Everything you need to know about executive coaching
State of the industry: Executive coaching
“New Year, New You! The boom in executive coaching”, so the FT headline from early 2020 goes. The field has grown considerably in recent years, and it is expected to continue to rise in popularity and overtake consulting in demand by 2028. As the ageing population will retire in record numbers, there will be a call for a vast transfer of institutional, industry and professional wisdom to prepare the next generation of leaders.
Companies are starting to realise this necessity to invest in long-term talent as opposed to filling short term gaps. To put it in perspective, the global revenue from coaching in 2019 was estimated at $15BN, more than a 6-fold increase from $2.356BN in 2015.
The demand for coaching is further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the crisis placing extraordinary challenges on senior leaders and managers. Executives need to navigate a considerable level of uncertainty and change, focus on unprecedented demands and make complex decisions. With turbulent and uncertain times ahead, executive coaching is more important than ever.
So, what is executive coaching?
Per the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), the aim of coaching is to:
"Produce optimal performance and improvement at work. It focuses on specific skills and goals, although it may also have an impact on an individual's personal attributes such as social interaction or confidence."
In a similar way that an elite athlete is honed and fine-tuned by a personal trainer, an executive coach helps their client to achieve professional and personal ambitions by sharpening their performance.
What executive coaching isn't
While executive coaching has grown rapidly in the past decade, it is often misunderstood, and the term is regularly used interchangeably with other development approaches. So, let’s take a look at what coaching isn’t.
Coaching is not consulting - consulting is problem-focused, working with companies and individuals to guide them towards a specific goal. Problems such as “how can we expand our reach in North America?” or “how do I restructure my teams to work more effectively?”
Coaching is not training - training is focused on the transfer of specific knowledge or skills to others (often a group) in the pursuit of a defined goal. While there may be some training in executive coaching, it’s not the principal aim.
Coaching is not mentoring - this is probably the term used the most interchangeably with coaching. Again, looking to the CIPD, we can define mentoring as:
“A relationship in which a more experienced colleague shares their greater knowledge to support the development of an inexperienced member of staff. It calls on the skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing that is also associated with coaching.”
Sounds similar to coaching, doesn't it? The mentoring definition even refers to coaching skills. In practice, mentoring looks like a blend of training and coaching, while the best business coaches have the tools in their tool bag and the commercial acumen to provide both coaching and mentoring.
Coaching is not therapy - many therapists concentrate on positive psychology to help high-functioning individuals grow, and coaching can be process-driven, exploring feelings and personal life. However, therapy is primarily focused on the past, and it is diagnostic in nature, while coaching is forward-looking and founded on achieving personal goals.
Although there’s some overlap between all of the above practices, coaching is a specific development approach. Crucially, the best coaches will focus on actionable insights and the outcome-driven applications of coaching and the most productive ways to get results for their clients by using techniques from different development practices. They help clients look at their professional life with new perspectives - coaching isn’t about having your questions answered; it’s about having your answers questioned.
Coaching is about transformative development at the peak of performance. Going back to the athlete analogy, coaching’s highest potential isn’t taking people from bad to good. It’s taking people from good to great and from great to excellent.
Who needs executive coaching?
Those wanting to get great at something… Or at least that is the conclusion author and surgeon Atul Gawande draws in his widely viewed 2017 TED Talk.
How do we improve in the face of complexity? Well, Gawande studied this question with a surgeon's precision. The things he found to be key: having a good coach to provide a more accurate picture of our reality, to instil positive habits of thinking, and to break our actions down and then help us build them back up again. "It's not how good you are now; it's how good you're going to be that really matters", Gawande says.
The real value of coaching is conditional on the value of the goal. We might not need a boost in professional growth or that promotion at work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not remarkably important to us in achieving a worthwhile and fulfilling career. With this in mind, someone might benefit from a coach to:
Obtain new perspectives on a problem they have been struggling with
Enhance work performance and become a more effective leader
Make a positive impact in a new role and quickly establish credibility
Analyse and evaluate issues, and resulting strategic options in the service of enhanced decision-making
Work with an independent and confidential sounding board.
