Executive Coaching is the act of a qualified professional coach (typically someone with deep business experience or an expert in training and development) who works with individuals to help them in their career. Coaching may cover broader concepts such as goal setting and enhancing self-awareness or may be targeted to specific areas of growth such as delegation or business acumen. Executive coaches are not therapists. While they may act at times as a sounding board, the main premise of executive coaching is to help an individual unlock their potential.
How Does Executive Coaching Work?
In earlier days, coaching was often viewed as a type of remediation – when someone was struggling at work, their manager or director might hire them an executive coach to “fix the problem.” This punitive use of coaching led towards a negative connotation and the assumption you were doing something wrong if you were provided a coach. This outdated view has been lifted over the last few decades, and executive coaching has taken on a positive undertone, now viewed as a way to better oneself and even become a status symbol – when organizations suggest executive coaching, it is a way of saying they believe in you and your potential and want to help you grow.
Four Ways Executive Coaching Can Help You Develop
A coaching engagement’s effectiveness relies mainly on the desire of the individual to grow. Development takes work, and someone who does not want to work towards improvement will see little results from their time spent with a coach.
For those who are committed to their growth and development, executive coaching can provide the support needed to uncover potential areas of growth and create detailed action plans for making change. While coaching can help a leader develop in almost any area, there are four key leadership success drivers:
- Strategic Thinking
Strategic thinking is an intentional thought process. To think strategically, one must consider multiple variables that may influence the long-term outcomes for an individual, team, or the business, and make a decision-based on the consideration of all available data. Strategic thinking uses critical thought processes to break down complex problems, develop innovative strategies and solutions, and drive results.
Executive coaching can help enhance your strategic thinking by providing a sounding board. The coach can listen to your thoughts about a current decision or listen to stories of how you’ve made decisions in the past and provide insight. With this help, you can develop tools and processes to more easily make strategic decisions in the future. Coaching can also illuminate new ideas and methods of data collection and analysis that could enhance your strategic thinking ability. Coaching helps to reframe your mindset and way of thinking to successfully. This in turn helps you advance, make decisions, and lead with increased confidence.
- Organizational Culture Competence
Having organizational culture competence means that one is aware of the individuals and teams that make up their organization. It is an awareness of the importance of putting people first and knows people are a crucial component for successful organizations. By focusing on an organization’s people, the individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole become more successful. When a leader is high in organization culture competence, they focus on understanding other people, building teams, and developing people.
While an executive coach is first and foremost helping the leader being coached to develop, part of this process is bringing the development of their team into focus. Through discussion, your coach may help you view those around you more accurately, recognizing their contributions, their strengths, and areas for development. Using the information gleaned in coaching for your own self-development, this knowledge can then be trickled down, and you, the leader, can begin coaching your team members. This means the executive coaching benefits not only you, but also your team.
Self-awareness is the extent to which an individual is aware of their actions, can control their behaviors, and show up intentionally. People who are high in self-awareness can maintain composure while under stress, behave consistently regardless of the situation, continually ask for feedback on performance, and work to build trusting relationships with others.
Perhaps surprising, research indicates that most people don’t see themselves clearly or how others see us. Working with an executive coach typically involves gathering input from others, and the coach can help you distill the feedback and better understand how your actions are viewed by others, as well as your key areas of strength and growth opportunity. Throughout the coaching engagement, the coach will provide feedback on the areas of development you choose to focus on and help you to gain self-awareness throughout the process.
- Leading Change
Leading change refers to a leader’s ability to anticipate the organizational needs of the future, cast a compelling vision, inspire others, and use the mission as motivation for the work to be done. As a leader, it is important to be able to articulate how business priorities are aligned to an organization’s mission, vision, and values, and why changes are necessary to succeed in the mission and vision.
The bottom line for executive coaching is whether or not you make progress towards and/or achieve the goals you set out at the start of the engagement. Oftentimes, while the goals are at the individual level, the outcomes transcend the individual and impact the larger organization. An executive coach will help you to clarify these goals, understand what is feasible, and help you develop an action plan to get there.
This is also true for organizational changes. Whether or not you work specifically on leading change during the coaching engagement, the process of coaching in and of itself helps you to clarify your vision. In turn this helps clarify the organization’s vision and lead your team members through a change initiative, just like the plan you developed to work towards your goals.
Top Reasons Why Leaders Hire an Executive Coach
- Career Transition
Career transitions can be fraught with anxiety, but a coach can help you distill the underlying skills you have and apply them to a new career. For instance, a large survey project you conducted doesn’t merely mean you can collect and analyze data. That project also describes your analytical thinking, time management, attention to detail, ability to stay on scope and in budget. An executive coach can help you discern what type of work brings you joy, the skillsets you hold, and help to position these assets in a way suitable for chasing after your new career.
- Career Growth
When a leader feels ready to take on more responsibility, a coach can help them strengthen the skills necessary for moving up on the career ladder. They can help to identify the steps you will need to take to move from “here” to “there,” and provide you with the resources and tools to make these strides.
