12 of the best executive coaching books

Are you a manager or leader who wants to develop your coaching skills? Maybe you’re already a coach who wants to continue to develop personally and professionally? Here’s my list of books about executive coaching that have most influenced me.

More about me: I spent ten years at Deloitte Consulting and as a civil servant at HM Treasury. I moved into the technology sector in 2013 and became an executive coach shortly after. I work with founders, CEOs & executives in high-growth technology businesses & the investment industry.

Best books for new executive coaches

Executive coaching is a broad discipline that includes career, business, performance, leadership, developmental and team coaching. Whatever your angle on coaching, these books provide the best introduction to the baseline skills that any coach needs.

The Inner Game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

W. Timothy Gallwey 
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance

First published in 1974, 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.

Inner Game of Tennis - coaching book

Coaching delivers results in large measure because of the supportive relationship between the coach and the coachee, and the means and style of communication used. The coachee does acquire the facts, not from the coach but from within himself, stimulated by the coach. Of course, the objective of improving performance is paramount, but how that is best achieved is what is in question.

Sir John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership

Sir John Whitmore brought the Inner Game concepts to Europe in the late 1970s. His own book 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.

Coaching for Performance - coaching book

There is always a gap between performance and potential. And it is a huge gap. Even the most ordinary activity, no matter how good someone is, they can always do better. However, there is something in the gap, and understanding what it is can help bridge it.

Myles Downey, Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach

This 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.

Effective Coaching - book

Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire or building up the fire or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary. Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.

Michael Bungay Stanier, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

Short on theory but long on practical tools and techniques that are a shot to the heart of good coaching. As an alternative to GROW, it provides a seven question coaching approach. If you want to enhance your management and leadership style with a coaching approach, then you should pick up a copy. For established coaches, it’s a reminder of some simple and effective questions and techniques. Here’s a preview: Do these 2 things to get better at coaching your employees.

The Coaching Habit - book

Being a good coach is no longer a speciality; you cannot be a good manager without being a good coach. The path to success in a fast moving, highly competitive, technology-driven business world is to form high-performing teams and give them the resources and freedom to do great things. And an essential component of high-performing teams is a leader who is both a savvy manager and caring coach.

Eric Schmidt et al, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell

Trillion Dollar Coach is about a man who helped build some of America’s greatest companies, including Apple and Google. It’s essential reading for any coach, manager or leader operating in a fast-moving, high growth technology business. It’s also a great introduction to thinking about coaching beyond the individual, at the team level. Read my short summary.

Trillion Dollar Coach

Best books for advancing your executive coaching skills

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.

At the core of this role [humble enquiry] is the assumption that clients must be encouraged to remain proactive, in the sense of retaining both the diagnostic and remedial initiative because only they own the problems identified, only they know the true complexity of their situation, and only they know what will work for them in the culture in which they live. Frequently clients may be able to help themselves, and it is often more appropriate to facilitate this form of helping them to tell them what to do or fix things for them. This is illustrated best in those forms of counselling or therapy that emphasise clients getting insight and formulating solutions for themselves.

Edgar Schein, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help

This book was my first introduction to Schein’s work and the idea of humble enquiry. It’s also a further leap into the deeper nature and psychology of what it really means to help someone and how we can do that best.

Helping - coaching book

Leadership coaching is concerned with enabling managers to change. It has developed as a method for providing managers at all levels with the essential space to reflect. Through reflection, managers come to understand themselves more fully, to confront their obstacles and concerns, to nurture their drives and aspirations, and ultimately to release and channel their creativity towards their organisational goals. Grounded in the development of personal and interpersonal awareness, leadership coaching encourages managers to challenge self-limiting mindsets and to stretch for possibilities that might previously have seemed out of reach.

Graham Lee, Leadership Coaching: From personal insight to organisational performance

This book drew me into a world of coaching that went beyond just the practical but also the emotionally charged underlying issues that we grapple with as human beings and leaders. Coaching is explicitly not therapy, but it can play a therapeutic role. Drawing on his background in psychotherapy background, the author helps us understand how.

Leadership Coaching - book

From the earliest days, each of us has been engaged in an ongoing journey to learn and to grow. These two human forces are often connected but they are not the same. Learning can be about requiring a new skill or knowledge base. If I master PowerPoint in order to put together a slideshow for a client, I have learnt something. I have new information in my head. But have I really grown? From a developmental perspective, real growth requires some qualitative shift, not just in a knowledge, but in perspective or way of thinking. Growing is when the form of our understanding changes; we call this ‘transformation’.

Jennifer Garvey Berger, Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World

This book changed the game for me. Into drew me into the world of Adult Development Theory and the difference between horizontal development (what you know) and Vertical Development (how you think). Often I see clients trapped in patterns of thinking that would serve them well in a simple and predictable world, but unfortunately the world is complex and unpredictable. This book introduces you to a personal and professional journey of truly transformative thinking and sensemaking, and helps you support your clients on a similar journey.

Changing on the Job - coaching book

The most common leadership failure stems from trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges.

To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground events. We use the metaphor of “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor” to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective you need to see what is really happening.

Ron Heifetz et al, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

With it’s firm distinction between technical and adaptive challenges, this book is a game changer for coaches and organisational development consultants working with leaders transitioning into complex roles. Full of helpful questions and approaches for diagnosing systemic challenges, it’s one of the best books I’ve read for helping leaders ‘see’ their businesses better and gain a broader perspective.

Adaptive Leadership - coaching book

Non-coaching books that will help you become a better executive coach

There’s certain books that aren’t necessarily about coaching, but they do capture the spirit of the discipline. Here’s a few that I’ve read that made me think deeper about my practice.

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Originally published in 1936, Carnegie pioneered the development of personal business skills, self-confidence and motivational techniques. I find it fascinating that much of his observations, tools and techniques are now backed up by subsequent psychology studies over the last 80 years.

Perhaps the world’s most famous investor, Warren Buffet, is quoted as saying “this book changed my life.”

How To Win Friends & Influence People - coaching book

The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.

Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

Josh Waitzkin was a child chess prodigy and inspiration for the film Searching for Bobby Fisher. A lover of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (he’s a black belt), Tai Chi Push Hands (he’s a world champion) and more recently Stand Up Paddle-boarding, he now coaches the world’s top performers, including ice hockey and basketball players, and hedge fund managers. A wonderful, alternative take on performance coaching and mental optimisation, the book unpacks his unique systems of thematic learning, idea generation, building resilience, and mastering the art of performance psychology.

The Art of Learning - coaching book

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.

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

First published in 1962, this book gets to the heart of what it means to be a human being and find meaning and happiness. The author chronicles his time as an inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Frankl had trained as a psychiatric doctor before being sent there. 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. Read my summary: Victor Frankl on finding meaning & happiness.

Man's Search for Wisdom

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Whether you’re a leader looking to find a coach personally, or a people lead exploring coaching for your leadership team, my complete guide to finding the executive coach for you will tell you what you need to know.

My virtual library contains all the books that I have read categorised my reading list into six buckets of practical worldly wisdom: numeracy, human nature, history, science, business and second-level thinking.