and credibility), the relationship process mediators (rapport, trust,
and commitment), and the criterion outcomes (reactions, behavior, and program results) and are
discussed in turn.
Commonality. A composite commonality score was developed by comparing coach and
client across 18 responses (gender, ethnicity, state of record, academic major and 14
hobbies/interests) for a possible score between 0 and 18. Nine percent of the client-coach pairs
had no common demographic or interests, while most (62%) pairs had at least two or more
commonalities with a maximum of five (6%).
Compatibility. Coaches completed Clark’s (1998) 18 item Leadership Questionnaire
based on Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid (1985) with results identifying managerial
preference style on two axes, concern for people or for tasks. Clients completed Soloman and
Felder’s (2005) 44-item Index of Learning Style Questionnaire, which is based on Kolb’s
Learning Style Inventory (Kolb, 1984) with results identifying learning preference style on two
axes, tasks and emotional processes. The similarity between these two dimensional models
provided the compatibility score, such that client-coach pairs scoring similarly on the task
dimension (hi or low) and process dimension (hi or low) received a higher compatibility score
then client-coach pairs in opposite quadrants. Scores ranged from 0 to 4 based on the overlap of
each dimension score, such that greater overlap received a higher compatibility score.
Credibility. Credibility had two foci. The first focus, coaching capabilities examined
whether the coach had the requisite ability to meet the client’s developmental need. Clients and
coaches identified from a list of 20 leadership competencies their perceived coaching needs or
perceived ability to coach, respectively. A score was created by comparing the overlap in the
competencies clients identified as a developmental need and the competencies coaches identified
Coaching Relationships 15
as a coaching strength, with resulting scores ranging from 0 (no overlap) to 10.
The second focus, military experience, similar to business acumen or sector knowledge in
the public domain, employed two items from the coach’s application. A military experience
score was created by comparing the assignment history (e.g., operational assignments) and status
(i.e., civilian, non-commissioned officer, officer), such that scores could range from 0 to 2 with
higher score indicating greater military experience.
Rapport. Rapport was assessed with two client-centered and two coach-centered items
from the EOP survey, e.g., “I felt a strong connection with my coach/client” The 5-point Likert
scale ranged from 1(Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). The scale reliabilities for client
and coach ratings were .86 and .87, respectively.
Trust. The client and coach each responded to one trust item, “I trusted my coach and
the coaching process,” or “My client was honest and candid” on the 5-point Likert scale.
Commitment. Clients rated coach commitment on three items, e.g., “My coach was
committed to my personal leadership development.” Similarly, coaches rated client commitment
on two items using the 5-point Likert scale. Internal reliabilities for the client and coach
commitment scales were .95 and .86, respectively.
Outcomes. The evaluation items were generally based on Kirkpatrick’s (1994) criteria
using a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1(Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree). Reaction
combined satisfaction with the leadership coaching experience (“I am satisfied with my coaching
experience”) and utility (“I feel the time and effort I’ve invested was worthwhile”) items with
internal reliabilities for each client and coach scale of .92 and .81, respectively. Two leadership
performance items (“As a result of my coaching experience I am more effective [performing my
leadership activities],” and “As a result of my coaching experience I learned how to keep
Coaching Relationships 16
learning and improving in the future”) were completed only by clients. The resulting scale’s
internal reliability was .87. Finally, organizational outcomes focused on the coaching program
and were measured using three client items (e.g., “Overall, this is a high quality program”) and
three parallel coach items. Internal reliabilities for client and coach scales were .88 and .85,
Manipulation Check. Three items (e.g., “My coach’s personal background and interests
were well matched with my background and interests) were included in the EOP survey to assess
if the systematic matching produced perceptions of commonality, compatibility, and credibility.
Descriptive statistics, correlations, and reliabilities for key variables are available from
the first author. Based on Cohen’s (1988) guidelines for large effect size, seven correlations
coefficients were identified as greater than .80. Of particular note were the large correlations
between rapport, trust, and commitment as rated by the client (r = .81, .86, and .90). Similarly
high correlations were not noted between coach ratings of rapport, trust, and commitment (r =
.81, .49, and .55), such that rapport and commitment (z = 3.97, p < .01) and trust and
commitment (z = 4.48, p <.01) correlations are significantly higher in client versus coach
Prior to analyses, violations for assumptions associated with the planned analyses were
tested. As might be expected, the relationship and outcome variables were negatively skewed
but the appropriate transformations performed provided acceptable improvement in the data
distribution. The transformed variables are used in the remaining analyses.
