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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

What is Executive Coaching?

What is executive coaching?

The need for executive leadership development has never been more urgent. The pressures of globalization are immense, and leaders are facing many new challenges. If executives are not continuously developing, they are falling behind. So, how is an executive to effectively grow in today's turbulent digital environment?

In an extensive quantitative study by Stanley Black & Decker, the Sasha Corporation found that executives receiving coaching increased goal performance by 15% compared to executives not receiving coaching. Some of the most admired companies in the Fortune 100 contribute to the $1 billion executive coaching industry. The broad support for executive coaching and the effectiveness is undeniable; however, it may not be familiar to you.

Executive Coaching Defined

If you ask five different people to define executive coaching, you will likely get five different definitions. However, before discussing the definition of executive coaching, it is helpful to understand what is coaching. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching "as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential." Coaching focuses on moving toward a client's future, assessing where they are currently, their goals for the future, and exploring and discovering the steps to get to their desired future. The ultimate goal of coaching is change (e.g., behavioral, attitudinal, or motivational). Executive coaching is a focused and purposeful process that helps executives develop and experience a positive transformation in life and leadership. The executive 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.

What Executive Coaching is Not

Executive coaching is not counseling or mentoring. Counseling deals with past or current trauma, mental health, and symptoms, with the goal to restore emotional wellness. Executive coaching focuses on the future and not the client's history. A mentor, unlike a coach, 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 desire and works to co-create options to achieve the executive's goals with individual and organizational benefits.

In addition to executive coaching, there are several other popular types of coaching within the field:

  • Career Coaching is focused on accelerating your career. Most of us go through day-to-day life, giving more thought to what we will wear each day than our jobs. The coaching focuses on developing and implementing a plan of action to give your career a boost. 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 is focused on helping the client become more self-aware and more effective in relationships. This type of coaching typically involves temperament and personality profiles to pinion where development should be focused.

  • Leadership Coaching helps individuals grow their leadership confidence and competence regardless if they are an emerging leader, frontline leader, mid-level manager, executive, or c-suite leader. Typically leadership coaching includes the use of 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 meaningful individual and organizational results. The client could be an executive in transition, facing new challenges, or seeking to maximize potential. Hiring an executive coach is a good fit when an executive is looking to accelerate their career, shift their mindset, or live their life to the fullest.

It is 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 is looking for a consultant or a mentor to solve a problem or share their experience.

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

What is the ROI of Executive Coaching?

The benefits of investing in executive coaching are many; 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 that they recouped their investment in coaching and more (source: ICF 2009).

Personal Benefits:

  • Establish and take action towards 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 (leader, followers, peers, customers)

  • Communicate more effectively

  • Reduced stress

Organizational 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

Typical Executive Coaching Process

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

GROW Executive Coaching Model

The following coaching program outline represents a typical base program structure that typically lasts 6-12 months:

  • Alignment: To build rapport and understanding of the context for coaching and the outcomes.

  • Assessment: To provide insight into strengths and opportunities for your development.

  • Coaching: To move toward your future; assessing where you are currently, where you would like to be, removing obstacles, and exploring and discovering the steps to achieve your desired future.

  • Measurement: To establish clear goals, measure progress, and celebrate successes.

Typical executive coaching process

Virtual Executive Coaching?

While in-person communication is proven to be effective, a skilled coach can effectively utilize virtual technology such as Zoom to achieve lasting results. Virtual coaching is s a technology-facilitated partnership between a coach and client to maximize the clients' personal and professional potential. Thoughtfully incorporating virtual coaching has many benefits:

  • Virtual coaching offers added convenience, service, and support benefits over traditional face-to-face coaching.

  • Accessibility is likely one of the most significant benefits associated with virtual coaching, especially during a pandemic. Technology enables the coach and client to connect, whether 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. Virtual coaching allows the coach to increase the number of clients they can support at one time. Also, both the coach and client benefit from the flexibility and administrative ease in scheduling.

  • Affordability improves through reduced travel and associated time out of the office costs.

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

  • The coaching relationship's 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.

Virtual Executive Coaching

What makes an excellent executive coach?

A good executive coach is 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 identifies the following eight core competencies updated as of 2019 based on empirical data collected over two years and from job analyses of 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, a good 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. Peer review research found that a coach's academic background in psychology enhances executive coaching outcomes such as the client's self-awareness and leadership performance.


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