The following five questions will help to provide clarity around your goals for coaching and whether you should find a coach and start your coaching journey.
1. What are the challenges and issues that you are facing?
Coaching is about creating change, action and accountability. There needs to be something that you want to change, be it to overcome an obstacle, solve a problem, develop new skills, or take your career to the next level or another direction. What is the change you want to initiate?
2. What is the ideal situation for you?
If there were no challenges and no obstacles, where would your goals take you? This is what a coach will help you to achieve, or at least help you to move in the right direction towards.
3. What has prevented you from experiencing these results in the past?
What have you tried before that hasn't worked? Perhaps you didn't know any coaches, or how a coach worked. Maybe the timing hasn't been right in the past because of personal circumstances.
"The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now."
- Chinese proverb
4. What is at stake if nothing changes?
Coaching is a commitment in terms of your time, energy, emotions and money. What if you embrace the status quo? Would that be ok? If so, what you might be seeking may not be a coach.
5. What is your sense of urgency?
What is it that makes this important right now? If there is no reason to get started now and challenge the status quo, then you may not need a coach at this time.
"We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training."
- Archilochus (680-645BC)
Click the button below to download the five questions.
A coach provides several crucial roles, including being a powerful independent sounding board, someone that will challenge you and hold you accountable and someone that will give an outside perspective to raise your self-awareness, perhaps by saying things that others cannot say. Does that sound like someone you would like to work with, in an open, honest and trusting partnership?
Choosing an executive coach
Once you’ve decided to find an executive coach to help you create change in your professional life, it can be a daunting task to search for and select a provider of professional services. How can you be confident that you are buying the best intangible service from the many coaching providers out there? Follow these five steps to reduce the risk inherent in finding and selecting a coach and increase your chances of finding that ideal, independent strategic partner who will help you to achieve your goals.
Step 1 - Decide on the coaching style and roles you want the coach to provide
Coaches will have different styles and ways they approach working with their clients. What is the essential role that the coach needs to fulfil in your career? The answer to this question will guide you in picking the right coach.
For example, The Heron Model of coaching behaviours informs my approach. I am equally comfortable being facilitative, supportive and "pulling" the ideas, solutions and so on from my clients as I am being authoritative which can be more challenging but allows me to "push" information to my clients through challenges, suggestions and brainstorming together. Some coaches will not be comfortable pushing and pulling; their approach is what is called non-directive and relies solely on drawing out (pulling) ideas and information.
I believe that being able to use both "push" and "pull" approaches depending on the situation is not only a valuable skill set to have but an essential one. My collaborative and pragmatic coaching style utilises stories and insights from my own 22-year corporate career, and by leveraging this track record, I can push and appropriately challenge my clients when I believe it is in their best interest.
2 - The practice of coaching - core competencies
According to the Executive Coaching Forum, the practice of executive coaching demands a broad and deep array of knowledge that spans four core competencies:
Psychological knowledge: understanding of psychological theories and concepts as well as emotional intelligence.
Business acumen: how different businesses work, their functional areas, business models, industry knowledge along with the specifics about a given company.
Organisational knowledge: understanding of how systems work in the context of organisations, organisational structures, processes and how to assess these connected and individual elements.
Coaching experience: knowledge of theory, research and practice in the field of executive coaching such as coaching models, boundaries, contracting, goal setting.
Coaches will have deep expertise in each of these areas, often across several but rarely in all four. Developing subject mastery takes place over different stages of one's career.
Coaching qualifications are in no small part based on psychology and therapy. As an emerging profession, it has tended to attract a disproportionate amount of people from human resources, and therefore psychologists and therapists. These coaches are likely to be weaker in the business acumen and practical organisational competencies. If you are familiar with the coach's history, early career and background, it will help you to understand better whether they are going to be a good fit for you.
3 - Coaching specialisms
Coaching executives isn't a specialism.
