Working with an executive coach is a very personal experience, so it’s important to understand exactly what executive coaching is, and know how to find and choose the right coach for you. Drawing on almost a decade of my own experience coaching founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates, this post tells you everything you need to know.
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 help my clients build their businesses, level up as leaders and travel the road less travelled towards personal mastery.
Read on to learn more about:
- What is executive coaching?
- What’s the difference between executive coaching and mentoring?
- Does a coach need to have done my job before in order to be effective?
- How to find an executive coach
- How to choose an executive coach
- How much does executive coaching cost?
What is executive coaching?
John Whitmore is one of the founders of the modern coaching movement. In his book Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership, he explains that coaching involves “unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance”. Coaching helps someone to learn rather than being directly taught. The coachee “does acquire the facts, not from the coach but from within himself, stimulated by the coach”.
The International Coaching Federation offers another definition of coaching: “the process of partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership”.
As the name implies, executive coaches work with CEOs and other senior leaders in business, though the industry is evolving and becoming increasingly democratised as expectations grow amongst employees at all levels that this type of support is integral to their development.
What can an executive coach do fo you you?
From the CEO down, executive coaches are trusted partners who provide a private space for you to share and discuss your innermost thoughts and feelings and reflect upon them. Typically these conversations focus around business and leadership but, given that our work and personal lives are so intertwined, there’s crossover into life outside work.
The best coaches serve as thought partners to help you examine your own thinking, provoke new ideas and insights, reach considered decisions and commit to action steps that help you achieve your goals.
Using a range of tools and techniques, including intelligent questioning and deep listening, a coach helps you further develop self-awareness and facilitates self-directed learning. They build upon your own knowledge and intrinsic motivation to get you to your own outcomes and navigate the path to achievement and success.
Coaches are highly supportive but they won’t do all the hard work for you. Objective and unattached to the outcome, a coach will help you determine your own way forward. They won’t just tell you what to do, though they’ll lend their own experience where appropriate to do so.
What’s the difference between executive coaching and mentoring?
The words coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. What’s the difference between coaching and mentoring explains these in more detail, but here’s a summary.
Mentoring originates from Greek mythology, when Odysseus sets out for Troy and entrusts his house and the education of his son Telemachus to his friend Mentor. He leaves Telemachus with the instruction to “tell him all you know”. Those words are significant; the essence of mentoring lies in more directive learning, based upon the mentor’s knowledge and previous experience.
In spite of the wide variety of names it is given… all the experts and communicators appear to agree that it has its origins in the concept of apprenticeship, when an older more experienced individual passed down his knowledge of how the task was done and how to operate in the commercial world.Everyone Needs a Mentor, by David Clutterbuck
Mentors may or may not be older, but they are always more experienced. For any leader, having the ear of someone who has been on a similar journey to them is very reassuring. It is because a mentor’s approach is more experienced-based that it is referred to as being Directive, as opposed to the Non-Directive approach used in coaching.
A good mentor will be an inspiring individual who you look up to and respect for their knowledge, wisdom and sense of shared values. They will pass on advice, share opinions and help you navigate tricky situations with greater ease. They’ll likely open up connections for you among their network. Because they are more Directive, they may help you make decisions and reach conclusions quicker than your coach might. That’s not to say they are always right, and you might want to use your time with your coach to process their advice and arrive at your own conclusion.
Should I look for a mentor instead?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question but here’s a few things to consider:
- Mentoring is more Directive; it helps you get to an answer more quickly, rather than taking you through a more Non-Directive process to find your own answer.
- Mentoring tends to focus on offering more immediate actionable and tactical advice. Working with a coach is typically part of a longer, developmental journey.
- Whilst a good coach can be a good mentor, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a good mentor will be an effective coach. Experienced coaches have years of training, and a multitude of tools and techniques at their disposal, mentors typically less so. Because mentoring and coaching are used so interchangeably, it’s not uncommon for people to say they’re coaching when really they’re mentoring.