Analyses were also performed to ensure that subject characteristics were similar between
program cycles, respondents and non-respondents, and clients randomly and systematically
Coaching Relationships 17
matched. No differences in measured demographic and dispositional data were found between
these comparison groups.
Manipulation checks were also examined and significant differences were found between
random and systematic matches commonality scores (t(121) = 4.14, p <.01), compatibility scores
(t(121)= 2.54, p <.05), and credibility scores (t(121)=5.02, p <01) at the time of the matches.
However, when the three scores were compared using the 74 client-coach pairs with outcome
data, there was no longer a significant difference between client-coach pairs randomly and
systematically matched on compatibility (t(66) = .57, n.s.) and a smaller effect with commonality
(t(66) = 2.40, p < .05; Cohen’s d .75 to .59). Also, when compared with the manipulation check
items, there were no correlations with matched and random pairs and their perceptions of
commonality, compatibility, and credibility (r = .17, .09, .02; n.s., respectively).
Hypothesis 1 was not supported as no significant differences between systematically
matched and randomly assigned client-coach pairs were found in coaching outcomes as rated by
clients (reaction t(70) = .95, n.s.; leadership performance t(70) = .04, n.s.; program t(70) = .80,
n.s.) and coaches (reaction t(746) = .29, n.s.; program t(46) = .32, n.s.)
Hypotheses 2 was supported in that relationship processes predicted coaching outcomes
(Table 1). Specifically, regression results revealed the overall models were significant (reaction
F(3,66) = 34.51, p< .01; leadership performance F(3,66) = 19.16, p< .01; program F(3, 66) =
20.40, p< .01) with a good fit and 61% , 47% and 48% of the variance explained in the clients
satisfaction/utility, leadership development, and coaching program outcomes, respectively.
Overall models were also significant (reaction F(3,44) = 35.56, p< .01; program F(3, 44) =
11.51, p< .01) with a good fit and 69% and 20% of the variance explained in the coaches
satisfaction/utility and program outcomes, respectively. As an exploratory analysis, we also
Coaching Relationships 18
examined how well coaches’ relationship process ratings predicted coaching outcomes as
perceived by clients. Again, regression results revealed overall models were significant (reaction
F(3,44) = 17.32, p< .01; leadership performance F(3, 44) = 13.21, p <.01; program F(3, 44) =
11.45, p< .01) with a good fit and 27%, 22%, and 20% of the variance explained in the clients
satisfaction/utility, leadership development, and coaching program outcomes, respectively.
Insert Table 1 about here
In terms of the best predictors (rapport, trust, or commitment), the regression analyses
suggest that client-coach rapport (t(66) = 3.47, p <.01) and trust (t(66) = 2.80, p <.01) and not
commitment (t(66) = 0.35, n.s.) predict client reactions, while commitment (t(66) = 1.97, p <.05)
and not rapport (t(66) = 0.74, n.s.) nor trust (t(66) = 1.08, n.s) predict leadership performance.
Further, trust (t(66) = 2.22, p <.05), not rapport (t(66) = 1.71, n.s.) nor commitment (t(66) = 0.91,
n.s.) predicted program outcomes for clients. Similarly, only rapport (t(44) = 4.78, p <.01) and
trust (t(44) = 2.05, p <.05) predicted reactions, while only trust (t(44) = 3.39, p <.01) predicted
coaching program outcomes for coaches.
Hypothesis 3 - 5 suggested that relationship processes mediate the influence of client-
coach match conditions (commonality, compatibility, credibility) on coaching outcomes
(satisfaction/utility, leadership performance, coaching program; Table 2). When client-coach
compatibility and relationship processes were regressed on reaction, the relationship (β = .58,
t(65) = 7.44, p < .01) was significantly related to coaching satisfaction and the compatibility
score became non significant (β = .03, t(65) = 1.83, n.s.). The result of Sobel’s test showed that
the parameter estimate for the relationship between compatibility and satisfaction was
Coaching Relationships 19
significantly lower in the mediated condition than in the nonmediated condition z = 2.01, p < .05
(Preacher & Leonardelli, 2001), indicating that relationship processes fully mediated the
relationship between client-coach compatibility scores and coaching satisfaction, providing
support for Hypothesis 4a.
