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What is Executive Coaching (and what it isn’t)

“Coaching” has many definitions, and many coaching associations have their own definitions of coaching along with sets of core competencies.

This article defines coaching with a primary focus on coaching leaders, managers, and up-and-coming talent in organizations:

Coaching is an efficient, high-impact process of dialogue that helps highly performing people improve results in ways that are sustained over time.

Unlike traditional consulting assignments, coaching is efficient because it does not require invasive processes, large outside teams, or lengthy reports and analyses to get results.

It is a high-impact process because coaching typically gets results in short meetings, which can often last only a few minutes and are rarely longer than an hour. During this time, the coach and the individual being coached can generate important insights, gain clarity, focus, and make decisions to improve performance. Coach and client can achieve amazing things together in these meetings, which is why executive coaching can be such a powerful and rewarding skillset to have.

Coaching is a dialogue. The coach and the person being coached are working together to make things happen. When you are coaching, you might speak 25 percent of the time, while the other person speaks 75 percent. Even if you are an expert in your field and know all the answers, you hold back to let the person being coached express concerns, challenges, and feelings. The dialogue allows the other person to determine their own answers and action steps, allowing the individual to not only solve immediate issues but also develop the capacity to keep improving. 

Third, coaching works with high-performing people. It is not therapy meant to fix a person. As a coach in an organization, you work with people who are already highly functioning and successful. Like any of us, these professionals need support from time to time to perform better. Some might have serious blind spots, such as a leader who comes across as too abrasive, but coaching assumes that people have tremendous talent and potential. 

Finally, your goal as a coach is to improve results in ways that are sustainable over time. The point of coaching is to achieve some sort of valuable outcome, usually related to improved performance, higher profits, career success, organizational effectiveness, or career and personal satisfaction. If you aren’t helping people get results through coaching, you aren’t coaching well. If you are focusing more on jargon, academic theory, promoting the latest pseudoscientific fad, then you are not helping the client move towards measurable results. Coaching is about helping people improve their own capabilities and effectiveness so that the results and performance improvements last. To use the time-worn and famous quote, you are teaching people to fish, not feeding them for a day.

You can incorporate coaching into almost any role.

If you are a manager, coaching becomes a crucial skill to develop your people, improve performance, and gain leverage on your time.

Likewise, if you have a training role, coaching provides a way to sustain results. It makes common sense that following up after a training event reinforces learning and results. For instance, the coach can help the other person deal with specific challenges that might be preventing the training from having its full impact. 

executives having a conversation in small group

Similarly, if you are a management consultant, you probably already provide coaching as part of what you do. Coaching is the part of the engagement where you work one-on-one with clients to encourage them to make difficult decisions, step out of their comfort zone, stop destructive behavior, embrace change, and shift performance. For me, a long-time consultant, coaching is the fun part. Coaching lets you stop doing the analyses (and most of the time the client already knows the answer anyway), stop revising the PowerPoint presentation, and sit down face-to-face with the client to help them improve results. It’s the part of the engagement where the client turns to you as their objective, trusted advisor—as a colleague and confidant.

It is also important to be clear about what coaching is NOT.

As noted before, coaching is not therapy. You are not fixing anybody. You are not delving into traumatic pasts. Good coaching certainly gets underneath the surface to look at perceptions, but the emphasis is on helping a healthy individual to overcome challenges and be more effective. If you do work with someone who might need therapy, refer that person to a licensed professional. 

Second, coaching is also not the same thing as management. Coaching is one tool that a manager can use, but it is not the only tool. Sometimes a manager needs to direct, tell, mentor, and/or teach. Coaching is a powerful skill but not the only thing that a good manager does. 

Third, coaching is not consulting. Your primary focus is not to analyze and make recommendations. When appropriate and when you have permission, you can add a lot of value by sharing your own observations and insights, but coaching is more about having the other person develop their own insights and then take new actions to improve results.  

Put another way, your job as an executive coach is not to be a “crystal ball” that magically provides an answer. As a coach, you will intervene and provide advice when appropriate. Successful coaches engage in dialogue with their clients and then customize a tool or solution that works for their unique solution. Sometimes there is no easy answer, and your value will be to support your clients in making decisions with incomplete information.

Fourth, coaching is not training or teaching, which focus on sharing knowledge and best practices and also helping people develop and hone skills. Learning usually occurs in a classroom setting, and the trainer or teacher leads the session. A coach might include teaching and training in the session, and good teachers and trainers coach, but the primary activities in each discipline are different.

Fifth, coaching isn’t mentoring. Mentors are typically seasoned professionals within an organization who show less senior and experienced people the ropes. Mentors are great at pointing out how things work in an organization along with some of the hidden keys to getting things done and being successful. They also make introductions and sometimes pull strings. Again, there is overlap with coaching. The best mentors typically coach, and many coaches have years of experience to share with the people they are coaching. 