- That said, coaching and mentoring are not mutually exclusive. Back to John Whitmore, who tells the story of of Mike Sprecklen, the coach and mentor to the famous rowing pair Andy Holmes and Sir Steve Redgrave:
“I was stuck, I had taught them all I knew technically.” Sprecklen said on completion [of one of Whitmore’s coaching courses]. “But this opens up the possibility of going further, for they can feel things that I can’t even see.” He had discovered a new way forward with them, working from their experiences and perceptions rather than from his own. Good coaching, and good mentoring for that matter, can and should take a performer beyond the limitations of the coach or mentor’s own knowledge.Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership
What about a therapist?
Therapists are trained to help people who are facing mental illnesses. Coaches are not.
If a client appears to have mental health and well-being challenges that are impacting their day to day functioning then they should seek the support of therapist, not a coach. Whilst there are a number very well-regarded coaching qualifications, it is not a regulated profession like therapy. Therapists are therefore more qualified and experienced to deal with these sorts of issues. Professional coaches are clear about this distinction and if they think the support of therapist is more appropriate they’ll let you know and help direct you to the right support.
As a general rule of thumb, coaching is forward looking whilst therapy delves backwards into our past to help us make sense of our present. To add nuance to that, because coaching is about opening up clients to possibilities in themselves that they did not even know even about, an experienced coach may sometimes be backward and inward looking, exploring deeper issues that might be driving certain ways of thinking and behaviours. But whilst any good coach should be comfortable working in that space, exploring the true depths of our actions, cognitions and emotions is the job of a therapist.
In terms of support, again, you have options. Here’s a few things to consider:
- Because therapy is a regulated profession that draws on many similar tools and and techniques as coaching, a therapist can also serve you in a coaching capacity. But this doesn’t work the other way around: a coach who is not also a trained and regulated therapist cannot offer you therapy. Fortunately, there are many therapists who operate as coaches too. In my experience, their style often leans, as you’d imagine, to a more therapeutic approach so it’s really a case of talking to them and working out what works best for you.
- People often seek the help of a therapist when they have hit the wall, burnt out, or otherwise reached a point at which they can no longer continue in their current state. If you recognise this in yourself, it may be more appropriate to talk to a therapist. If you’ve not reached that tipping point, an experienced coach may be able to help you earlier. There’s no exact line in the sand.
Psychoanalysis, coaching and leadership are all concerned with searching for what is true and facing it. Psychoanalysts help clients face the contents of their psyche. Coaches help clients face their current reality, however uncomfortable, and find steps forward. Leaders help their organisations confront the most brutal facts of their situation. All are searching for what’s true and facing it.On coaching and therapy
Does a coach need to have done my job before in order to be effective?
This is a contentious question. Research demonstrates that executives (and organisations who hire coaches) do want business experience – 85% of executives selected “Business Experience” as important to their selection process. However, the criteria relating to coaching expertise rated higher:
“Ability to build rapport, trust and comfort with coach” (100%)
“Experience and skills as a coach” (96%)
“Experience dealing with specific leadership challenges” (85%)
The research concluded that coaching expertise trumps executive experience. Executive experience can help improve rapport-building and empathy but is not a replacement for coaching expertise.
On this topic I can see both sides and ultimately it depends what you want from your coach? If it’s more experienced-based mentoring support (a Directive style) then previous experience of your role is likely beneficial. But don’t underestimate the perspective-shifting ability of a great coach who is able to blend a good level of previous business experience with a honed intuitive coaching approach developed over time.
How to find an executive coach
You’ve decided that you would like to work with an executive coach but where do you start? For all the technology, finding one can be an old school endeavour. Tap up your trusted network. Ask around to see who people have worked with and who they would recommend. Ask People and Talent leads in your company. They often make it their business to keep an up to date roster of coaches they can turn to. Clients that I work with ask their investor network and board members, and reach out to other leadership peers. Referrals often come to me from such individuals who will be connected with a network of coaches.