Experienced coaches focus and specialise. They work in verticals they have direct experience and success in. Why work with a generalist, when you can partner with someone that specialises in the exact area that you are seeking help?
4 - How to search and find your coach
It can be daunting to buy an intangible service, such as executive coaching. However, there are several ways to reduce the risk and save time rather than trusting that your online search engine ranking knows best:
Word of mouth, recommendations: If someone in your network is recommending a coach, then it will be worth your time to speak with them. Check with your network and ask for recommendations.
Coach training organisations: High-quality coach training schools will be able to recommend coaches from their alumni.
Accreditation bodies: Such as Association for Coaching (AC), European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) and International Coach Federation (ICF) have resources for searching coach directories.
LinkedIn: A quick search on LinkedIn, filtering for 1st or 2nd-second degree connections and location will supply you with an initial list of coaches that you can then review.
5 - Questions to ask a prospective coach
So, with all that in mind, let's distil it down to a set of questions you can ask to help you make your choice. It would be best if you aimed to speak to several coaches during this process - I recommend speaking with three. This first introductory or exploratory meeting with a coach, either in person, via phone or Zoom is commonly referred to as a "chemistry session". Chemistry sessions should always be free of charge - it gives both you and the coach a chance to get to know each other and mutually assess suitability.
Seven questions to ask
1 - Who do you work best with? This should include details about the seniority, experience and type of person. Aim to draw out their coaching style, approach and the essential role that their coaching provides. Read available client testimonials for additional insights.
2 - What is your coaching specialism? Ask after the challenges that the coach has made their specialism, as these will be the challenges they spend most of their time working on with clients. Again, client testimonials may provide additional insight.
3 - Describe a recent coaching success story.
4 - Describe a problematic coaching engagement. What didn't go according to plan, and why? What would you do differently next time? Doing so will help you discover how honest they are and their level of humility. A coach who claims never to have struggled with a client should be treated with caution.
5 - How will the coaching process work, and what is the likely structure you would recommend?
6 - What and when was your formal training, are you accredited, and which body of coaching ethics do you follow? Coaching credentials are essential as coaching is still an unregulated industry - an emerging profession. Which means anyone can refer to themselves as a coach. Look for coaches who have graduated from programs that are approved by one of the following: AC, EMCC or ICF. You can quickly vet credentials by searching online to find out if the coach went to an accredited coaching school.
7 - Do you have a coach? Trained coaches are obligated to undertake deep inner work and development before they begin coaching others, and they should always have a focus on their continued journey. Being coached is one way for a coach to grow and bring new skills and ideas back into our practices.
Conditions for coaching success
To finish up, I will leave you with some final thoughts to help you with your journey.
There needs to be a desire for creating change in your professional life. If there is no desire for change, then there is no need for a coach.
Your focus should be on the development and growth required to get the best outcomes. You often will have little control over outcomes such as gaining a promotion, or a new role, so instead, focus on the things you have more control over, as that will lead to the desired results.
Coaching will challenge you by providing an outside perspective which can help you see yourself as others see you - so, you need to be open to feedback and willing to try new things.
Play the hand you're dealt. You are busy, often juggling multiple, sometimes competing demands. Threading the needle is the norm. Coaching is a commitment in terms of time, energy and emotions.
Keep your promises. You are accountable for your change and responsible for follow-through. Otherwise, you won't progress and make positive, lasting changes.
Select a coach that you are comfortable partnering with. Trust, openness and honesty are essential to an effective coaching partnership.
Find a coach that provides the roles you seek and has the specialism and experience that aligns with your field.
There should be no self-serving behaviour from the coach. At every stage, they should be comfortable sharing tools and techniques for the coaching to continue between sessions and after they finish.
If you’re interested in exploring whether my coaching services could help you, get in touch for a free call - firstname.lastname@example.org. Or click the button below to schedule a complimentary introductory session to explore executive coaching. In this session, we will discuss your goals and help to clarify how and whether coaching could help you at this time