- Strategic Partnership for Developing Team
Any task may feel daunting when going at it alone, especially developing a team. Your team members strengths, areas of growth, and how they work together can be difficult to parse through on your own. An executive coach can serve as a strategic partner, removed from the day-to-day team interactions, who can help you analyze your team with a fresh set of eyes. They can help you see the synergistic energy between certain individuals’ strengths, and the types of personalities and skillsets your team would benefit from having. Together, you can work to develop a high performing team.
- High Growth Organization/Scale
Just as a coach may help you determine the skills and personalities that can round out your team, they can also help you quickly scale your business. Successful high growth organizations have several defining features: the get the right people on the bus, they know their metrics, and they communicate well. An executive coach can help you create a strategic plan and action steps to put all these features in play. Together, you can define the characteristics of those you need to hire. You can identify what metrics matter most, and put processes in place to capture this data. You can work together to build out a communications plan and make sure the right information gets in the right hands at the right time. Your coach’s success is determined by your success, and they can help you build the systems and the confidence you need to scale your organization.
The Executive Coaching Process
Executive coaching may be a benefit of your organization, or a coach may be sought out individually. Regardless, the first step is always about fit. Individuals should meet with their prospective coach for an introductory session, discuss their goals for participating in a coaching engagement, and see if the pair is a good fit. It’s OK to try out multiple coaches in order to find one that really fits with you. If the engagement is going to be beneficial and lasting, the right coach-fit is important. If you don’t have a specific goal at the start of coaching, that’s ok too! When the fit feels right, you can move forward with your coach and work together to define your goals. The goals you initially set might change over the course of coaching as you develop a relationship with your coach and delve deeper into your work aspirations.
Discussion and Action Planning
After deciding upon a coach, it’s time to choose an area of focus. There may be many things you want to work on but deciding which area will have the greatest impact right away may be a good place to start. Your coach may also want you to complete leadership assessments to identify areas of strength and opportunity. Together, you and your coach will determine a focus area, set a timeline, create milestones, and make an action plan. Throughout the duration of the coaching engagement, you will discuss your progress, your wins and challenges, and any new information that comes to light. You and your coach may modify your coaching plan as necessary to ensure you’re on a path towards success.
Concluding the Engagement
Depending on your level within an organization, coaches are sometimes kept on retainer – available when a struggle arises or you need a sounding board to help you through a problem. Other times, high-level executives have a standing weekly or monthly coaching session in place to discuss whatever may come up in the workplace. However, coaching often has an end date. For most, it lasts until the leader is equipped with skills, tools, or processes they need to succeed in their current role, develop for their next role, or determine what their career trajectory may look like. Should the engagement be coming to a close, it is important to have a formal wrap-up session with the coach and debrief what has been achieved over the course of the engagement.
How is Executive Coaching Used in Organizations?
In previous eras, organizations often hired executive coaches for their top leaders to “fix” harmful behavior. However, the last few decades have brought about a shift in thinking, with the mindset that coaching is focused on development and growth. Organizations tend to view coaching as a benefit to their leaders and a way to show employees that they value them and want to help them reach their career aspirations.
Sometimes, a top leader may ask to work with an executive coach, while other times the organization may suggest to the leader that coaching is available to them. Whichever the method of commencement, the emphasis on coaching for development is forefront. When organizations invest in coaches to help their leaders develop, they benefit by creating a more developed workforce. There is a trickledown effect as leaders develop, helping their teams to develop and growing a workforce that allows for internal succession planning. When organizations endorse executive coaching, they may also increase employee loyalty and commitment by showing them they are valued.
Research has shown a direct correlation between one’s relationship with their supervisor and employee engagement. When a leader engages in executive coaching, they build skills to help develop these relationships. As a leader is coached, they can begin to develop a coaching culture within their team and organization: they learn skills from their own coach about how to engage with team members, then teach these members to do the same by role modeling the behavior.
As executive coaching helps leaders to increase their self-awareness, better understand their communication, and work on other aspects of leadership, these leaders build strong and trusting relationships with their teams. As they invest in their team members, show their support, and role model behaviors in alignment with their values, they begin to build an organizational culture representative of these values. The effects of executive leadership transcend beyond the leader being coached and influence the organization as a whole.
What are the Types of Tools Coaches Use?
At the start of a coaching engagement, it executive coaches typically conduct some sort of assessment to better understand how an individual is viewed within an organization, what skills or abilities they feel should be focused on, and whether this individual’s perceptions align with the perceptions of their peers, direct reports, and supervisor(s).
High performing leaders are able to lead strategically, transform cultures, achieve outcomes, and engage and inspire their teams. However, one of the challenges of leadership is that the higher you climb in the organization, the more difficult it becomes to solicit or receive honest feedback from peers, direct reports, and other colleagues. Unless a leader has built very high levels of trust and developed the habit of asking for feedback regularly, they can become more and more unaware over time of their performance and how others are experiencing their leadership.
