Commitment to one’s own personal development is crucial to any executive coach who wants to be at the top of their game. From the obvious to the alternative, here is a list of the best books for executive coaches that I have read. These books are also highly recommended to managers and leaders that use a coach-approach with their teams.
Coaching for Performance by Sir John Whitmore is the classic text on performance coaching. It was updated before his death in 2017. The book explains the GROW model, one of the most established and successful coaching models which Whitmore co-created. I’ve summarised the GROW model in a previous post about the difference between coaching and mentoring.
Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach by Myles Downey is one of my favourite books about the practice of coaching. Easy to read and highly practical, Downey explains how to use the GROW model and provides additional commentary on the Inner Game, and how to use both approaches to maximum effect.
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by Timothy Gallway. First published in 1974, Gallway sets out his methodology for coaching and for the development of personal and professional excellence in a variety of fields that he calls the Inner Game. The Inner Game is based upon certain principles in which an individual uses non-judgmental observations of critical variables, which are fed back such that the person’s body adjusts and corrects automatically to achieve best performance. Gallwey was one of the first to demonstrate a comprehensive method of non-directive coaching that could be applied to many situations beyond sport. John Whitmore brought the inner game concepts to Europe in the late 1970s.
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is a highly readable book by Michael Bungay Stanier. It’s short on theory but long on practical tools and techniques that are a shot to the heart of good coaching. If you want to enhance your management and leadership style with a coaching approach, but don’t have the time or inclination for formal training, then you should pick up a copy. For established coaches, it’s a reminder of some simple and effective questions and techniques that can be used in conversations with coachees. For a preview, take a look at Two coaching skills that will make you a better manager & leader.
High Output Management by Andy Grove is really a book written for operators, but anyone who works with such individuals will benefit hugely from reading it. HOM is particularly helpful for less experienced managers and leaders, and I now find myself handing it out coaching clients who are founder CEOs of startup and early-stage companies. The late Grove, the former Chairman and CEO of Intel, covers off a range of topics that come up in almost all my coaching conversations: what are high leverage activities and how to focus on them, how many direct reports are optimal, the efficiency of meetings and how to run them (including 1:1s), task relevant maturity (TRM) of employees and how to manage them accordingly, how to give performance feedback, compensation and promotions and employee training programs. Originally published in 1982, this book is a timeless management and leadership classic.
Leadership expert Jennifer Garvey Berger has written two book: Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World and the follow up Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Both provide some of the most contemporary and advanced thinking on leadership performance and how to be a better leader in a world that is inherently uncertain and the future unknown. The books are rooted in the not widely populised theory of Adult Development. ADT proposes that humans don’t stop developing after adolescence. Some, but certainly not all people, are able to evolve whole patterns of increasingly complex and agile ways of apprehending the world. In fact, only 1% of individuals develop the habits and forms of mind to be fully self-transformed. For more, read my post Develop these three habits to become a better leader in a complex world.
Performance & Psychology
Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a book about biases of intuition. It’s ideas are so potent that they won it’s author a Nobel in economics. Kahneman identifies that the human brain works very well most of the time and our judgments are sound. However, it is prone to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors that lead to flawed opinions and adverse decision making, otherwise known as cognitive biases. We assume certain things automatically without having thought them through carefully. Kahneman explains in the introduction to the book that, as individuals, we are incredibly bad at identifying and calling out our biases (even if we understand the theory behind them). Other people are better at calling them out to us. As a coach, I now bring this role to my practice, helping clients to make better and more rational decisions.
Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance by Matthew Syed is the best book I’ve read that synthesises the latest thinking on performance. Well researched, evidence-based and easy to read, this the perfect read for anyone wanting to take their performance to the next level and for any coach wanting to bring an enhanced understanding of performance psychology to their practice. This is really a book about feedback and the importance of learning from our mistakes; the title is a reference to the black box in commercial airplanes that captures all key flight related data, so that when mistakes occur, the failure can be understood and prevented from happening again.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck is easy to read but contains a simple, powerful message: people with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed. Dweck is a distinguished Stanford University psychologist who has spent decades researching and developing her theory. Her theory comes up over and over again in coaching conversations with entrepreneurs, CEOs and other leaders, in relation to their own mindsets and their team’s.
Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness combines the inspiring stories of top performers across a range of capabilities with the latest scientific insights into the cognitive and neurochemical factors that drive performance in all domains. For more details, check out this review from Ed Batista and listen to this superb podcast.
The Art of Learning:An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin. Josh was a child chess prodigy and inspiration for the film Searching for Bobby Fisher. He has since perfected learning strategies that can be applied to anything, including his other loves of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (he’s a black belt), Tai Chi Push Hands (he’s a world champion) and recently Stand Up Paddle-boarding. He now coaches the world’s top performers, including ice hockey and basketball players, and hedge fund managers. He believes that “growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” The book contains a helpful methodology for achieving peak performance that I weave into work with my clients.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl chronicles the author’s time as an inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Already a trained psychiatric doctor, after his liberation from Aushwitz concentration camp, he went on to practice his own form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy The word logotherapy is derived from the Greek word logos, for meaning. Logotherapy assists the patient to find meaning in their life, helping them to become aware of the hidden logos of their existence. Frankl considers that “what man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of potential meaning waiting for him to be fulfilled.” Working with highly ambitious and motivated individuals as I do, I find his psychological theory a simple and helpful one that resonates with clients. I’ve written a more in depth summary here.