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What's Executive Coaching?

What is executive coaching?

Most executives want more out of life and work, and businesses want to grow. The pressures of increasing uncertainty and a fast-paced digital workplace are intense, and leaders face many new challenges. If leaders and teams are not striving to improve, they are falling behind. So, how can leaders and businesses avoid wasting time chasing ideas that don't move the needle in a turbulent environment? Some of the most admired companies in the Fortune 500 are turning to executive coaching. It's a high-value business investment. Evidence suggests coaching significantly increases goal leadership and business performance. However, executive coaching may not be familiar to you. This article provides insights into what it is and is not, evidence-based benefits, the coaching process, and much more.

What is the ROI of Executive Coaching?

If you ask five different people to define coaching, you will likely get five different definitions. Coaching is a thought-provoking partnership focused on achieving a client's goal. It is a creative process that starts with clarifying the goal and the gap between where they are today and their desired future. It provokes the client to explore and experiment to maximize their personal and professional potential.

The ultimate goal of executive coaching is a positive transformation in life and leadership for the client (e.g., behavioral, attitudinal, or motivational). The coach-client relationship is grounded in trust, transparency, and confidentiality. While the coach and client are the primary stakeholders, the executive's sponsoring organization is often an additional formal or informal stakeholder.

The benefits of investing in executive coaching are well documented. According to the International Coaching Federation, 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence. Over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report recouping their investment in coaching and more.

Executive Benefits:

  • Establish and take action toward achieving both career and life goals

  • Become more confident

  • Gain more personal satisfaction

  • Contribute more effectively to the team and the organization

  • Take greater responsibility and accountability for actions and commitments

  • Work more efficiently and productively with others (leaders, followers, peers, customers)

  • Communicate more effectively

  • Reduced stress

Business Benefits:

  • Empowers employees

  • Increases engagement

  • Improves performance

  • Improves employee retention

  • Supports identification and development of high-potential employees

  • Supports identification of both organizational and individual strengths and development opportunities

  • Shows organizational commitment to employee development

What Executive Coaching is Not

Executive coaching is not counseling or mentoring. Counseling deals with past or current trauma, mental health, and symptoms to restore emotional wellness. Executive coaching focuses on the future and not the client's past.

Unlike a coach, a mentor sets the agenda for their client using their experiences to guide the relationship. While that approach can be helpful in reality, we are all created with different strengths and backgrounds. A coach draws out the executive's desires and works to co-create options to achieve the executive's goals with personal and professional benefits.

In addition to executive coaching, there are several other popular targeted coaching services:

  • Career Coaching is focused on accelerating your career. Most of us go through day-to-day life, giving more thought to what we wear each day than our jobs. The coaching focuses on developing and implementing a plan of action to boost your career. Career coaching keeps you feeling challenged versus being worried about what's next. Additionally, a coach increases your blind spot awareness. We all have blind spots. A good career coach helps you avoid jeopardizing current and future potential career opportunities because of blind spots.

  • Emotional Intelligence Coaching focuses on helping you become more self-aware and effective in relationships. This type of coaching typically involves temperament and personality profiles to pinpoint where development should be focused.

  • Leadership Coaching helps you grow your confidence and competence regardless of whether you are an emerging leader, frontline leader, mid-level manager, executive, or business owner. Typically leadership coaching includes using a 360-degree assessment to improve feedback and awareness for the client.

Who typically hires an executive coach?

Individual executives and organizations hire executive coaches to achieve their goals. Sometimes, the executive is in transition, facing new challenges, or making a career pivot. Hiring an executive coach is a good fit for any executive who wants to get more out of life and work, accelerate their career, or shift their mindset.

Here are a few scenarios from recent executives who hired me to be their coach:

  • A newly appointed CEO replacing the founder of a rapidly growing mid-sized business

  • A CEO for a mid-sized nonprofit facing increasing regulatory pressures and wanting to get more out of life and work

  • A tenured regional VP making a career pivot

  • A director within a large business wanting to navigate change and work effectively with a new leader

It is typically not a good idea to hire an executive coach if:

  • The executive does not want the coaching—the lower the executive's motivation, the lower the investment's return.

  • The executive needs a consultant or a mentor to solve a problem or share their experience.

  • The executive is not doing their job, and the organization is looking to outsource the executive's manager role.

