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Executive Coaching Definition, Stages, Benefits, Strategies & Results
Executive coaching may be regarded differently by different people. While there may still be some people for whom the concept of “coaching” may carry connotations of remediation, for the most part, this outdated idea has fallen by the wayside. Executive coaching is assisting top executives, managers, and other identified leaders to perform, learn, stay healthy and balanced, and effectively guide their teams to successfully reach desired goals and exceed individual and corporate expectations. Enabling leaders to unlock and unleash their full-potential so they bring greater value and abundance to the people and entities they serve.
Rarely do organizations invest in coaching except for highly valued talent.
When today’s executive decides on executive coaching for themselves or perhaps it is recommended by the Board of Directors (in the case of a CEO), the connotations are almost always positive. It says on behalf of the organization, “We believe in you and your ability to do great things. We’re willing to invest in executive coaching so you can fulfill your potential and we can all enjoy the benefits.”
Excellent coaching doesn’t come cheap, and no organization is going to make the investment in a top executive coach for a person they don’t believe in, or hope to be rid of in a year or two. Basically, if your company wants you to have an executive coach, you can take it as a vote of confidence that they think you’re capable of great things, and they hope to keep you around for the long term.
Bringing in a coach represents a certain kind of risk to an organization. An executive coach is expected to be unbiased, and free of favoritism, and this level of honesty can sometimes create sensitivities among the executive team. But most businesses recognize that investing in their leaders produces a positive, lasting return on investment. Here is what you can expect from executive coaching, whether you’re the executive, or you represent the business interested in investing in executive coaching.
Differences Between Coaching and Mentoring
Many people wonder whether coaching and mentoring are the same thing. While there are similarities, a coach and a mentor do different things and have different motivations and end goals. Generally, mentoring helps to shape a professional’s values and beliefs, typically from the point of view of someone in the industry (or same company) who has “been there and done that” and is willing to share wisdom amassed over the years. A coach helps the client to improve self-awareness, set goals, work toward them, and improve specific aspects of performance.
More specifically, a mentoring relationship typically has the following characteristics. The mentor relationship is generally an ongoing relationship that may last for years or even decades. Frequently it involves informal sharing of information when the person being mentored needs support, guidance, or advice. Mentors are often more experienced versions of their mentee, working in the same profession, or even in the same company. The focus of mentoring is development of the mentee’s career and personal development, with the agenda largely set by the mentee.
Coaching relationships differ in that they usually have a set starting and ending point. Meetings between coach and client are typically structured and scheduled, and focus on specific developmental or leadership issues. Coaches are generally brought in from outside the organization and may or may not have the same set of skills as the client. But that’s OK, because the focus is on specific developmental issues in the workplace and on achieving specific goals. Goals vary, but may include learning to effectively delegate, or improving communication skills, as examples. The following diagram shows the differences and overlap between mentoring and coaching.
Coaching Needs for Executives at Different Life Stages
It only makes sense that the thirty-ish executive who has zoomed up the career ladder has different coaching needs than the 50-year-old who has been in the industry since college. Often, but not always, the younger leader needs more nurturing and more directness, while the older leader is often more aware of deficiencies that need to be addressed.
Goals and needs differ between the young executive and the more mature executive.
A study of 72 executive coaching relationships covering the period of 2008 through 2014 examined executive scores on personality and emotional intelligence tests, interviews with their superiors, and case notes. The average length of the coaching engagement was six to 12 months, and there were slightly more male coaching clients than female.
The study found that regardless of gender, younger executives (in their thirties) had lower levels of self-reflection than older ones, and the changes they underwent were less dramatic than the changes of older executives. Younger executives responded to specific guidelines and concrete recommendations, but they were less likely to wonder why those guidelines and recommendations were necessary.
Interestingly, the study found that executive behavior during executive coaching differed by age rather than generation, which is consistent with previous research describing the ongoing maturation that goes on throughout adulthood. Researchers identified three factors that they believe account for differences among younger and older recipients of executive coaching:
- Younger executives often have a self-perception of being a “winner,” and are likelier to think of coaching as a perk of being at the top.
- Younger executives had more difficulty recognizing nuances of human behavior and were more likely to use “black-and-white” thinking, like “There is a single ‘best’ idea that should prevail.”
- Younger executives were likelier to believe that there is one right way to do things, while older executives were more willing to try different approaches.
Who Uses Executive Coaching?
