If coaching intrigues you, then consider executive coaching as a field where you can make a significant impact.
Because the effects of executive coaching extend beyond the individual client to the whole organization, the work is a good fit for those who aspire to have a broad societal impact.
Kilburg (1996) defines executive coaching as “a helping relationship between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant.”
The consultant or executive coach uses their expertise to help clients achieve goals, improve their professional performance and personal satisfaction, and consequently improve the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.
Individuals come to this work from a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds. This article will explain who executive coaches are, what they do, and how you can become one yourself.
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What Is an Executive Coach?
An executive coach is a professional who forms helping relationships with individuals in managerial or leadership positions to create sustained behavior change. The executive coach plays the role of change agent in an organization through engaging in a highly personalized form of leadership development.
There are many useful metaphors for describing the work of an executive coach, the most potent of which is the image of a mountain guide who assists climbers, helping them choose a path and navigate the many challenges that arise on the journey to the summit.
The executive coach is a guide for organizations. In many cases, the client is a “high potential candidate” who is already acting in a leadership position. The organization hires the executive coach as a guide and companion on the client’s journey to the pinnacle of the field, often a seat in the C-suite (CEO, CFO, etc.).
Once hired, the executive coach engages in the process of getting to know their client in the context of the organization. The coach, client, and organization work together to create goals and a shared vision of the client’s success.
The coach and client, or “coachee,” then begin the process of coaching, in which the coach provides feedback and insight as the coachee works toward their goals through identifying blind spots (or behavioral deficits) and implementing new, more effective behaviors.
Why Is Executive Coaching Important?
Executive coaching is important because CEOs and other executives often fail.
According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas (2019), a global outplacement and executive coaching firm, there were 1,640 CEO changes in 2019 alone.
Strikingly, the government/nonprofit sector led all industries with a CEO turnover total of 339. These numbers point to a crisis in leadership and a boon for aspiring coaches.
The hiring of an executive represents a significant investment for an organization. By the time the client has been hired, the organization has likely spent thousands to millions of dollars investing in their development. Having to replace an executive can cost millions of dollars in lost revenue, severance packages, and search fees. Executive coaching can be an insurance policy on a new, high-profile hire.
Executive coaches bring something unique to the table: a specialty in the human side of business and leadership. Because coaches spend time getting to know their clients, they are afforded an intimate view into their worlds. This level of access to business leaders comes with a powerful level of influence.
How to Become an Executive Coach
There are many routes to becoming an executive coach, as the field is mostly unregulated (Sherman & Freas, 2004). Psychologists are perhaps best prepared to become executive coaches, as many of the core competencies for coaches and therapists overlap (Yanchus, Muhs, & Osatuke, 2020).
The primary connection between therapy and coaching is that they are both “helping relationships,” meaning they have psychological change and growth as intended outcomes.
Because of this connection, many people enter the field of executive coaching by first obtaining an advanced degree in psychology. Many psychologist executive coaches initially study clinical psychology, while others study industrial/organizational psychology (Vandaveer, Lowman, Pearlman, & Brannick, 2016).
Psychologists transitioning to coaching from these two disciplines will have different educational needs. Much of the education that psychologists need to become successful executive coaches is acquired experientially.
Because an authoritative regulatory body does not govern the field, there is no requirement for an advanced degree in psychology. There are several methods through which someone may become an executive coach without an advanced degree.
One option is to join a consulting firm. There are many consulting firms, from small local firms to those with a global presence that have executive coaching as part of their offerings. A bachelor’s degree is usually sufficient to obtain an entry-level position at one of these firms. The process to become an executive coach involves working one’s way up, starting with an associate role, and learning the ropes by assisting on projects led by senior coaches.
Another option is to become an internal coach. Many companies have internal coaching departments. These departments often train lower-level managers, usually in large group programs. These departments are generally part of the human resources department.
Another option is to simply gain experience through working in the business world and then pursue independent training in coaching. Individuals with business experience can undertake an online training program and obtain credentials from an independent organization, such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF). They may then start their own independent practice. There are several of these programs mentioned below.
