Executive coaching, at its core, focuses on increasing a business professional’s self-awareness, to ultimately improve organizational effectiveness and performance. More commonly offered to high-ranking executives, hence the “executive coaching” label, the service has gained popularity and spread to professionals at all levels of an organization. Thus, executive coaching is also referred to as business, corporate, professional, leadership or management coaching.
The coaching work typically happens one-on-one between the professional –the client — and an independent, outside third-party — the coach. The executive coach’s role is to help the client understand their impact — whether negative, positive or neutral — on the organization they work for– and to support them in changing — tweaking, replacing or adding to– actions and behaviors that match their actual intentions. The role of a coach is not to take on the client’s inner burdens, but rather, to provide them with of a mirror where the client can see their reflection, thereby exposing their blind spots. The coach and client develop and design relationships with teams, co-workers, supervisors, and ultimately achieve higher performance.
As Stratford Sherman and Alyssa Freas write in their HBR article of 2004, The Wild West of Executive Coaching, “At the most basic level, executive coaches serve as outsourced suppliers of candor, providing individual leaders with the objective feedback needed to nourish their growth.”
Mary Beth O’Neill, author of Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart brings a more organizational view of executive coaching, “The essence of executive coaching is helping leaders get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results for the organization.”
The benefits of executive coaching are immense. Can anyone really claim to exactly know how they might be perceived by others, and how that might hinder their own ability to get what they want done within the organization? Does anyone have a true ally within their organization that can tell them the hard, cold truth? Think about it: would you go out of your way to provide feedback to a co-worker, manager, direct reports and put your relationship with them at risk ? Were you ever taught how to be a great boss, a great colleague, a great direct report or told the basic ingredient or/and recipe for corporate happiness?
That’s what an executive coach is for. While a therapist or psychology counselor might help resolve private life and general social issues, an executive coach looks exclusively at how his client operates in the context of the workplace, helps him hone the soft skills necessary to navigate the web of organizational relationships and spheres of influence successfully. EQ (Emotional Quotient) being a better predictor of success in the workplace than IQ (Intellectual Quotient) has made executive coaching all the more popular and relevant.
A good executive coach will commonly gather feedback about their client from peers, managers, direct reports — conduct what is often referred to as a 360 degree assessment — to get a picture of where the client may be challenged, and come up with a short-term action plan on how fix or improve problematic behaviors.
Coaching, in the business context, is typically action-oriented and result-driven, which makes it attractive. For example, an executive might express their struggle to get people to listen to ideas. An executive coach might give the executive some actionable tips on how to increase his sphere of influence tailored to his specific work context. Additionally, executive coaches will build an accountability feedback loop in their relationship with the client: following up on whether they acted on the suggestion, assessing how the suggestion worked, and adjusting the approach accordingly.
The topics covered through coaching will of course vary from client to client according to their needs, but typical problematic areas often revolve around:
“There are 10,080 minutes in a 7-day week. Coaching is occurring all during your week, not just during your coaching session — such is the power of coaching and the coaching relationship. What you and your coach talk about during your sessions will resonate with you during your week, and some of the seeds or ideas that have been discussed will grow between sessions. All you have to do is to fully live your life between coaching sessions and be open to seeing what you and your coach talked about.” Thomas Leonard (Coachville)
You can be the best at your craft — whether engineering, finance, operations, accounting, taxes, sales marketing, law etc.–, be promoted and get a raise every year and still benefit from an Executive Coach. Even Lebron James needs a coach to win championships. Yet as obvious as the need for coaching may be in the world of sports, many businesses are still run by management teams who receive no executive coaching at all. Bill Gates is adamant on the topic. In a 2010 TED talk, he states “Everybody needs a coach”. Likewise, Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, in an interview on Fortune, says the best advice he ever received was to get an executive coach and credit his Executive Coach Bill Campbell for his success at Google.
The importance of training employees for soft skills is well understood by CEOs as these numerous surveys point out. Other studies show that learning people skills through traditional training, such as reading leadership material or classroom training, is ineffective. Why? Popular wisdom indicates we only remember 10% of what we read or hear. In addition, this 10% might not be at all, what you personally need to focus on in terms of development because we are generally poor evaluators of our own skills and performance. In psychological terms, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect — a cognitive bias whereby we evaluate or rate our skills higher than they really are. So bottom line, unless someone assesses you, and prescribes an improvement plan and accompanies you through that behavior change journey, you’re unlikely to change your old ways. Change is hard. So here you have it. Yes, unless you’re perfect, you probably need coaching to perform at your best at work.
