One of the questions I’m most often asked is, “What is executive coaching, exactly?” Even those of us who’ve had some experience working with or around coaching for some time can often struggle to explain in any specific way what coaching is or how it can be of benefit to clients. 

People find themselves wondering about executive coaching for any number of reasons. Maybe they’ve been passed over for promotion and want to be better prepared the next time around. Or perhaps they find themselves ill-equipped to fulfill some of the demands they face as a leader. Maybe they have a valued team member who is struggling and needs more support than the organization can provide.

Regardless of the specific situation, all of these people have one thing in common: They want to make a significant change, for themselves or someone else, and are looking for support in doing so. This is where coaching can be most helpful.

Key characteristics of executive coaching

One defining characteristic of executive coaching is its highly individualized nature. Unlike other training and development activities, executive coaching is specifically tailored to the needs and challenges of each individual client. While a coach may use a similar framework, model or approach for his or her work, the specific topics of conversation are driven by the client and her needs and goals. In this way, a single coach can work with any number of clients, all of whom are in different situations.

The client-driven agenda is another key aspect of coaching. While in training sessions and workshops attendees learn what the leader wants to present. Content for coaching is up to the client. What challenges bring the client to coaching? What change would the client like to see as a result of coaching? Clients meet with their coach at the start of the relationship to answer these and similar questions. This will help to define the relationship.

Once the relationship is established, the coach and client work together as partners to help achieve the clients’ goals. This partnership is a crucial component of coaching. Rather than acting as instructors, consultants or gurus, coaches function as guides. They help clients uncover their own solutions to challenges and working together to move more fully into these solutions.

Executive coaches provide a container for personal professional development in the form of structured and confidential conversations. Clients are offered a space where they can discuss topics that may sometimes feel difficult. These include challenges they may not feel comfortable sharing with those inside their workplace. Inside this space, coaches ask questions and challenge assumptions to help their clients come to a new sense of awareness about the issue they are facing. This will help them to see how it might be most effectively addressed.

Often, coaches brainstorm with clients about possible solutions. They than offer clients the opportunity to “try on” new behaviors that had previously felt foreign or uncomfortable. Coaches may also administer their own assessments or help a client interpret and respond to feedback they have received from others.

What executive coaching is NOT

Another effective way of understanding executive coaching is to understand what it is not. The practice of coaching differs in several significant ways from other developmental and training efforts.

First, coaching is not therapy or counseling. Working with an executive coach will require clients build their self-awareness, examine existing habits and ask themselves how they’re getting in their own way. But the method and purpose behind this is very different than the work done in therapy. Counseling focuses to a large extent on habitual responses and how a client’s past may have helped to establish that pattern. Coaching, however, is focused on the future. What is the client doing today and how can she do something different tomorrow.

Similarly, coaching is not consulting. A coach is not hired because he or she knows the answers to a client’s problems. It is not the key role of the coach to provide business strategy, action plans or advice. Rather, coaching is geared on partnering with clients to help them find their own answers. A coach may occasionally offer advice or personal examples. But the true power of coaching is found in the client questioning his current approach and developing new ways of moving and responding in the world.

Because executive coaching requires the active participation of the client, it is very different from training programs. Workshops, conferences, and online training tools all have a very important role to play in executive and professional development. However, they all are designed to “push” information at the attendee. Participants must then take the information presented and apply it to their own situations without much assistance from the presenters. In coaching, the approach is the exact opposite. Coaching starts with the client’s specific situation and from there moves toward new techniques and solutions. The coach is there to guide the client every step of the way as they work toward their development.

Working with a coach outside their organization can be extremely helpful for a client. But executive coaching shouldn’t be considered a substitute for daily on-the-job coaching and development offered by a manager or supervisor. Coaches are skilled at observing and reflecting behavior they observe during coaching conversations. They are also trained to challenge the assumptions and beliefs that clients present during these conversations. But, almost by definition, coaches are not traveling alongside their clients and observing them for long periods of time in the workplace. Therefore, they are simply unable to offer the kind of real-time, broad feedback that is available from a direct supervisor. 