Clearly, many organizations use executive coaching, because it’s a $1.5 billion per year industry, with most of the biggest enterprises now using coaches. Who is it for? Executives who want to:
- Improve self-confidence
- Strike a better work-life balance
- Open up new career opportunities
- Become a more effective leader
Making coaching work requires that organizations and the people running them prioritize coaching. Executive coaching should never be treated as an afterthought or an “extra,” but as an essential part of developing maximum leadership potential. At the same time, it’s important that companies not overuse coaching or think that coaching is capable of solving deeply entrenched organizational (or personal) problems. Coaching can be remarkably powerful, but it can’t do the impossible.
What Are the Benefits of Executive Coaching?
While specific outcomes of executive coaching depend on the goals that the coach and client set at the beginning of their work together, many more overarching benefits have been reported by clients and companies that have used executive coaching. Among the benefits of executive coaching are:
- Increased self-awareness
- Increased self-regulation
- Greater empathy and emotional intelligence
- Flexible thinking replacing rigid thinking
- Higher levels of motivation
- More effective leadership
Benefits of executive coaching may carry over into non-work life as well.
In addition, many coaching clients indicate that they come away from their coaching engagement with better social skills, a growing professional network, a better reputation online, and a better non-work life as well. The specific improvements that a coaching client should expect as a result of coaching will have to do with their goals. In addition to helping the client develop those goals, the effective executive coach will devise ways in which progress toward goals can be measured. For example, if an executive has difficulty delegating tasks, the coach may interview several people who report to the executive to define the scope of the problem, help the client define what “better delegation” means and how it can be measured, and then follow up at the end of the coaching engagement to measure progress toward that goal. The following diagram illustrates the benefits that both coaching clients and their organizations can expect from executive coaching.
My Philosophy and Strategies for Executive Coaching
The most successful executives aren’t investing in executive coaching when they ask for my services – they’re investing in results. Over my decades of experience as an executive coach, I developed the Intelligent Leadership (IL) Executive Coaching Blueprint. With my clients, I create a six to 12-month immersive leadership coaching journey that leads to business results and personal growth. I want my clients to unleash their full potential, so they can be the best possible leaders they can be.
Not only do I use my Executive Coaching Blueprint to strengthen clients’ inner-core and outer-core characteristics, I also certify other executive coaches from around the world in this process. As a result, our clients are able to realize four game-changing outcomes that serve them well in business and in their lives in general:
These four qualities are the seeds that lead to sustained greatness and a positive, lasting legacy as a leader. The process begins with a meeting between the coaching client and the sponsoring executive team to discuss the goals of the coaching relationship and gain context and background information. We also discuss the proposed roadmap of how we will get there, and what type of schedule to expect.
For executive coaching to get results, a clear plan is necessary.
At this point, I spend the rest of the day with the executive client so we can get to know each other as professionals and human beings. The purpose of this time is to build a foundation of trust and rapport. Using my general observations, a structured, in-depth interview, and objective assessment tools, I assess the client’s inner- and outer-core capabilities. With most clients, I also schedule in a day of shadowing, where I observe them at work, on calls, and in meetings.
In addition, I conduct what I call 360-degree interviews with key stakeholders, who may include other executives, board members, people who report to the client, and a selection from the larger population of employees. From these interviews, and my Strategic-Tactical Leadership Index 360-Survey I identify the client’s leadership strengths and where there’s opportunity for improvement. On another day, we debrief and discuss the results of the assessments and the themes that have emerged from them.
The next step in the coaching relationship is helping the client create their own Core Purpose Statement that they envision themselves living by. This statement captures the essence of the person and the leader the client wants to become, which qualities they must develop in order to do so, what they want to accomplish, and the contributions they want to make. These statements must be defined with utmost clarity, because they affect every other phase of the coaching relationship.
My coaching clients then use my proprietary tools to prepare their initial leadership professional development plan with an eye toward strengthening their:
- Irrefutable strengths
- Unexpected strengths
- Indisputable development needs
- Unexpected development needs
With my support and presence, the client then meets with their constituents and stakeholders individually and collectively to share their commitment to become the best possible leader – which can only happen with the support, guidance, feedback, and input of these constituents and stakeholders. The information collected in these meetings is helpful in finalizing the client’s leadership development plan. Ongoing performance coaching, support, and guidance from me, along with frequent interaction with stakeholders and constituents helps the client measure the progress they are making toward the goals of their leadership development plan.
