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What is executive coaching?

Before we delve into what executive coaching is, let’s look at what coaching is.

What is Coaching?

The Websters Definition

Websters defines coaching as
“the profession or occupation of a coach is instruction given especially in private by or as if by a coach”1
If we accept this, then by definition, a coach must know the coaching discipline’s fundamentals (i.e., football, tennis, etc.). Further, Websters defines a coach as
“one who instructs or trains a performer or a team of performers (as in debating or in musical or dramatic performance); specifically: one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a competitive sport and directs team strategy”2

Teaching versus Coaching

Yes, someone must teach an athlete the fundamentals of their chosen sport, but that is instruction. They must be taught the rules, the basics of playing the game, the mechanics of throwing, catching, or anything required to play the sport. They need a teacher. A coach, as most athletes would tell you, is a far different role. It requires knowing the athlete, not the discipline. Once an athlete understands how to play the game and the mechanics of playing, they need a coach. A coach helps an athlete reach inside themselves and go further than they ever could as an individual.

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.” – Tom Landry3

Beyond The Fundamentals

A coach goes beyond fundamentals. Once an athlete reaches a certain level, they know what they must do to play the game. But not all athletes reach their potential. But depending on the coach, they may become elite. Under another coach, they seem to flounder. Every sports fan sees it, but what causes a player or team to succeed under one coach and not another?

The Coaching Difference

Do players excel under a new coach because the coach teaches them how to play? Not likely. The players succeed because the coach gets them to look inside themselves and change their approach. The player will try different approaches and find the approach that makes them successful. They did not become more athletic or more aware of the rules but became more aware of themselves. They learn how to use better the talents they already have.

And now we can look at what executive coaching is. It is not teaching someone new expertise but helping the executive harness the power they have. Let’s take a look at just what executive coaching is and is not.

Executive Coaching

In a nutshell, executive coaching helps a person use their expertise more powerfully. The executive increases their effectiveness and understand what works and what doesn’t. They learn to replace behaviors that don’t work with those that do. Before going further, it is critical to understand what executive coaching is not.

Counseling is not executive coaching.

Counseling assumes there is something that needs to be fixed. Depending on the qualifications of the counselor, it can include diagnosing. It may also include delving into the past to find out why a person is having difficulty. It could involve developing a treatment plan and/or prescribing a course of treatment. The is an overlap between counseling and executive coaching, but they are two distinct disciplines. It is also important to note that a counselor is licensed to practice and falls under different ethical considerations and regulatory standards. For instance, it would be inappropriate for a counselor to have a personal relationship with a client under most circumstances. But at the same time, a counselor may get results using some of the same tools an executive coach does and vice versa.

Mentoring is not executive coaching.

Mentoring is not executive coaching. A mentor is usually someone in the same field as the person being mentored but with significantly more experience. They help a person by using their experience to give the pros and cons of different approaches to a problem or reaching a goal. Mentoring is also likely a longer-term relationship than coaching. Mentoring usually does not have specific objectives to achieve or measurements to determine progress. We will see that both of these are crucial in an executive coaching relationship.

Teaching is not executive coaching.

We covered this earlier, but it bears repeating, teaching is a different skill set than executive coaching. A teacher imparts knowledge and helps the student learn more about the discipline they work in. Another crucial distinction is that a student/teacher relationship usually implies that the teacher knows more about a particular subject than the student. That is not the case with executive coaching. Now that we have established what executive coaching is not, we will look at what it is.

Understanding what executive coaching is.

We talked a lot about what executive coaching is not, so let’s look at what it is and if it’s right for you.

the executive coaching starting point

The Client already has the answer.
A good executive coach starts with the premise that the answers are within the client. They do not advise, teach, mentor, and definitely do not act as a counselor. The relationship starts with the client setting the agenda. The coach makes no judgment as to what the client wants or needs. The coach is there to help the client reach the objectives they set.
The client’s goal
For instance, Jane was recently promoted to oversee a division at her company. She is having difficulty getting her team to work together to achieve the CEO’s productivity goals. She doesn’t understand what she is doing wrong or what she can do to get her team to do what needs to be done. She goes to an executive coach for help. In this scenario, the executive coach starts by getting an overview from Jane. As the coach asks questions, she gets Jane to think about what she wants as an outcome. She does not determine the outcome for Jane. The right questions will naturally lead to new questions, and Jane is challenged to reflect on what she wants to accomplish. Sure, she wants to meet the CEO’s objectives, but she must first determine what she wants to occur to get there.
The client refines the goal.
As Jane starts to think about what is getting in her team’s way being effective, she starts to break down her objectives into smaller, more specific issues. The process may go quickly, or it may take multiple sessions before there is clarity. Regardless, Jane is driving the process, and the coach is facilitating. I am oversimplifying this process, but the crux is always looking to the client for solutions. The coach does not provide the solutions. This is the initial phase where the coach asks carefully considered powerful questions to help Jane clarify what she wants to achieve. The result will be Jane setting her objectives, timetables, and measurements to determine if she accomplished her objectives.