Insert Table 2 about here
Similar results were found when credibility (experience) and relationship process were
regressed on reactions, leadership performance, and program outcomes. The relationship was
significantly related to coaching satisfaction/utility (β = .61, t(63) = 7.47, p < .01, leadership
performance (β = .44, t(63) = 4.79, p < .01, and program outcomes (β = .58, t(63) = 7.33, p <
.01) while credibility became non significant (β = .07, t(63) = 1.23, n.s.), (β = .13, t(63) = 2.13,
n.s.), (β = .06, t(63) = 1.22, n.s.), respectively. The Sobel test results (z = 3.02, p < .01; z= 2.72,
p < .01; z =3.00, p < .01) provides statistical support for the fully mediated relationship.
Therefore, Hypothesis 5a, 5b, and 5c are supported. However, as commonality was not
correlated with reactions, and neither commonality nor compatibility was correlated with
leadership performance or program outcomes (step 1 of mediated regression analysis did not
demonstrate that there is an effect that can be mediated), Hypothesis 3a, 3b, 3c, 4b, and 4c were
In this article, we make four contributions to the leadership coaching literature by
providing and evaluating a framework for examining client-coach match criteria in terms of
understanding their impact on client-coach relationship processes and coaching outcomes. As
Coaching Relationships 20
elaborated in the introduction, despite the suggested importance of the client-coach relationship
and the potential impact of building the client-coach relationship, no systematic examination has
been performed to examine these issues. Therefore, our framework provides a conceptual
examination of critical match, relationship, and outcome variables. The resulting process model
not only provides a common foundation for future discussions and research, but can be used by
practitioners to guide their thinking in building relationships and examining their effectiveness.
Our second contribution regards the practical limitations of systematic matching. We felt
it important to share the practicalities, or perhaps more appropriately the impracticalities, of
systematically matching clients and coaches. Currently without the support of technology, which
requires an understanding of which and to what extent different match criteria are important, the
process is tenuous. The Center of Creative Leadership, a recognized leader in providing quality
executive coaching, estimates that when systematic matching is attempted, only 60% are “real
matches,” the remaining matches are “best fit” with the remaining coaches with the final matches
being random (Hernez-Broome, Boyce, & Ely, 2009, p. 12.). This difficulty is exacerbated in
organizations with a limited or homogeneous coaching pool, particularly when the process is
performed by hand with no technology support. Future research not only needs to examine
match criteria but identify, develop, and assess tools to support practice.
Our third contribution is the empirical support presented for the impact of the client-
coach relationship on coaching outcomes. Specifically, the client-coach relationships played a
mediating role in the impact of coaches’ military credibility and all three outcome measures,
supporting a common belief that coach’s ability to understand client’s business environment and
issues was crucial in building a relationship and achieving outcomes.
Our fourth contribution addresses a key gap in the coaching literature regarding the
Coaching Relationships 21
specific factors clients, coaches, or coordinators should consider in selecting a coach. Rapport
and trust were significant predictors of satisfaction and utility as perceived by both client and
coach with trust also predicting program outcomes. Finally, commitment predicted leadership
performance improvement. Our results provide evidence that the client-coach relationship is
indeed critical to successful coaching and further suggest that different aspects of the relationship
uniquely impact outcomes, such that high rapport leads to positive reactions to the experience,
while greater commitment translates into behavioral outcomes. Trust, on the other hand, appears
more foundational and is critical to both reactions to the experience and program outcomes. The
latter being often overlooked but particularly insightful as those indicators are often used to gain
organizational support for integrating coaching into the leadership development strategy as well
as maintaining and growing the coaching program itself.
In addition, we provide support towards the value of complementary managerial and
learning styles in building compatible relationships. While further evidence is needed to
understand the importance of matching similar or complementary personality or other individual
differences characteristics for building relationships, our research provides initial evidence that
clients with learning styles which were complementary or not similar to their coaches’
managerial style developed more effective relationships, ultimately resulting in more positive
reactions to their coaching experience.
The practical implications of these results are important as they suggest that it is through
the effect on the client-coach relationship that the match or fit between the client and coach
influences the coaching program success. A successful client-coach relationship is critical to
coaching effectiveness and practitioners should consider the fit between the client and coach
personal characteristics when paring a client with a coach. Coaching coordinators might also
Coaching Relationships 22
consider training to support development of rapport, trust, and commitment, particularly when
matching clients to limited coaching pools.