Finally, coaching should not be considered as a final attempt to “fix” an employee who has struggled with his or her job responsibilities. Coaches often work with clients to improve perceived performance challenges. However, this work is only fruitful when an employee feels he or she has a reasonable amount of time and space to work on improvement. The work of coaching is not a quick-fix solution and often will not be effective for employees who are on short-term improvement performance plans or who are offered coaching as a way to “save” them from termination. 

Benefits of executive coaching

Regardless of the specific challenges that bring a client to executive coaching, there are a handful of common benefits that almost all coaching clients experience. First among these is a new sense of self-awareness. Through the review and interpretation of assessments and the work of questioning and reflection, executive coaching clients uncover new truths about who they are, what matters most to them, and the habits that could hold them back from success. This new awareness helps to shift the initial problem that brought a client to coaching. It can create lasting change in other areas of their lives as well.

Executive coaching clients should also expect to leave coaching with a renewed sense of resilience in the face of challenge and complexity. Few executives find themselves charting smooth waters day in and day out. Change, difficulties and setbacks are the name of the game for most high-level professionals. The secret to thriving in this environment is the ability to adjust and adapt quickly. By loosening the grip of old habits, facing fears in new ways, and finding creative ways to cope with the stress of leadership, coaching clients are able to build a sense of flexibility and flow into their daily work.

This sense of flexibility and flow also makes leading and driving change on their teams and in their organizations simpler as well. Coaching clients feel freed from the sense that change is overwhelming.  They also are armed with new skills to question and reflect on themselves and the world around them. Clients are than able to bring fresh perspectives back into their workplace. They see the opportunity for change around them and are often able to identify new paths to allow that change to occur.

These changes don’t occur only at the tactical level. Most clients leave executive coaching with an improved ability to think strategically about their organization and team. Since they are able to more objectively observe themselves and their colleagues, they have an improved sense of where they fit into the broader picture. Are they really leading in their industry or field, or are they lagging behind? Is there a big change looming in their future that needs to be addressed? The observation and reflection skills they learned in coaching all strengthen their ability to ask, and answer, these critical questions in new ways.

Finally, no matter what initially brings them to executive coaching, few clients leave the experience without addressing their abilities to lead and develop the team around them. Why? Because leadership, just like strategic thinking is a key skill for any serious professional. Whether it’s delegation, holding people accountable or maintaining patience in the face of people challenges, almost all leaders can grow and improve in their people management skills. This is a fact that is hard to escape during the process of executive coaching.

Who is a good candidate for executive coaching

Despite its benefits, executive coaching isn’t for everyone. Successful coaching clients must walk in the door for their first meeting with a few characteristics.

First among these is an openness to change and growth. No one leaves coaching exactly the same as when they started – in fact, that’s the whole point. But clients who think they have all the answers, or who are convinced they only need to change the people around them and not themselves, often find coaching frustrating and of little value. Executives who come to coaching with a willingness to explore new ideas and learn new approaches, however, often make great progress.

That being said, coaching requires a commitment. Clients must be willing to invest not only money, but time and effort into coaching. The coaching process requires regular meetings and usually some amount of work outside of meetings, whether it be reading, reflections, or other exercises. People who are not committed to fully participating in these activities will see little benefit from coaching. 

Clients who are willing to ask questions and grapple with the hard stuff tend to also be more successful in coaching. Coaches are people too, and often don’t get things exactly right the first time. Having a client who raises questions when things don’t make sense to them is a great gift to a coach. What’s more, these conversations often lead to the biggest shifts for clients.

Finally, clients must be willing to let down their guard and be honest with their coach. Executive coaching is not the place to try to impress, angle for a promotion, or fake it until you make it. The clients who gain the most from coaching are the ones who are willing to say, “This isn’t working for me. Can we look at how to change it?” For many high-level professionals, this can feel foreign or new. But, being able to drop the defenses and be really honest is key to an effective coaching engagement.

Executive coaching can be a powerful and transformative experience for many professionals. But, it’s key to know exactly what to expect before you get started. If you’re thinking about working with a coach, ask questions to ensure that the fit is right and that you get what you want from the experience. And, if you want to know more about working with me, feel free to schedule a call today.