Coaching 101: the FAQs

What is executive coaching?

And how is coaching different from consulting, therapy, or chatting with a good friend?


Coaching is an emerging field with roots in organizational development and the human potential movement. Executive coaching may be defined as contract for behavioral outcomes.  Note the hard facts implied in this definition:  1.  a business agreement 2) with expectation and measurement of 3) behavioral outcomes.  There is nothing vague about executive coaching.


The process may be internal to an organization, for instance a large organization may development a coaching program to develop specific competencies in individuals that align with its vision or a business need.   Mangers are now required to “coach” their direct reports, which is an inherent ethical conflict.  The messy results may appear in the next performance review for both the manager and the direct report.


More often, coaching is an external process, especially when confidentiality is required for a leader to develop specific skills or competencies. Think of those who are the most “high potential” contributors in your organization.  That HiPo label implies that they produce some 80% of the results and require expert external leadership training from executive coaches.  They NEED an external, confidential executive coach, as a “secret weapon” to support some behavioral outcomes.  The ROI data for external executive coaching is clear, and I can provide ample white papers upon request.


The 3A Process:  Assessment, Constructive Actions, Accountability


1. The coaching process always includes an assessment phase where leaders assess their strengths.  There are some 15,000 validated and reliable psychological assessments.  I sell many of them.  I’m certified in many of them.  I developed and validated an assessment on risk-taking when in graduate school at Dartmouth College.  If you favor a certain assessment let me know- we can use it.  Coaching without assessments is sloppy and silly, like eating spaghetti without a fork.  You can do it but it is a waste of essential tools.


Once you select a coach the behavior outcomes are defined contractually. The process may include direct meetings, phone meetings, or some combination thereof.  Executive coaching typically includes meetings with other stakeholders who are close to the leader.  Services are paid by engagement.  The meeting schedule and frequency data is provided to the leader, HR business partner (HRBP), and the leader’s manager.  The content of the coaching engagement must be kept confidential.  Remember, that executive coaching is a business agreement.  Outcomes are pre-defined and renewed at least quarterly with the HRBP and manager.


2.  Constructive actions are defined by the leader’s agenda.  There are few absolutes in executive coaching- the process requires both artistry and science, content expertise and process expertise.  That fact frustrates those who are rigid or not interested in learning.    However, when a leader is newly promoted or has a specific business outcome that must be achieved, I assure you that they can move quickly.  Executive coaches provide expertise, based on years of doing similar work with hundreds of other leaders.  The best executive coaches may suggest constructive actions, or world-class solutions, upon request.  But consultative coaches (like myself) do not tell leaders what to do.  We provide customized leadership training.  Then we ask, “What are you taking away from this session that you are likely to do next?”


3. Accountability is the missing step from too many people who declare themselves “professional coaches.”   We support and document behavior change, using any resources.  We have the sacred responsibility of supporting someone’s behavioral outcome.  That fact may require me to be a cheerleader one day, and a drill sergeant the next day.  I only get paid when the leader manifests those behavioral changes.  So I give them “everything I’ve got.”  Any content from my digital library.  Any communication model.  Any proven tactic.  Each session starts with, “What is your primary agenda or focus today?”  And the leader is expected to demonstrate value from their investment.

Since 1997, 100% of my clients have stated the value of this 3A Coaching Process.  It is my guarantee.


What are the boundaries?


There are key distinctions between coaching and consulting. Coaches usually ask powerful questions such “How can you make that goal happen?” or “What would it take for you to call that person?” Then good coaches hold the client accountable, while encouraging them and offering proven techniques for their success. Consultants are hired to solve problems and provide specific information. Hence, consultants will often make statements rather than ask questions. In coaching, the client is expected to do the work. And frankly, most of the work occurs between coaching sessions.

Another key distinction should be made between coaching and therapy. Many coaches have no direct experience in the mental health profession.  Coaches should refer other specialists when needed. There is a temporal distinction that is crucial here:  the now and next vs. the past.  Coaches focus on the client’s immediate and future needs. Therapists focus on the client’s present condition and the past factors that led to that condition. Good coaches are action-oriented, helping leaders take the next steps to make their desired behavioral changes.


Next steps

So how do you determine who is a qualified coach? Start with the professional associations and make certain that any prospective coach has been trained and certified by one. The umbrella is the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and it has set the standard for ethics, professional standards, conferences, articles, etc.   Consider umbrella organizations such as CoachSource (I am one of the engagement managers there.) Then look at digital testimonials through Linked In and websites.

Selecting a good match is essential to a successful engagement.  The best analogy may be an athletic coach. When you select a tennis partner you want someone who will challenge you to work hard, improve your game, and help you move to the next level. Anything else is a waste of your time or money.

In summary:

  1.  List the behavioral outcomes (what you need to say or do) as a result of this investment
  2. Interview 2-4 executive coaches
  3. Select one who will support the outcome
  4. Get started.  There is no better investment.

Call me today to get started.  If I am not your “secret weapon guy” then I will refer you to someone great.