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What's the Fuss Over Executive Coaching?
By Scott Morrell

I am energized helping organizations fit the pieces together to become more effective, especially when focusing on a single leader or small group of key leaders. Often times, this 1:1 work is viewed as “executive coaching” while other times it’s called “leadership development.”  Whatever it is called, I know the trusting relationship has meaning for the client.  

Leaders seek an executive coach for a variety of reasons that are critical for their professional growth, on-going personal development and/or career exploration. Some utilize coaching as a short-term relationship while others incorporate a coach for a year or more. Basically, motivations run the gambit, the duration varies and the scope is situationally determined. 

But wait, what exactly is coaching in the first place? And what is all the fuss about leaders needing to access an executive coach?

Organization and individual use of executive coaching has matured over the last 25 years.  Prior to the 1990s, executive coaching was used primarily for the problem employee or to correct a valued employee who displayed derailing behaviors. If maladaptive behaviors were not corrected through executive coaching, termination generally followed.  This punitive paradigm of executive coaching is not as prevalent today.  Where once coaching was a negative stereotype, today coaching is considered “a badge of honor.”   Some suggest having an executive coach is a “status symbol” within Corporate America.

There is no consensus in the marketplace on what constitutes executive coaching. I do find a few definitions in harmony of what leaders seek when engaging an executive coach. Keep in mind as you read these definitions there is a difference between coaching as a practice (i.e., an organized profession) from the practice of coaching (i.e., a manager who coaches a subordinate).

  • Executive coaching is most successful as a three-way partnership among coach, executive, and the executive’s organization.  Each partner has an obligation and responsibility to contribute to the success of the coaching process. Although the primary work is between executive and coach, coaching is always an organizational intervention and, as such, should be conducted within the context of the organization’s goals and objectives(Ennis, Stern, Goodman and Otto, 2008).
  • Coaching is a confidential, individually-tailored, engagement designed to meet the needs both of the executive being coached and the organization paying for the service (Kaufmann and Couto, 2009).
  • A form of executive consultation in which a trained professional, mindful of organizational dynamics, functions as a facilitator who forms a collaborative relationship with an executive to improve his or her skills and effectiveness in communicating the corporate vision and goals, and to foster better team performance, organizational productivity, and professional–personal development (Sperry, 2008).

Regardless of a client's or organization's motivations, the coaching partnership is a relationship built on immense mutual trust in each other and in the coaching process itself.  Clients trust that they will receive honest feedback, will be held accountable to their goals and objectives, and will be working with an executive coach who is focused on their professional and/or personal goals. In a nutshell, the relationship between a coach and a client is a sacred relationship.

In a confidential coaching relationship I rarely have leaders concerned about various definitions of executive coaching. What prompts many leaders to seek coaching are deep rooted questions. Questions such as:

  • I sometimes feel I am expected to know all the answers and make all the right decisions. Where do I go for my own uncertainty?
  • My employees and even my own family do not fully understand my unique work-related pressures. How can I get the support and empathy from someone who empathizes with my situation?
  • Do I expect my supervisor to think about my own professional development?
  • Where do I find a safe place for me to express my honest opinions?
  • I fear if I share personal or professional challenges it may affect my role as the leader. Where should I turn for confidential advice?
  • I lack a safe place to share my innovative ideas. Where can I find an unbiased sounding board to receive my ideas – even crazy ones – and provide constructive feedback?

Call to action: Have you heard yourself ponder one or more of these questions? Do you sense your own boss is searching for a confidential sounding-board? If so, consider now or in the future partnering with an executive coach.