Are you a manager or leader who wants to develop your coaching skills? Are you already an executive coach investing in your personal and professional development? Here is a list of the best books about executive coaching that have influenced me most.
Introductory Executive Coaching books
Executive coaching can be a catch all for a range of coaching services. Principally, but not exclusively, these include business, leadership and career coaching. The books below provide the best introduction to the coaching-approach.
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance (Amazon UK, US) 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. He calls this the Inner Game. The Inner Game is based upon certain principles in which an individual uses non-judgmental observations of critical variables. These 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. Sir John Whitmore brought the Inner Game concepts to Europe in the late 1970s.
Coaching for Performance (Amazon UK, US) 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. It also explains the important difference between coaching & mentoring.
Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach (Amazon UK, US) by Myles Downey is one of my favourite books about the practice of coaching. It’s easy to read and highly practical. Downey explains how to use the GROW model, provides additional commentary on the Inner Game, and how to use both approaches to maximum effect.
Business & Leadership Coaching
Great coaches need to have a robust understanding of the business environment in which they are working. These books provide context to coaching in the modern workplace.
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (Amazon UK, US) 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 my post Do these 2 things to get better at coaching your employees.
Okay, so this isn’t a book, but this short guide covering Keys to Coaching Your Employees is superb. It’s written by Ed Batista, an Executive Coach and Lecturer in Coaching at Stanford Business School and Harvard Business Review contributor. It explains the potential and limitations of executive coaching, and the skills leaders need for coaching to be most effective.
High Output Management (Amazon UK, US) by Andy Grove is a particularly helpful book for less experienced managers and leaders. 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.
Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell (Amazon UK, US) is a book about a man who helped build some of America’s greatest companies, including Apple and Google. A former college football player and coach, Bill didn’t enter the business world until he was thirty nine. Moving quickly though through executive roles, he went on to coach the likes of Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Ben Horowitz and Bill Gurley, to name just a few. Sadly Bill passed away in 2016, leaving a legacy of growing companies, successful people and an enormous amount of respect. Some people have pushed back on me, saying this book is quite light touch but I still think it is essential reading for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of how they can use a coach-approach to get best out of their team. Can’t wait to read the book? Check out my summary of Bill Campbell’s approach towards management, leadership & coaching.
Advanced Leadership Development
For anyone wanting to take their understanding of coaching to the next level, these are some of the best books that have helped me develop personally.
Leadership expert Jennifer Garvey Berger has written two books: Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World (Amazon UK, US) and the follow up Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Amazon UK, US) that 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.
I dive into more detail about Adult Development Theory, and the difference between horizontal development (what you know) and Vertical Development (how you think), in How Vertical Development helps new leaders truly transform.
In How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back (Amazon UK, US) authors Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith identify 12 habits that commonly hold women leaders back as they endeavour to advance to the next stage in their careers. As a male who coaches female leaders, this book proved transformational, teaching me so much about the psychology of women’s leadership and the social constructs that surround it. I often give copies of the book to female clients and strongly encourage men to read it too, so that they can rebalance their relationship and approach with female colleagues. Check out my summary of the book, which includes a list of powerful questions that you can use with female clients if you are a coach, or you can ask your self if you are a female leader.
I highly recommend Leadership Coaching: From Personal Insights to Organisational Performance (Amazon UK, US) by Graham Lee, a psychotherapist and coach. The book is one of the best introductions into the relationship at work between personal and psychological issues, as well as practical ones. It deep dives into different leadership styles and provides an excellent framework for leadership development coaching which I have adapted into my own coaching approach.
I agree with Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer that, amongst many leadership writers and gurus, leadership has become a sort of morality tale, substantially oversimplifying the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices that leaders confront. Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (Amazon UK, US) takes a much more realistic view of the challenges that leaders face. It’s been a refreshingly helpful guide to help me and my clients navigate some of trickier and grittier leadership situations that they have faced.
Performance & Psychology
An understanding of human psychology, and the science behind what drives high performance in individuals and teams, is essential for any good coach. There are many excellent books on these topics, so I have selected those that have most influenced me below.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Amazon UK, US) 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.
Thinking, Fast & Slow (Amazon UK, US) 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.
A lot of my clients are entrepreneurs leading startup and high growth businesses. If you are interested in how Kahneman has applied his thinking to this category of leader then check out Daniel Kahneman on the cognitive biases of entrepreneurs.
Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance (Amazon UK, US) 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.
The Art of Learning:An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (Amazon UK, US) 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 (Amazon UK, US) by Victor Frankl chronicles the author’s time as an inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Frankl had trained as a psychiatric doctor before being sent to Aushwitz. After his liberation, he went on to practice his own form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, 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. This book dives to the heart of what it means to be a human being and to find meaning and happiness, and for that reason is a must read for anyone working in this space:
“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.”
To dive deeper into this incredible book (first published in 1962) read my post Victor Frankl on finding meaning & happiness.
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