However, if this is the option you are considering, keep in mind that executive coaches should have a clear understanding of psychological difficulties. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review (Berglas, 2002, para. 1) “when an executive’s problems stem from undetected or ignored psychological difficulties, coaching can actually make a bad situation worse.”
The article makes the case that due to the cutthroat nature of the corporate world, narcissistic and abusive tendencies can be rewarded. An executive coach should be able to recognize such personality disorders.
Job Description and Qualifications
As previously mentioned, executive coaches form individual helping relationships with people in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors.
Executive coaches help their clients to make effective decisions, learn from their mistakes, and navigate job hurdles.
There are a variety of skills that help coaches succeed in this line of work. The first and most important skill is active listening. Coaches use their conversational skills to elicit learning and processing in their clients. They must be able to read between the lines, listening for what remains unsaid and bringing important details to the surface.
Executive coaches must possess some level of business competence (Brotman, Liberi &, Wasylyshyn, 1998). The coach needs to have some understanding of financial, economic, and accounting principles to understand the various pressures underlying the client’s decisions.
The coach must be able to speak in the language of their client. Business leaders often use language and terminology specific to their industry. Coaches must have some understanding of this language, and they must be able to translate complex ideas from their areas of expertise, such as human relationships and emotions, into language that their clients can easily grasp.
Experience in building and maintaining relationships is a must for an executive coach. The coach must be a “trusted and approachable person” who can establish long-lasting relationships with a variety of people throughout an organization (Brotman et al., 1998). Relationships are a vital currency in organizations and can be tricky for an outsider to navigate.
The coach must be able to obtain buy-in from all parties involved, including the client, but also the boss, and perhaps a representative from the human resources department, which is often involved in the development of executives.
Many coaches do not have direct experience holding a corporate leadership position. For this reason, they must be able to learn on the job, and quickly. Executive coaches must be experts in understanding the motives of human behavior, and they must be politically savvy. Understanding how politics and relationships work in the workplace are often essential to helping their client navigate their day-to-day.
Executive coaches benefit from self-knowledge (Brotman et al., 1998). During an engagement, there are many moments when just the coach and the client have a conversation. The coach must be able to use themselves as an instrument.
Having knowledge of oneself and familiarity with one’s own internal world allows the coach to draw on their experiences as coaching tools to help their client. This process requires creativity, quick thinking, and an ability to improvise.
Lastly, the coach must have compassion. Executive coaching distills down to helping individuals improve their functioning in relationships and self-actualize. In order to help one’s client grow and change, and to bring about improvement in the workplace for all involved, the coach must be able to feel compassion for their client.
Executive coaching session – how coaching works
Executive Coaching Guidelines
Although many coaches have different styles and structure their engagements differently, it is possible to take a general look at the guidelines of executive coaching. There are several concrete steps that coaches take to work effectively with their clients (Vandaveer et al., 2016).
These steps are described below:
First, the coach engages in a needs assessment. This is a series of conversations and assessments with both the client and the coach. It is undertaken to understand why the organization is seeking coaching and what they need from the position.
The coach then makes a contract with the organization, in which each party sets mutual expectations. The organization sets general goals for the engagement, while the coach sets expectations for how they and the coachee will work together. Limits on who will receive what information must be established ahead of time. Confidentiality is vital for clients to be able to open up to the coach.
Assessment and data gathering is a process to generate information about the client and set a baseline against which progress can be measured. Coaches have different preferences about what tools to use, but most conduct an in-depth interview to gather information about the client’s history, including life outside of work.
Feedback is then provided to the client about the results of the assessment, and the next steps are goal setting and action planning, in which concrete goals are determined and a plan is outlined for accomplishing them.
Coaching takes place during the implementation of this co-created action plan. This plan can be very specific or very general, and usually involves a process of self-discovery and self-insight. The client and coach meet regularly during this phase to discuss how the plan is working in the day-to-day.
An evaluation usually takes place toward the end of the engagement, during which the coach and client assess progress and report on the achievement of predetermined goals to organizational stakeholders.