A leadership 360 is a common assessment used at the outset of coaching to help bring self-awareness to the leader surrounding their performance and behavior. A 360 assesses how a leader is showing up to others by providing a snapshot of feedback covering leadership elements, skillsets, and behaviors that have been identified as critical for the role. The 360 process includes collection of data from the individual, their peers, direct reports, supervisor(s), and other people who have consistent interaction with them in the workplace. This is often conducted via an online survey, or via in-depth interviews. Results are confidential, and the main themes are debriefed with the coaching participant by their coach and used to help them develop a coaching plan. The feedback received helps to enhance the leader’s self-awareness around their current strengths and areas of growth opportunity.
The ProfileXT is a job-fit assessment. This type of assessment compares one’s intrinsic skills and interests to a validated benchmark for a given role. The benefit behind such an assessment is understanding what one is inherently good at and where their interests lie, while comparing these characteristics to the demands of the role. When there is strong job-fit, it is more likely that one will succeed in the role. Where there are gaps between skills and interests and job demands, this awareness is helpful to individuals working to bridge these gaps.
The DiSC assessment is a tool used in coaching to help a leader understand their own workplace communication style, the styles of others, and how they can synergistically work together. The DiSC provides a detailed report breaking down one’s preferred style, helping a leader understand what they find most helpful in conversation, what frustrates them, and why. For example, some individuals have a need for details, while others only want the big picture; some want to process every possible outcome, while others want to put pedal to the metal. After identifying a leader’s individual style, the DiSC report highlights how the leader, given their unique style, can successfully interact with team members who have different styles. This guide is used in coaching sessions to help identify any communications roadblocks that may be occurring on one’s team and uncover the driving force behind those barriers. Once identified, the coach and the leader can develop a plan for the team to communicate in a manner that helps everyone receive what they need from team interactions. This helps the team develop stronger communications and become a more effective team in the process.
The StrengthsFinder assessment provides individuals with a unique combination of the 34 CliftonStrengths themes, which sort into four domains of leadership (all based on years of data!). The themes describe what a leader naturally does well, and where they may need help from others. The focus of the StrengthsFinder is not to overcome weaknesses, but rather to promote one’s strengths and learn to leverage the strengths of others to create the strongest possible team. When a leader completes the StrengthsFinder, they can then work with their coach to determine the people on their team they need to lean on for various aspects of the business.
After an introductory session and possible completion of one or more assessments, the next step is creating a coaching plan, or a growth plan. While an individual may have multiple areas of opportunity, the process of developing a coaching plan helps to identify which growth areas to focus on first and to set SMART goals – specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound. The coaching sessions serve as accountability and feedback mechanisms to help keep these goals on track.
Subject Matter Experts
Engaging Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs, is an additional way coaches can help provide their clients with the most up-to-date knowledge needed for them to excel as leaders in their specific field. While an executive coach may be highly skilled at enhancing leadership skills, team development, strategy, and other leadership functions, it does not mean they are experts in every field in which their clients work. However, coaches know how to find those experts and engage them in the coaching conversation. SMEs are technical experts in one knowledge area. These individuals have a wealth of knowledge and have the resources to help leaders broaden their understanding of their specific competency area such as current readings, self-learning materials, and other sources of information. By engaging SMEs, coaches provide even more developmental resources to their leaders to help them succeed.
The History of Executive Coaching
15th Century – The village of Kocs began building carts for transporting goods, known as kosci
16th Century – As kosci spread throughout Europe, the term was translated into kutsche in German, coche in French, and coach in English.
18th – 19th Century – Coach was used as a slang term in England for academic tutors. This term came about as the tutors carried their students forward, much like the locomotive coach. This slang term found its way from academia into sports, changing a sports instructor’s title to today’s commonly used title of Coach.
19th-20th Century – as the industrial revolution brought forth a transition into new manufacturing processes, it also brought about new forms of leadership and modern management. It was during this period that personnel management first emerged, with the introduction of management consultants to help upscale new manufacturing plans to be high performing and efficient in production.
1930s-1950s – Counselors, therapists and organizational psychologists began to “counsel” those in the workplace, with a specific focus on sales coaching and training salespeople to be more persuasive.
1960s – Humanistic and transpersonal psychology became emphasized in counseling, and the emergence of coaching in the business world intersected with these person-centered forms of psychology. Leadership coaching emerges as the result of the introduction of leadership programs and assessments, though it was often focused as remediation, a “fix” for problems at the senior leadership level.
1980s – Coaching literature expanded, and the first coach training programs began to appear in the United States and Europe. Coaching was focused on performance, with coaches typically brought into the workplace to make a specific task or behavioral change with a leader.
1990s –Coaching in the workplace makes a shift from performance to development, emphasizing the potential of workers and seeking to enhance their abilities and develop them to reach greater career aspirations.
2000s – today – Coaching continues to be development focused. It is often seen as a benefit provided by one’s organization as well as a symbol of care and commitment by the organization to recognize the value of their employees and help them maximize their potential.
The Future – Coaching will continue to be valued by executives and organizations as a whole. It will become even more of an essential resource as the world of work continues to expand into the virtual space and more organizations move from localized offices to geographically dispersed teams. With the never-ceasing advancements of technology and AI, there will be more emphasis placed on human interaction and developing people. Our world is moving into a world of humanistic capitalism, organizations and leaders will be differentiated based on how they treat, support, and value their employees. Coaches will be at the forefront of helping leaders develop these skills.