Executive Coaching – Making the Right Choice
The Rise and Rise of Executive Coaching
In the past 10 years it has become increasingly popular to hire coaches for promising
executives or newly promoted senior managers. Research in the US indicates that there
are at least 10,000 coaches operating in business today, a figure that has increased 5-
fold since 1996 and which is expected to exceed 50,000 by 2007.
Whilst the numbers may be smaller in the UK, similar trajectories of growth have been
experienced. The economic downturn has had some impact on this growth in recent
years, but there remains an active interest in executive coaching which is increasingly
being seen as a serious business tool.
This increase can be attributed to a number of factors:
Lonely at the top. The metaphor of the Captain standing alone guiding the ship
with all the skills and experience necessary is no longer valid. The modern
executive now rarely stands in such isolation but seeks further learning and
continuous performance improvement to help them do their job. Invariably this
requires others to advise and help them but, for a variety of reasons, this may not
always be provided internally. An executive coach can therefore support the
learning process in a non-threatening way, particularly from a behavioural
perspective or dealing with ‘weaknesses’ that are less easy to address internally.
De-layering. As hierarchies are reduced, there are fewer stages on the route to
the top. Where before, an executive might have gained experience as they
climbed upwards there are now fewer rungs on the ladder. Executive coaching
can provide a means of imparting missing skills and improving existing ones.
This can be particularly important when executives move from a specialist to a
general management role where ‘people skills’ are increasingly necessary.
Talent Management. Organisations recognise the importance of investment in
their top talent and in succession planning. In the early stages of executive
coaching, there was a status element attached to it in the same way that
somebody might have an executive level car or parking space. This has now
been largely eliminated in favour of executive coaches being used to add real
value to individuals and businesses. Organisations that are seen to be investing
in managers are winning the ‘war for talent’ by retaining and attracting the best
and executive coaching is seen as an important part of such initiatives.
Personal Focus. Business Schools, Management Training Programmes and
‘Team events’ can provide only one aspect of executive development. The focus
of the executive coach will be to address any skills gap through a one-to one
interactive process over an agreed period with set objectives. This goal-
orientated approach is personally tailored for the busy executive. It almost always
deals with an increase in self-awareness through the use of diagnostic tools
The External Focus. It is unlikely that the executive coach will have a
knowledge of the business issues, but by skilful questioning the coach can help
the executive through a decision making process that is unencumbered by
personal opinions or loyalties.
The Challenge for Executives and Organisations
Along with the benefits and popularity of executive coaching comes a number of issues
that individuals and organisations should be aware:
Executive Coaching is a serious investment of time and money. Fees can range
from £500 to £3500 per day and evaluating the impact needs to be considered
at the early stages.
Executive Coaching can be ‘contagious’. The Organisation needs to be clear to
those who are offered coaching why they have been selected. It may also be
seen as a positive asset by others who may feel that they have missed out.
Executive Coaching should be agreed as part of an individual’s development
between the line manager and executive and not imposed on an individual to
“deal with poor performance”
There are no standards of practice or widely recognised certification for
executive coaches and organisations and individuals need to be highly selective
in embarking on a coaching relationship.
Choosing an Executive Coach
The choice of a consultancy practice or an individual to undertake an executive coaching
assignment can be difficult if there are no standards of practice. Similarly, the
confidential nature of the work often means that past references cannot be taken. The
following guidelines are provided to help the selection process. At enb we advise clients
to ‘refer to the ORACLE’:
Objectives. Before considering coaching as an intervention, ask yourself a few
questions. Is coaching really going to be the best solution? What is the
development need and what are the objectives of the individual (or the
organisation)? What actually needs to be done differently? If the issue is a
complicated business issue or a deeply personal matter then a business
consultant or a licensed psychiatrist or counsellor might be better options
respectively. If the development need is associated with new technical skills or
knowledge then a training programme or other learning activity might be a more
Rapport. Meet the person (or consultancy practice). For coaching to deliver its
promises it is necessary to find a person with whom you have a rapport. Trust,
confidence and chemistry are as important as the individual’s business skills and
experience. Ask the prospective coach about their training, companies they have
worked with and their philosophy..
Approach. When meeting the coach for the first time ask them about the
approach they would expect to take. How will they assess your current
preferences, capabilities and behaviour traits? How often do they recommend
you should meet – and where? How will they measure improvement of your
development objectives? How long will the process last? A good coach should
be able to impress with their presence, strong interpersonal skills, genuineness,
maturity and ethics. They should also be able to prove their familiarity with
assessment tools and learning processes. It is a benefit if they also have an
appreciation of your industry or business. A coaching relationship is likely to last
between 6-18 months although most will run for 9-12 months with meetings on a
4-6 weekly basis.
Confidentiality. The initial discussion should also assure you of how the coach
deals with ethical issues. Assess how they deal with confidential issues such as
the use of individual or company names when providing examples. It may also be
important to understand the guidelines on which they are working. The Coach
should work for the ‘coachee’ and not for the organisation, even though the latter
may be paying. It is important that the individual knows where the boundaries
are eg. if there is an intention to share diagnostic scores at a later date for team
events. In the case of an organisation-wide initiative with a consultancy practice
providing a number of coaches, it is also important that confidentiality is assured
within the consultancy practice.
Licenses/legitimacy. In the absence of national accreditation, it is important
that the coach is qualified and accredited in the tools they are using and that they
abide by a recognised code of ethics such as the BPS. There have been a
number of cases recorded in which coaches without rigorous psychological
training have done more harm than good by down-playing or simply ignoring
deep-seated psychological problems that they don’t understand.
Evaluation. A fundamental precursor to any coaching relationship is an
agreement about how success will be measured. It therefore becomes important
at the ‘objectives’ stage that they are agreed as SMART objectives and that there
is a clear plan to achieve them. The process and method of evaluation should
also be identified at the outset. This can be achieved at a number of levels but
will include how the coachee has fared, how well the coach has performed and
any impact on business results.
The above guidelines will help an executive or organization to be successful in choosing
a coach but, paradoxically, even the most successful coaching relationship can have
drawbacks if they are not managed effectively. When successful personal development
has resulted in rewards such as bonuses or promotion, it can quite often produce a
narcotic effect through dependency. The strength of the bond forged in a good coaching
relationship can result in cases where the executive has become increasingly dependent
on a coach’s advice and where it has ultimately impaired their decision-making.
Therefore, a key consideration in Executive Coaching is bringing the project to a
successful conclusion. This adds weight to the argument of setting clear objectives at
the start of the relationship and agreeing a timetable for their achievement. This means
set points for reviewing the outcomes and assessing any continuing development needs.
The good coach will manage the ‘weaning’ process so as to avoid over reliance and
ensure that those who have gone through the coaching process leave it feeling
empowered to work more effectively, make key decisions and develop their working
processes. Without that the coaching process will have added little lasting value to either
the individual or the organization.
Taking time to make sure that the coach is right for the executive and the organization is
crucial. Making sure that the coach also knows when to leave is often more important if
real differences are to be made.