Technology is playing an increasingly helpful role in finding an executive coach. A basic Google search can yield some good results. The rise of online coaching platforms also offers another resource and are widely heralded for their democratisation of coaching, though they generally offer more business-wide interventions delivered at the enterprise level.
If selecting a coach through connections, then narrow your list down to about three coaches (it doesn’t need to be more than that), make the decision to commit and get in touch with them.
Book a Chemistry Call
Most coaches will offer an initial conversation to understand what you would like to get out of coaching and explain how they work (and if they don’t then be nervous about why not).
They’ll make this investment of time because they know it’s the best way to establish rapport, build early mutual trust and for both parties to test if the relationship feels right. Coaching is a two-way process and the best coaches will only work with you if it feels right for them too.
Do your Due Diligence
Your investing a significant sum in a relationship that will hopefully dramatically develop your personally and which could last a long time. Ask your coaches for references or reach out to individuals who you knoe they have worked woth before. What was their experience?
Coaching can be a ‘black box’. So to help clients decide if they would like to work with me, and to continue to find my own growth edge, I ask all clients for mid and end of engagement feedback and share it publicly (subject to their permission). You can read my client feedback here.
How to choose an executive coach
When talking to potential coaches, here’s a few things to bear in mind, some questions to ask them, and some questions to ask yourself. Ultimately, choosing a coaching will come down to your gut feeling about whether this person is right for you, so don’t be afraid to trust it.
Coaching approach & style
Executive coaching is a catch all term for a number of different approaches that include business, performance, leadership, career and developmental coaching. There’s a huge amount of crossover and many coaches will work across several of these areas, but here’s a summary of each:
- Business coaching – focuses on the overall strategic and tactical growth of your business, covering all functional aspects of building a business and your role leading it.
- Leadership coaching – doubles down on the leadership aspects of running any organisation, digging deeper into and seeking to develop your leadership style and approach. Coaches may specialise in areas like women in leadership and executive transitions.
- Performance coaching – helps you reach your full potential and perform at your very best. A performance coach helps clients with their mindset, grit, resilience and habits. There’s often crossover in the approaches and techniques used in performance coaching from sport and the military.
- Career coaching – helps you focus on your current situation, think about what you want from your future and then make a plan to get there.
- Developmental coaching – traditional coaching focuses on the acquisition of further knowledge, skills and development of specific personal qualities to become more proficient and experienced. Recognising that we continue to grow mentally as well as physically as we mature, developmental coaching works on transforming the underlying capacity of a leader to make sense of and respond to situations. It explores their internal ‘meaning making’, rather than just behaviours or actions.
Every coach is different and will bring a different way of working to a coaching relationship. It really comes down to getting a better understanding of the type of support that you want and working out whether the coach’s approach is the right one for you.
Also bear in mind that coaches all have different styles. Are they warm and supportive, or more direct and constructively critical? Do they focus on the practical and tactical, or lean more inwards? Do you want someone warm and empathetic, or someone who will hold you strongly to account and drive your forwards?
Questions to ask a coach and yourself:
Ask the coach: to explain, in their own words, their coaching approach and interpersonal style.
Ask yourself: does their explanation align with your experience during the conversation? Does this person communicate with you in a way that makes me feel comfortable? Will your interpersonal styles work well together? What do I want from my coach and do I think this person can give it to me?
Sensemaking & application of theories
Coaches come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no one way to coach. In her book Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World executive coach and leadership expert Jennifer Garvey Berger explains that:
Coaches – like other reflective adults – tend to have particular theories or beliefs that guide our work on a day-to-day basis. We have common patterns and ways of engaging. We use particular tools or ideas to understand a situation and offer insight to clients.
Like any other human, a coach can only have a partial perspective on the world. Their way of making sense of the world may differ a little, or a lot, from you own. The best coaches “rub theories together… taking new theories and putting them together – especially theories, practices, or ideas that are contradictory,” giving them practice in “holding the paradoxes of what it means to be human.”