Now do your managers need coaching? Probably. According to Gallup, almost half of American employees consider their relationship with their boss to be the most stressful part of their job. This stress has huge consequences. In a separate poll, Gallup found that half of employees will leave a job they would like to keep in order to get away from a bad manager. Researchers reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that employees who dislike their boss are 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who don’t. Forbes reported that two thirds of workers would rather get a new boss than a raise. And again, what’s the culprit? Interpersonal skills. What’s the best approach known to improve on these? Executive Coaching.
The effectiveness of executive coaching is directly correlated to what the industry calls a client’s “coachability” — that is, the client is open to receiving feedback, open to the idea that everyone, including themselves, has room for improvement, open to discover deeply ingrained behaviors or beliefs that they held for decades might not be serving them, and finally open to change. To be coachable, August Turak writes in Forbes, “Someone must have the humility to take criticism and enough faith that the coaching process can work to actually make the effort. And equally certain, no amount of executive coaching is going to help someone who actually needs a professional psychologist. Helping such people is beyond the skill of even the best executive coaches.”
For those open to coaching, however, we believe that most coaching failures occur when the match between an executive coach and a client isn’t right. In an upcoming paragraph we will give you some pointers as to how to choose the right coach.
The coaching industry is non-regulated and fragmented. Anyone can set up shop and start taking clients. The quality of coaching and coaching methodologies therefore can vary widely from coach to coach, making it very hard and expensive for an individual to find the quality executive coaches and the right coach for them.
Another criticism often brought up is the promise of quick fixes. Executive coaching takes a lot from the behavior therapy movement such as treating the symptoms and bringing behavioral solutions to more ingrained deeper psychological issues. The onus is on the coachee to exercise and practice the suggestions made by the coach. The coachee’s “coachability” as referenced in an earlier paragraph ultimately will determine the coaching effectiveness. Change is hard. Are you ready, willing and committed to change?
As explained below in the “how to find the right executive coach”, many coaches might not explain their process and methodology upfront, or might simply not have one which could be a red flag.
According to IBIS World, Business Coaching is a $11B market employing 88,222 people across 51,946 businesses in the US alone. With that many executive coaches to choose from, it certainly can be overwhelming.
Word of mouth is one the biggest channels through which coaches get the bulk of their business. So for those who don’t have a network of people who would have gone through executive coaching themselves and can vouch for them, the information below provides guidelines to select the right executive coach.
Interview several coaches and find out:
Like therapy, executive coaching can go on indefinitely. There is no research to back-up that long-term coaching is actually more effective, and some even argue that a permanent “crutch” can actually stifle a person’s resourcefulness in coping. As Dr. Lampert infers in his New York Times article , “The therapist or coach is incentivized to keep a patient forever, but in most common cases, a patient just needs direct, to the point intervention. Using a session to vent and get this short term ‘feel good’ intervention might not translate into long term effective behavior change.”
The coaching process is tailored to the individual’s needs. For example, if the client finds it most helpful to brainstorm solutions to current challenges, that’s the framework. In many cases, executive coaches use assessments and surveys to provide a baseline of information from which to start. Executive coaches often have a wide range of assessment tools at their disposal such as personality tests, leadership skills assessment, 360 degree assessments, etc.
In executive coaching, a “Return on Expectations” is often measured, rather than the more common “Return on Investment.” Return on Expectations refers to what the client hopes to achieve as a result of the coaching engagement. Because of this, it is critically important that the coaching engagement begin by the coach and client designing desired outcomes.
First, research suggests that good executive coaching works. Writing in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researcher Tim Theeboom and his collaborators found that executive coaching leads to demonstrable improvements in multiple areas: performance, well-being, attitude, and others. This conclusion was corroborated by Rebecca J. Jones in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology: after conducting a meta-analysis of seventeen studies of executive coaching, she and her team concluded that executive coaching is likely to produce positive results. Such results go a long way to explaining the finding of this Stanford Business School survey: nearly all executives want coaching.
Second, the costs of not hiring an executive coach are steep. Consider: Gallup has found that for years only about a third of employees feel engaged by the work they do. The costs of such workplace dysfunction are wide-ranging. When your workforce is not doing its best and feels disengaged, you’re less able to retain the people you need to be competitive. And without engaged employees, you’re going to be less able to recruit the talent you need to take advantage of market opportunities as they emerge.
Given that executive coaching is a demonstrated means of alleviating these problems, the ROI on a good executive coach is about as good an investment as you’re likely to make all year. And if yours is one of the lucky companies not beset by these problems, good executive coaching can help you identify what’s working to help you redouble your successes. Whatever the state of your business, executive coaching is a good way to help you realize its potential.