Leadership development through coaching: a case study

The Defence Acquisition University is an example of how professional coaching schemes can work alongside training and development programmes to produce impressive results


Training, executive education and leadership development programming are part of many organisations’ overall talent-management packages, providing key and rising leaders with structured opportunities for skills development and general self-improvement. There’s no doubt about it: investing in learning and leadership development is a win-win for the organisations and individuals who benefit from it.

However, a growing body of evidence shows that training and leadership development programmes are more effective when they include a coaching component. Because coaching is client-driven, it is inherently open to individualisation. As such, it is the perfect complement to already existing programming, providing a structured opportunity to set and pursue goals and put learning from mentoring conversations and classroom training into action.

Putting coaching to the test: The Defence Acquisition University
The Defence Acquisition University (DAU) provides a powerful example of how coaching can reinforce and enhance an already-world-class training and development programme. As the corporate university for the US’ defence acquisition workforce, the DAU provides in-person and virtual learning opportunities and leadership development to the 152,000 military and civilian professionals associated with the largest buying enterprise in the world. In late 2007, the DAU began to explore the possibility of adding a coaching service to its portfolio of offerings in order to improve acquisition outcomes and enhance the leadership capacity of key leaders.

The DAU’s coaching programme impacts leaders in all functional areas of the defence acquisition workforce

After extensive research and benchmarking, the following year the DAU piloted a rigorous coach-training programme oriented around the International Coach Federation’s (ICF) Core Competencies and Code of Ethics and adapted to the unique needs of the defence acquisition workforce. The DAU’s coaching programme impacts leaders in all functional areas of the defence acquisition workforce, including governance and oversight, programme management, contracting, systems engineering, business and financial management, production and quality management, testing and evaluation, and life cycle logistics.

To date, more than 49 DAU faculty members have completed the university’s training programme and deployed their services to meet the needs of nearly 60 major buying organisations. Through one-on-one and team coaching engagements, these coaches – all of whom are themselves senior faculty members and seasoned defence acquisition professionals – have reached more than 220 key leaders at the strategic and organisational levels. Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 supervisors and mid- and senior-grade leaders have benefitted from a portfolio of targeted leadership development courses designed to extend the understanding and use of coaching skills throughout the defence-acquisition workforce.

Success and progress 
In recognition of the DAU’s outstanding use of coaching to augment existing training programmes and empower key leaders to achieve personal and organisational goals, ICF Global awarded the organisation an honourable mention through the 2013 ICF International Prism Award programme. The International Prism Award programme honours organisations that have achieved a standard of excellence in the implementation of coaching programmes; fulfilling rigorous professional standards, addressing key strategic goals, shaping organisational culture, and yielding discernible and measureable positive impacts.

DAU coaching clients have reported a high return on expectations in areas including organisational change, networking, strategic thought and leadership, leadership confidence, teamwork, communication, and time management. This is consistent with ICF research around the benefits of coaching. According to the 2009 ICF Global Coaching Client Study, coaching clients have cited positive impacts on self-confidence (80 percent), communication skills (72 percent), interpersonal skills (71 percent), overall work performance (70 percent) and team effectiveness (51 percent).

The DAU has also cited coaching success stories within the defence acquisition workforce. In the DAU’s International Prism Award application, ICF Associate Certified Coach and DAU Director of Leadership Programmes and Coaching, Richard Hansen, told the story of an admiral who spoke at a recent Wounded Warriors banquet about the key role executive coaching played in helping her reach her current rank.

“People say that culture trumps strategy,” Hansen wrote. “Our coaching initiative is realising a synergy between strategy and culture as our leaders embrace the positive impact of coaching.”

An aircraft programme manager who was initially sceptical of coaching reported “immediate and astonishing” results from his engagement with a DAU coach. In a testimonial, he wrote that coaching helped him turn a well-run programme into a benchmark programme where people knew their value and were empowered to “accelerate through change and land on top.”


DAU’s non-financial return on investment in coaching


DAU’s financial return on investment in coaching

Savings and efficiencies
With an annual acquisition budget of $350bn, the defence acquisition operating environment demands a high return on every investment of time, manpower and money. The DAU’s initiative has met this demand, with measurable results throughout the coaching programme’s 60 client organisations. One hi-tech programme manager who regularly oversaw projects with annual budgets of more than $5m reported that coaching was instrumental in yielding millions of dollars in cost savings and efficiencies.

Meanwhile, the DAU has tracked the workforce-wide impacts of its coaching programme and calculated a non-financial return on investment of 330 percent and a reported financial return on investment of 743 percent.

For more information about how coaching can augment your organisation’s executive education and leadership development programming, visit ICF’s ‘Need Coaching?’ resource at the URL below. This information-packed booklet will help make the case for coaching to decision-makers in your organisation with a concise explanation of what coaching is (and what it isn’t), and a host of compelling data showing that, in organisations of all sizes and across all sectors, coaching works.

For more information, visit coachfederation.org/need or coachfederation.org/prism