Finally, coaching is not progressive discipline. Many organizations confuse the two, which sometimes causes coaching to be seen negatively. Progressive discipline, or probation, is a process of working with employees who are not performing, with the intent of documenting their poor performance and terminating their employment if they don’t improve. In the past, this process was conflated with coaching. The word coaching was—and still is in some organizations—a euphemism for the last resort before firing someone. Today, coaching is seen as a standard leadership development tool. It is an investment in the talent the organization wants to develop and retain. Coaching should be separated from anything related to progressive discipline or probation.

Confused? Join the club. There is a lot of overlap among these different disciplines, and not everyone agrees on where the boundaries stop and start.

My advice is that you not spend too much time obsessing about definitions. You can go online and see all sorts of self-appointed coaching police telling people what is and isn’t coaching. 

Instead, do two things:

First, practice and keep getting better at coaching. Join a practical, results-driven coach training and certification program known for its methodologies, toolkits, and focus on results. You will learn firsthand about coaching and what it can do. 

Second, and most importantly, if you focus first on having impact and helping the people you coach get results -- based on their definition of success -- everything will work out great.

The First Rule Of Executive Coaching

The first rule of coaching is that you can only coach people who want to be coached.

It is a simple rule, and yet aspiring coaches break the rule all the time.

Coaching only becomes possible when two conditions are met. 

First, someone faces a challenge that is significant enough for that person to want to be coached. This condition is not easy to meet. For most people, deciding to get coaching is like deciding to go to the doctor. Nobody wants to go to a doctor because doing so makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. We only go when we feel enough pain. Being coached also makes us feel vulnerable and exposed at least until we build trust with the coach. For this reason, people rarely want coaching unless they have a big enough problem and enough pain to want support.

Executive coaching around challenges

Second, permission must be granted. Either the coach asks permission to coach the other person, or the other person asks for coaching. Anyone with a spouse or significant other knows that coaching without permission is not coaching; it is nagging.

With this in mind, people don’t naturally seek out coaching. Effective people in organizations typically believe they can figure things out on their own. They don’t want help. They don’t want others involved in their business, and they definitely don’t want to be exposed. Often, they don’t even think they have a problem!

Accordingly, the way to find people who want coaching is not by pitching coaching to people who probably don’t want to be coached. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m a horrible leader. I better go get some coaching today.”

The way to find people who want coaching is by finding people who have problems that they recognize as problems and asking them if they would be open to coaching. Alternatively, someone with a problem might come to you and ask for coaching.   

Complications arise when we make assumptions that people who should get coaching actually want coaching. For instance, I trained an executive coach who thought she had secured her first coaching prospect. 

She explained, “I know lots of middle managers at the company, and they tell me that the senior leadership team is doing all sorts of things that are demoralizing. They are abusive. They are arrogant. They don’t listen. They don’t seem to care, but I can’t figure out how to get the senior leaders to hire me as a coach so they can change these behaviors.”

In fact, senior leaders in this company don’t necessarily want coaching. The middle managers would like to see them get coached, but there is no indication that the leaders themselves see a problem or want to change. The coach could work with the middle managers if they have the budget to learn to adapt to or cope with the senior team to be more effective, but as long as they are the only ones who acknowledge a problem the senior leaders are not going to ask for coaching. 

Coaching someone who is not coachable is like trying to coach a vampire to stop biting. It’s not going to happen. The vampire is made to bite! Maybe the villagers living near the vampire’s castle want the vampire to change through coaching, but the vampire doesn’t. The vampire might be open to coaching about how to recruit more vampires or how best to use his minions assuming he has a challenge in those areas. Likewise, the villagers might be open to coaching about how to protect each other from being bitten, but until the vampire realizes that he doesn’t want to bite people anymore or someone can convince the vampire that biting is not in his interests, there will be no coaching on that topic.

Please heed this first and fundamental rule of coaching. Nobody wants unsolicited coaching. 

Do I Need Executive Coaching Certification to Succeed

Many professionals wonder whether they need an executive coaching certification to succeed as a coach. 

The answer has changed over time. Now that coaching has evolved significantly as a profession, gained acceptance, and become established, a certification is important. Even long-time coaches with successful practices but no certification are realizing this, and coming to us for their certification.

Of course, a piece of paper won’t get you automatic work. Also, the core competencies promoted by coaching associations are only a start.

That’s why our certification programs focus on taking our members beyond what other programs offer. We know what it takes to be successful in the market, be seen as credible, and get prospective clients to want to work with you. We know how executive coaching clients think, what they expect, and the practical and clear results they want from a coach.