Developing action strategies

Exploring potential action strategies
Once the client has a clear set of objectives, she will need to determine the best way to achieve them. Again, I am oversimplifying the process of executive coaching, but in this article, I intend to help you understand what it is, how it works, and if it is right for you. With that in mind, let’s take Jane further in the process. During the initial phase of the executive coaching process, Jane has determined that Joe, a senior member of her team, is obstructing the team’s progress by constantly undermining her ability as a leader. She overheard Joe telling other team members that Jane’s predecessor would never take the approach she did. The division leader before her gave specific instructions and told each team member what they needed to accomplish. As an informal leader, Joe had other team members questioning Jane’s competence.
Setting priorities
Jane feels that before she can tackle other issues she identified, she must first do something to stop Joe from undermining her leadership approach. As her coach asks more questions, Jane suddenly realizes that Joe may be uncertain of his ability to come up with his own plans of action. Jane’s predecessor always told Joe what to do so he may not feel like he can do it independently. With this in mind, Jane considers several actions she can take to help Joe overcome his fears and make him an ally. She talks through the options and settles on an action or possibly more that she will implement.

Executive coaching is more than questions.

While powerful questions are an important part of the executive coach’s arsenal, it is not the only tool. The coach will challenge the client to take the actions they establish and follow up to see how effective they were. The coach will also provide support to help the client move things forward. With each step forward, other issues and strategies to address them will be uncovered. It is not uncommon for the client to establish new or different objectives as the process unfolds. Ultimately, however, Jane will gradually progress toward her objectives. As she does, Jane will likely develop new skills to help her be effective in many other situations she will face. Jane is not just overcoming the challenges that brought her to the executive coach but also becoming a better leader. Not a bad by-product of the executive coaching process.

Is mentoring, advising, or teaching out of bounds?

Mentoring, advising, or teaching is not part of the executive coaching process. They are not part of what an executive coach does. That said, it is permissible in some circumstances. If the coach is well versed in the client’s work line, they could step out of the coaching role to advise, mentor, or teach. However, a good executive coach will make it clear that they are stepping out of the coaching role at that point. They have temporarily stepped into a different role as teacher or mentor. When they move back into the coaching role, they will make that clear as well.

Are there other ways an executive coach can help?

Yes, there are many ways that we have not discussed an executive coach can help someone reach their goals. They can certainly be a supporter, a cheerleader, a friend, and, as we did discuss, a mentor in some circumstances. But these are not what the executive coaching process is all about. It is about helping the client clarify their goals, develop action strategies, implement actions, and re-evaluate different approaches’ effectiveness. While an executive coach can serve other roles, they may be outside the coaching/client relationship, and that’s ok, as long as it is clear when they are acting as a coach or in another capacity. The executive coach is a partner in helping the client get what they determine they want to achieve.

In Summary

Is executive coaching right for you? Only you can answer that question, but here are a few points to consider.
  • Are you having trouble reaching objectives or goals, and you believe you should reach them?
  • Do you have specific skills you want to improve or use more effectively?
  • Are you currently successful at achieving desired results but don’t think you are reaching your full potential?
  • Have you identified a goal you want to achieve but are not sure what the next step is?
  • Do you feel like you are missing an opportunity but cannot identify what it is?
  • Do you want to be better at what you do but need help getting there?
These questions are not all-inclusive but are intended to give you an idea of whether executive coaching could be useful. Most of us could benefit from coaching at some point in our life or career. Will it work for you? It depends on you and your desire. A good coach will help determine if coaching is the best alternative for you or another relationship would be better. Now you are probably asking yourself, how do you find a good coach. That is another post, but I will try to answer that question next week. In the meantime, if you want to explore executive coaching more, set up a consultation here at no cost and with no obligation. Please feel free to comment or ask questions below. You can log in with your Facebook or Twitter account and ask away.

God bless you and stay safe in these trying times.

Stephen Johnson
Author: Stephen Johnson

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