Organizational Talent Consulting Coaching Services

What is the Typical Executive Coaching Process?

Current evidence-based research supports various psychological approaches to executive coaching, such as cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused, strength-based, and GROW. While each approach is similar, the GROW model is very popular.

Given that executive coaching's ultimate goal is change within the executive, the process centers on using essential questions and client-centered critical thinking to invoke the executive's self-awareness and personal responsibility.

GROW Executive Coaching Model

The GROW model represents a journey that begins with clarifying the goal, which is both inspiring and challenging to the executive. Then, the following step involves exploring the current reality and considering barriers between the current state and the desired future. The next step involves exploring options based on the principle that imagination creates breakthroughs. The final step is clarifying the executive's will and the way forward. It involves defining specific timebound actions with the commitment, accountability, and reporting to lead to transformation. The client ultimately chooses the decisions to make and steps to take to meet their goals.

Typical executive coaching process

A typical coaching program includes four fundamental steps over 12 months:

  • Step #1: Alignment to build rapport and understand the context for coaching and the outcomes.

  • Step #2: Assessment to provide insight into strengths and opportunities for your development.

  • Step #3: Coaching to move toward your future, assess where you are currently and where you would like to be, remove obstacles, and explore and discover the steps to achieve your desired future.

  • Step #4: Measurement to establish clear goals, measure progress, and celebrate successes.

Is virtual executive coaching effective?

While in-person communication is proven to be most effective, a skilled coach can effectively utilize virtual technologies such as Zoom to achieve lasting results. Thoughtfully incorporating virtual coaching has many benefits:

  • Accessibility is likely one of the most significant benefits associated with virtual coaching. Technology enables the coach and client to connect in different places within the same building or worldwide.

  • Availability improves, enabling the coach to be brought into just-in-time and rapid response needs or unique situations like cross-cultural needs. Also, the coach and client benefit from the flexibility and administrative ease in scheduling.

  • Affordability improves through reduced travel and associated costs.

  • Access to resources improves through digital access to tools supporting goal setting, coaching preparation, and progress tracking.

  • Coaching evaluation improves through the ease of tracking commitments, satisfaction, strengths, opportunities, and trends both on an individual client level and at an aggregate organizational level.

Take this free Virtual Coaching Fit Checker quiz to help you determine if virtual coaching is a good fit.

Virtual Executive Coaching

What makes an excellent executive coach?

An excellent executive coach is experienced, trained, and qualified. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is a globally recognized association with evidence-based competency and code of ethics certification requirements. The ICF identified the following eight essential core competencies of a coach based on research collected over two years of job analyses from 1,300 coaches globally:

  • Demonstrates Ethical Practice

  • Embodies a Coaching Mindset

  • Establishes and Maintains Agreements

  • Cultivates Trust and Safety

  • Maintains Presence

  • Listens Actively

  • Evokes Awareness

  • Facilitates Client Growth

Additionally, an excellent coach usually refrains from giving advice or sharing their personal stories. Instead, the coach asks powerful questions to help the executive clarify their problems in achieving their goals. Also, evidence suggests that a coach's academic background in psychology enhances executive coaching outcomes such as the client's self-awareness and leadership performance.


Athanasopoulou, A., & Dopson, S. (2018). A systematic review of executive coaching outcomes: Is it the journey or the destination that matters most? The Leadership Quarterly. 29(1), 70-88.

Berglas, S. (2002). The very real dangers of executive coaching. Harvard Business Review, 80(6), 86-153.

Bluckert, P. (2005). Critical factors in executive coaching - the coaching relationship. Industrial and Commercial Training, 37(7), 336-340.

Dean, M., & Meyer, A. (2002). Executive coaching: In search of a model. Journal of Leadership Education, 1(2).

Kampa-Kokesch, S., & Anderson, M. (2001). Executive coaching: A comprehensive review of the literature. Consulting Psychology Journal, 53(4), 205-228.

Kimsey-House, K., Kimsey-House, H., Sandhal, P., & Whitworth, L., (2018). Co-active coaching: The proven framework for transformative conversations at work and in life. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Lai, Y., & Palmer, S. (2019). Psychology in executive coaching: An integrated literature review. Journal of Work Applied Management, 11(2), 143-164.

Thach, E. (2002). The impact of executive coaching and 360 feedback on leadership effectiveness. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. 23(4), 205-214.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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