Self-Directed Learning—the Real ROI
by Bronwyn Bowery-Ireland

At the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC) conference this year, I asked more than one hundred people how many were formally measuring ROI with their clients. The response was the same as the statistics that are available—very few.

Though billions of dollars are spent on training, only seven percent (+/-) of this amount is actually measured using the ROI model; that is all five levels of the model. And this applies to coaching as well, as it falls within the training budget.

However, I think that we have this process back to front. What I mean by this is that evaluating coaching should model the coaching process. It should be client-centered. ROI, in most instances, is measured by the coach. This process can be quite subjective. It also places the responsibility of 'proving ROI' onto the coach. I would like to propose—just as I outlined in my talk at the WABC conference, that we change our mindset. That the client evaluates the coaching, that the process is self-directed rather than coach-directed.

A self-directed approach requires a complete mindset shift. It means that the client determines what they want to work on and how they are going to measure their successes or achievements. It is their process, it has relevance to them, and they hold the meaning contained within it. The challenge for the coach is to balance the fine art of meeting the needs of the client they are coaching, usually the company.

For the coach this seems to work most successfully when the company is happy for the client, their employee, to measure the coaching. As we all know, if an employee is feeling successful and confident then they are a happy employee. Their happiness and success has a direct result on the company. However to leave the measuring to the employee requires the company to operate in a paradigm of trust. This also requires a huge mindset shift.

Simon Hammond in his book Guts, believes it is much easier to take the rational road: It's safer, less risky, and less emotional.1 CEOs can more easily control rational executives who don't risk anything at all. As a result, they may be able to ensure short-term predictability for shareholders, but will they get brilliance, inspiration, or breakthroughs that will mean long-term growth? The rational road is so rarely connective or effective. Plus, surely the secret to connection must be human connection. Human connection is where we can build trust.

I decided a few years ago that this was the only way forward for the company (ICA) of which I am CEO. We could easily bring about short-term growth, but long-term growth was more difficult to determine. Something had to change. I had to lead the change and it required an alteration in mindset. I had to trust the people around me. I had to give them space to grow and develop, to determine what was possible within their area of expertise. I had to recognize that the development and direction of their area had to be directed by them. Self-direction was key in all areas.

I decided to get rid of performance management tools and replace them with learning tools. Each employee had to determine in which areas they wanted to develop. These areas were not constructed against the strategic goals of our company, but rather where the individuals wanted to develop both personally and professionally. What I learned from each person was that their areas of development were always aligned with the company's because they were where they wanted to be. Growing in their position was part of their goals, part of whom they are.

The self-directed personal development plans included learning how to take better self care, scheduling in regular massages, participating in sporting activities, coaching, attending men's workshops, taking a holiday, and many other things. I decided to pay for these things as well as professional development opportunities, such as skills training.

If I were to apply the ROI process to the areas of personal development, the main achievements from these activities would be lost. They are not tangible. The outcomes from these development areas were less-stressed employees, and greater confidence, levels of trust and team work, greater respect for others, and so on. And this was without measuring the increase in their skill levels.

But what was the overall result for the company? In the last three years, ICA has had over 60 percent growth per year. This is huge! It was not achieved by going safely, systematically, scientifically, or rationally. It was achieved by taking a risk, by trusting and believing in human connection. It was achieved by placing the responsibility of growth and development squarely on the shoulders of each person—self-directed development.

At the end of the day, I know that all of these activities attributed to our growth. When everyone feels confident and successful, ICA grows. When we connect as humans, the engagement is the key thing. I know that this way of doing business parallels with the mindset of coaching, and that if we truly apply a coaching philosophy to business, we will see growth. I know that when the client measures their success, their confidence grows as rapidly as the bottom line, and this requires moving to a paradigm of trust. It requires a great change in mindset for many. But I know being self-directed is the best way to achieve huge outcomes.


1 Hammond, S. 2004. Guts. All It Takes to Be Successful in Business (and Life). Manark Printing, Australia.

Bronwyn Bowery-Ireland is the CEO of International Coach Academy, an international coach training school. She has been an executive coach for over 10 years. Read more about Bronwyn in the WABC Coach Directory. Bronwyn can be reached by email at

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