For this reason, our certification program starts with the fundamental core coaching competencies. Then we take you far beyond. We show you how to bake results and value into everything you do. We show you how to set up and run an effective engagement that delights your clients. We give you the tools you need to coach a leader, up-and-coming manager, or business owner though just about any leadership or career challenge they might face.

In other words, the piece of paper is important in today’s market. You can’t just hang out a shingle anymore. However, the substance behind the certification makes all the difference. Be sure that your certification comes with proven, practical methodologies that get results, helps you be seen as credible, and ultimately gives the confidence you need to succeed.

Overview of the Executive Coaching Process

If you plan on coaching somebody for more than a single session, you should follow a more detailed coaching process. Seven steps are involved in the process diagrammed above. Here is a brief description of each step followed by more details.

Be sure that coachability is in place. Without coachability, the entire coaching process shuts down. Coachability means that your client has given permission for coaching to take place.

Define goals, scope, and contract. Set a clear goal or goals with the client. Then agree on the scope and boundaries of the coaching relationship. In our program, we show you how to bake results and value  into each and every engagement. That is critical for success in the market today. It starts early on in the process.

Assess. Take time to understand the root causes of the client’s challenge. Get the data you and the client need to develop the most effective and efficient coaching plan.

Coach, track, and adjust. Most of the coaching process is about coaching, tracking progress, and adjusting as needed on the way to helping clients achieve their goals.

Succeed and celebrate. In today’s organizations, few leaders or managers take the time to celebrate and acknowledge results. In the coaching process, take time to step back and acknowledge achievements as they happen.

Work on the next issue. Coaching is about having a long-term relationship with the client. As the client achieves one goal, identify the next challenge. Every single leader and manager has room to keep growing.

Follow up. Sometimes clients slip, even after achieving initial success. Build in time to follow up with the client and make sure that everything remains on course and results are sustained.

What Executive Coaching Really Looks Like

Of all the professional services, coaching is one of the easiest to scope out and plan. It’s not like we are creating the critical path for building a rocket ship or even developing a project plan for a team of software consultants.

If you plan on coaching a client for more than a single session, the process is simple. All you have to do is choose how often to meet, agree on the questions we discussed about scope and boundaries, conduct any relevant assessments up front, and jump into coaching conversations that move the client toward their goal(s). If the goals change, adjust the coaching accordingly.

I typically meet with a client weekly at first and then every other week or even monthly as the client makes progress. Some coaches meet monthly from start to finish.

I suggest setting a six-month engagement with executive coaching clients. In my own practice, 80% of clients renew with me immediately after their first six-month engagement and another 10% renews after a brief break. Note that some executive coaches insist on a nine month or even one-year contract for an executive and 18–24 months for a team. Many business coaches start with a two-year engagement with the owner of a growing business, because it can take that long to see measurable change in the business. You can test different approaches to discover what works best for you and your clients. 

Let’s assume you are coaching a leader who wants to get better. I call this the leadership tune-up.

A coaching plan might include the following:

  1. An introductory session to agree on goals and the rules of the road as well as to set up assessments.
  2. A week or two to complete the assessment(s).
  3. A meeting to review the assessments and agree on the coaching plan.
  4. Regular coaching sessions for achieving the goals of the engagement. During these sessions, we work toward the overall goal; discuss current issues, especially as the relate to the overall goal of the coaching; put into place a behavioral coaching process if appropriate; and introduce other topics related to leadership if time permits. 

Built into the above process are regular check-ins to evaluate progress, measure results, and determine whether or not to meet more or less frequently.

It’s as simple as that! 

Conclusion - Starting Your Executive Coaching Business

If you want to be an executive coach, remember that you are in two businesses. Your first business is delivering great results to clients. Your second business is the business of coaching.

Many programs out there teach you fluffy coaching skills, and provide almost no support, guidance, tools, or training to help you get started and then keep growing.

We do. Our business development curriculum gives you the practical knowledge and skills you need to succeed:

  • How to pick a lucrative niche that you enjoy and where you can succeed.
  • Writing compelling marketing messages to get people interested (and we provide dozens of examples).
  • How to get visible using marketing strategies that work – yet don’t cost a lot.
  • How to price engagements.
  • What to put in a proposal and how to get prospects to accept them (again, we provide sample proposals and guidance).
  • How to have natural conversations that convert prospects to clients – without feeling like you are pitching or hawking your services.
  • How to grow your firm beyond yourself, if this is an aspiration.

Similarly, for internal coaches, we show you how to position yourself in your organization so that you are seen as credible and a strategic source of results.

If you are going to become an executive coach, please do it right. Consider both parts of the business – delighting clients, and getting clients in the first place.

Contact us today to get started or ask any questions.

Let Us Help You To Identify At Least 3 Opportunities For Massive Growth In Your Business With A FREE Marketing Checkup.