Does Executive Coaching Work for Everyone?
Sometimes executive coaching doesn’t work out, and there are some common denominators when this happens. For example, an executive who doesn’t want coaching is unlikely to make good progress, and if the client’s superiors aren’t invested in the coaching process it’s even worse. Another reason executive coaching can fail is a lack of clear and measurable goals, or goals that the client developed thinking they represent what their supervisor wants them to work on. The goals in executive coaching should be ones that the client wants passionately. When a client is less than forthright when providing information for the coach to develop the plan of action, coaching can go off-track.
Lack of clear, measurable goals can severely limit the results of coaching.
When coaching is used by an organization as a last-ditch effort for an executive who is faltering and needs “saving,” the whole point of coaching has been missed. Coaching as a response to a monumental mistake runs the very real risk of coaching being seen as a punishment. And even if it’s not, when coaching is the last resort, it is often ineffective.
Confusion between coaching and mentoring may result in less-than-stellar results. There’s certainly much to be gained from a successful mentor-mentee relationship, but expecting a mentor to get the same results as a leadership coach is short-sighted. Finally, coaching can fail because a coach isn’t sufficiently qualified for the job. There are plenty of self-appointed coaches out there who see coaching as a side business or a way to bring in money. Coaching certification programs exist, and some are more meaningful than others. But primarily you need to select an executive coach who has experience and success in coaching clients similar to yours.
How Do You Recognize Results of Executive Coaching?
What do you envision when you think about your organization one year from now, with one of your most promising executives having successfully completed executive coaching with a qualified coach? Perhaps you envision greater efficiency, less in the way of divisive office politics, or clearer goals and objectives. Maybe you envision everyone showing up to work with greater motivation and more commitment. Those are worthy aspirations, of course, but it’s important to develop goals that can be assessed as a baseline at the beginning of the coaching relationship, and after coaching is completed.
Any executive coach worthy of the title will assist your client (and the executive team in general) to define goals. They will also help you and your client devise ways to measure how well those goals are met. The interviews that the executive coach performs at the beginning and at the end of coaching should tell a clear story too. If direct-reports say at the outset that the client doesn’t articulate expectations clearly and this is distressing, what do they say once coaching has concluded?
Recognizing the results of executive coaching requires engagement with an experienced, skilled coach who knows how to develop and define goals, measure baseline conditions, monitor progress, and assess conditions at the end of the coaching engagement. If your proposed coach doesn’t seem interested in these critical tasks, you shouldn’t expect too much from them.
What to Look for in an Executive Coach
An executive coach you consider working with should be crystal clear about their process and willing to share results of having used that process. Evasive responses, or overweening enthusiasm may indicate that the person is more style than substance. A great coach is honest about gathering feedback and understands the important of having a unique, outsider’s point of view. Feedback should come from not only the client, but also the client’s supervisors, peers, and direct reports to ensure the clearest picture emerges.
A great leadership coach won’t give you evasive or unrealistic answers to your questions.
Your coach should be able to discuss their skills in depth and detail. What tools do they use? What specific skills have they helped previous clients with? They should be proud to share references with you and name actual clients who have improved in measurable ways. Finally, you should choose a coach that understands the importance of client confidentiality. A coach who casually shares everything with a client’s supervisors or HR people will shatter the client’s trust and cast a pall of negativity over the entire process.
Core Purpose Statement – a way of thinking of oneself in terms of an overarching statement about what their purpose and goals are
Emotional intelligence – a person’s ability to identify and manage their own emotions and to understand how their emotions affect and are affected by other people’s emotions
Executive coaching – professional coaching that focuses on development of leadership skills that are needed to facilitate positive change, manage complexity, and build high-performance teams
Intelligent Leadership Executive Coaching Blueprint – John Mattone’s plan for a six to 12-month immersive leadership and personal growth process designed to unlock an executive’s full leadership potential
Mentoring – an informal employee development system where a more senior, experienced professional (the mentor) acts as advisor or guide to a junior professional over the course of months, years, or decades
Self-awareness – the accurate assessment and understanding of one’s abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and how they affect oneself and others
Self-regulation – a person’s ability to monitor and control their behavior, emotions, or thoughts, and modify them in accordance with situations and conditions
Stakeholders – in this context, the people affected by the actions of the coaching client. They may include the coaching client’s peers, supervisors, direct-reports, or other employees.