Finally, the coach and client terminate the engagement, and the client transitions to life without the coach. There is a final meeting, or set of meetings, in which the client comes up with post-coaching goals. Coaching can last for a few weeks to years, but most take place over one year.
6 Best Executive Coaching Programs and Certifications
There are both training programs and certifications available for executive coaching.
Training programs offer online courses and instruction to provide foundational skills.
Certifications are credentials that experienced coaches can apply for and obtain. These certifications ensure that coaches are qualified. They are meant to protect clients from purchasing services from unqualified coaches.
Certification programs are especially useful for those transitioning to the field of executive coaching without education in psychology or extensive business experience. They allow new coaches to establish credibility by aligning themselves with reputable organizations. Although they have many benefits, these certifications are not necessary for one to work as an executive coach.
The most prominent credentialing organization for coaches is the International Coaching Federation (ICF). It offers three different types of certifications for coaches at differing levels of training.
These are five of the top-rated online training programs for executive coaches:
Co-Active Training Institute is one of the longest running coach training programs and has trained thousands of coaches. It offers a variety of online training programs at various price points.
Coach Training Alliance is an ICF-credentialed program. It offers several different products for executive coach training and holds frequent online and in-person workshops.
The Center for Executive Coaching offers another program for ICF certification. The process takes anywhere from two to nine months and involves sending in recordings of your coaching sessions for review and feedback.
Run by the University of Texas at Dallas, this program offers virtual learning and ICF certification. It also offers a speaker series showcasing experts in the field.
The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching is an organization that provides resources for coaches, including online training and information for starting a practice. It offers credentials in specific coaching practices that the institute itself has originated. It is certified by the ICF.
Online Courses and Training Opportunities
If you are interested in becoming credentialed with the ICF, it is useful to seek out programs that are approved by the organization before starting a training program. The ICF has developed a search engine of its approved programs for this purpose.
Other organizations provide opportunities for online training outside of the constraints of the formal credentialing process. Some online courses in executive coaching may count for continuing education credits, which are useful for coaches who are licensed as psychologists or in other areas of professional practice.
The Society for Consulting Psychology is a division of the American Psychological Organization that specializes in serving executive coaches and consultants. The organization provides many opportunities for online learning, including a variety of webinar series for transitioning and early career coaches.
A Take-Home Message
Executive coaching is an exciting field that allows helping professionals to broaden their impact beyond the individual client. It is also a way to make a great living while experiencing personal growth and fulfillment.
Prospective coaches should be interested in individuals, organizational systems, relationships, and human behavior. The work is a perfect fit for those with a mix of interpersonal skills and business acumen.
Those trained as psychologists are uniquely suited to take on this work, but there are many options for training and certification for those with different backgrounds. If you are interested in becoming an executive coach, do not be afraid to follow your dreams. The field is so broad that you are almost certain to find a niche that works for you.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Berglas, S. (2002). The Very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2002/06/the-very-real-dangers-of-executive-coaching.
- Brotman, L. E., Liberi, W. P., & Wasylyshyn, K. M. (1998). Executive coaching: The need for standards of competence. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 50(1), 40–46.
- Challenger, Gray & Christmas. (2019). 2019 Year-end CEO report. Chicago, IL: Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
- Kilburg, R. R. (1996). Toward a conceptual understanding and definition of executive coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal, 48, 134–144.
- Sherman, S., & Freas, A. (2004, November). The wild west of executive coaching. Harvard Business Review, 82(11), 82–90.
- Vandaveer, V. V., Lowman, R. L., Pearlman, K., & Brannick, J. P. (2016). A practice analysis of coaching psychology: Toward a foundational competency model. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 68(2), 118–142.
- Wasylyshyn, K. M., & Masterpasqua, F., (2018). Developing self-compassion in leadership development coaching: A practice model and case study analysis. International Coaching Psychology Review, 13(1), 21–35.
- Yanchus, N. J., Muhs, S., & Osatuke, K. (2020, February 6). Academic background and executive coach training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.