Limitations and Future Research
Although the results of this study are insightful, our conclusions are tempered by
shortcomings that are worth addressing in future work. First, military cadets may not represent
the traditional clients (e.g., age, experience, personality, behavioral preferences). Thus the
generalizability of these findings is limited and replication is needed with other client
populations. Further our coaches, while trained, were volunteers performing leadership coaching
as an additional responsibility. Therefore our result s may be also less generalizable to
professional coaches, who coach as their primary job. In addition, limitations with external
validity associated with our coaching program existing in an academic setting also apply. Future
research should investigate the impact of relationships for developing leaders in business
situations unrelated to traditional leadership development courses.
Another limitation involves common method bias. To some degree, item characteristic
effects of social desirability and common scale formats and anchors may have influenced
participants’ response. While every effort was made to emphasize participant confidentiality and
the importance of honest responses, many of the items were written in such a way as to reflect
socially desirable attitudes, particularly for the client. Method effects, however, were hopefully
minimized by collecting mediator and criterion measures using different scale formats (5-point
versus 7-point Likert scale). Future research needs to also incorporate alternative outcome data,
such as learning (i.e., declarative and procedural knowledge, self-awareness, cognitive and leader
flexibility, self-efficacy and job attitudes relevant to coaching), peer or supervisor ratings of
change in leadership performance, organizational performance, and future coaching involvement
Coaching Relationships 23
is also needed. In addition, formative or relationship process data needs to be collected
throughout the coaching engagement to capture the predictive and dynamic nature of the
We acknowledge that building and maintaining rapport, trust, and commitment does not
happen in a vacuum. Other relationship processes (e.g., collaboration), as well as other coaching
processes (e.g., mechanics, tools, and techniques) likely influence coaching outcomes and need
to be investigated systematically. For example, collaboration is the cooperation that occurs
between the client and coach that permits and requires both to contribute in identifying the
coaching needs and directing developmental experiences. Collaboration includes not only
sharing responsibility but also valuing each other’s contributions. Collaborative relationships
have been related to goal achievement (Allen, et al., 1996; Luborsky, et al., 1980) and are
distinguishable from trust and commitment (Colson et al., 1988. p. 260).
Obviously, more research examining predictors of effective client-coach relationships is
warranted. We also encourage future research to consider factors that might negatively affect the
relationship, factors and issues that may impact the client-coach relationship built or maintained
within a virtual or e-environment, and as eluded to earlier the factors that may impact different
stages of an evolving dynamic client-coach relationship. Finally, we suggest that technology be
examined as a tool for identifying and creating optimal and minimal client-coach matches.
This study represents one of the first attempts to systematically examine client-coach
relationships. We hope that this effort aids in highlighting the value of the conceptual
framework for conducting client-coach relationship research. The results provide support and
understanding of the coach-client relationship’s impact on coaching outcomes. Further, our
Coaching Relationships 24
findings support the understanding of factors influencing client-coach relationships, which
allows us to develop selection tools to better match clients with coaches thus increasing the
quality of the relationship and ultimately the outcomes. As organizations continue to adapt and
grow leadership coaching programs, it is imperative that research continues towards closing the
scientist-practitioner gap in leadership coaching.
Coaching Relationships 25
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Regression Results: Standardized Regression Coefficients (β) Between Predictors and Leadership Coaching Outcomes
Relationship Processes Coaching Outcomes
Client Ratings Coach Ratings
2= .61** R2= .47** R2= .48**
.42** .10 .24
Trust .38** .21 .35**
Commitment .06 .42* .17
Coach Rating R
2= .69** R2= .20**
Trust .27* .45**
Commitment .01 .18
Coach Rating R
2= .27** R2= .22** R2= .20**
.52** .47** .22
Trust .26 .18 .45**
Commitment .25 .10 .07
* p< .05 (two-tailed); ** p < .01 (two-tailed).
Coaching Relationships 33
Mediated Regression Results with Standardized Regression Coefficients (β)
Predictor (IV) Mediator Coaching
Outcome (DV) Predictor (IV) Mediator Coaching Outcomes (DV)
(Client Rating) Relationship Satisfaction/Utility
(Client Rating) Leadership
Compatibility -.06** Credibility .25** .23** .21**
R2 .11** R2.14** .18** .14**
Step 2 Step 2
Compatibility .05* Credibility .25**
R2 .06* R2.15**
Step 3 Step 3
Compatibility -.03 Credibility .07 .13* .11
Relationship .58** Relationship .61** .44** .68**
R2 .52** .54** .40** .54**
F (df) .82** (2, 65) 37.62** (2, 63) 20.61** (2,63) 36.33** (2,63)
2.01* 3.02** 2.72** 3.00**
* p< .05 (two-tailed); ** p < .01 (two-tailed).
Coaching Relationships 34