A good coach will intuitively meld different approaches, theories, models and frameworks together to suit the needs of their client and the conversation. Be wary of any coach that is overly wedded to any one in particular and tells you that they will not deviate.
Questions to ask a coach and yourself:
Ask the coach: what coaching and other personal and professional development approaches, theories, models and frameworks do they use? How rigidly do they stick to them? How do they make sense of the world?
Ask yourself: can this person see the world from my perspective, or at least empathise with it? Does this person bring a one-size-fits-all approach? If so, am I comfortable with that?
The issue of coaching qualifications is contentious. Some of the best coaches I know don’t have coaching qualifications. Other have a long list of qualifications but lack certain people skills.
Treat qualifications as a helpful guide but don’t discount a coach who lacks them if they have other strong credentials and you feel you could work well with them. But be aware that, unlike therapy or accounting, law or architecture, coaching is not a regulated profession. Anyone can set themselves up as a coach and many do.
Questions to ask a coach and yourself:
Ask the coach: do they have coaching qualifications? What is their attitude towards them? Can they tell you about their coaching experience? Ask them to explain the difference between a coach, mentor, consultant and therapist and be very wary if they can’t do so comfortably.
Ask yourself: am I comfortable that this person has the right level of experience and knowledge of coaching to help me? Does this person know their professional boundaries?
Commitment to continuing professional development
The study of human psychology, development and performance is advancing rapidly. Coaching is a constantly evolving discipline. The best coaches are committed to their continuing professional development. They are fiercely curios and never stop learning. They bring their insights directly to their clients and through the way they work.
Questions to ask a coach and yourself:
Ask the coach: how do they continuously professionally develop as a coach?
Ask yourself: does this person show a genuine commitment to continuous professional development?
Do they have their own coach and/or mentor?
If you have ever tried to coach yourself, you will realise that it’s not impossible but it is incredibly difficult. Coaches are no different. Just like the rest of us, they have not worked it all out, they don’t have all the answers and they have a host of their own developmental needs. For these reasons, the best coaches I know have their own coach and/or mentor.
Questions to ask a coach and yourself:
Ask a coach: do they have a coach or mentor? What function does that relationship play?
Ask yourself: how well did they answer this question? Am I comfortable that they are ‘doing their own work’?
Do I trust this person?
Trust is the most important component of a coaching relationship. You should trust your coach and they should have your back. You are going to be discussing issues with them that you may not talk to many other people about, if at all. Your relationship is likely to last months, if not years.
Studies show the importance of the relationship that you develop with the coach that you choose:
The strength of the coaching relationship or working alliance between client and coach is the most powerful predictor of coaching outcomes. Spending time building a strong relationship with a client is critical for successful and effective coaching, and it is perceived this way by both coach and client alike.
Questions to ask a coach and yourself:
Ask the coach: how do they go about building and maintaining trust with their clients?
Ask yourself: do I trust this person and do they have my back?
How much does executive coaching cost?
The cost for a session ranges enormously between a few hundred and many thousands of pounds. But there’s many factors to consider.
Are you paying for coaching personally, or is your employer meeting the cost? Are you comfortable working with a coach with relatively little experience, or would you prefer someone with thousands of coaching hours under their belt? Are you a solo-entrepreneur who has just set up their own business, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? How many sessions would you like, and how long is each session?
Albert Einstein famously said: “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted”. Because the benefits of executive coaching can be difficult (not impossible) to objectively quantify, it’s a question of perceived value: what are you prepared to pay for the Return On Investment that you and those around you might experience personally, as a leader, and for the associated growth in your business?
Also bear in mind that it costs typically between £5,000 and £10,000 to attain entry level coaching qualifications, and many coaches will continue to fund their professional development beyond that. This has has both a financial and time cost. The best coaches I know never stop learning and absorbing information on a continual quest to master their craft, and will spend many hours reading, writing, listening and meeting with other coaches.
I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to high-growth leaders. My clients are transitional founders, CEOs & executives in high-growth businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.
Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together.