What Is Executive Coaching?
Executive coaching is a process where an organization’s senior management works together with a coach on any number of business skills needed for their current position or a future one. Executive coaching is often one-on-one, where the senior manager consults with the coach to prepare for major changes and receive objective advice regarding performance.
Why Is Executive Coaching Important?
In the past, executive coaching was the mainstay – and often the sole part – of many L&D programs. Those in executive positions are always a fraction of an organization’s total headcount, so they require relatively few L&D resources, while their high skill level and capabilities are imperative for the survival of the company. These two factors justify the cost of individual coaching engagements.
Executive coaching programs offer benefits to both executives and their organizations, including:
- Improved ability to make critical decisions, plan strategies, lead change, and switch roles
- Learning how to motivate and better communicate with employees as a part of retention efforts
- Enhanced resilience against stress and conflict, especially in times of change
What has changed is the nature of these skills. The era of “positional leadership”, where leadership is seen as a skill in itself, seems to be behind us. Instead, today’s workforce realities require executives to have more skills than ever, and often of a different nature. These factors include:
- Frequent technology change and dependence
- Greater challenges to motivate and engage the workforce
- A higher level of oversight (e.g. social media, regulatory standards)
To manage this new environment, executives need executive coaching programs that help account for these changes.
What Skills Does an Executive Coach Develop?
When looking at past lists of skills and abilities at the focus of professional development for executives, one thing is clear: Coaching tends to be involved mainly with soft skills. Overall, soft skills are growing in importance in almost every organization. But for executives, they are even more crucial. That’s because executives spend a lot of their time making decisions, translating these decisions into actions for lower-level managers and workers, and then overseeing the results through feedback and change management activities.
The most effective way of developing soft skills is through the close personal attention of a coach. We’ve outlined below some examples of the types of programs that an executive coach might provide.
This may seem like a strange first choice, but it’s a vital one. People at the top rarely get honest feedback from those around them. Other executives are busy with their own tasks, and their criticism might be downplayed as being more about office politics than an honest evaluation. Meanwhile, subordinates are often reluctant to criticize their boss, and might not have the experience or strategic view necessary for understanding everything the executive does.
For these reasons, self-awareness, or the ability for executives to assess their own actions, is essential. But for many people, it’s difficult to take an impartial view of their workplace decisions and behavior. That’s why a coach is so effective at helping senior employees improve, as the coach points out what the executive is doing wrong and enables them to realize how they should change.
“Executive” comes from the word “execute”, meaning “to get things done”. But it’s rarely up to the top employees to do things on their own. Instead, they tell mid-level managers what needs to be completed.
That means taking decisions made by the executive team and turning them into practical steps for other employees to execute. Explaining what needs to happen, either verbally or through written instructions, should be performed in a way that is clear and concise.
At the same time, executives need to report to each other and the board of directors. This is a different kind of communication, where the typical executive often takes a subordinate role.
In all, successful executives need to communicate in different ways to different people. The information and tone of a report given to the board will not be the same as telling a production manager what needs to be ramped up next month. An executive coach will help a boss to realize what parts of their communicative abilities need improvement, and provide an objective sounding board as the executive adapts to various roles.
Instructing subordinates about their tasks is the result of high-level planning. Especially for new executives, thinking on a strategic level can be a challenge. Strategic initiatives need to take into account factors beyond an executive’s direct responsibilities, and must also deal with the political issues that are common to any organization. A coach will bring all of this to light when working with an executive client, and may recommend development in supporting areas such as change management, critical thinking, and creative thinking.
The skills that your executive team requires may be different than, or in addition to, those listed above. It’s important to understand exactly what your top people need so as to make the most of the limited time they have for L&D programs. In addition, your executives will have different challenges according to their natural abilities, current position, and future goals. Discovering the precise and personalized skills that each executive requires can be accomplished through a skills gap analysis.
Executive Coaching vs. Business Coaching
Executive coaching is a subset of the business coaching spectrum. One way of looking at types of professional skills coaching in the workplace is to segment them according to the hierarchical level that they address. As noted above, executive coaching is essential because a company relies on the skills of its top people. But coaching at other levels is also important, and these form the basic types of business coaching. For instance:
- Corporate coaching supports the executive team (in whole or in part)
- Employee coaching builds the soft skills of workers across the organization
- Leadership coaching helps employees at any level enhance their abilities to motivate and influence others
Are Leadership Skills the Same as Executive Skills?
A leadership development program is certainly helpful to executives but can cover a much wider range of people. Every organization has leaders who are critical to the success of the company, even if they are not recognized as managers.
The difference between such “leaders” and other effective workers is that they assist other employees with performing at a higher level. A leadership coaching program adds to and expands their natural abilities so that they, and the people whom they lead, can be even more of a benefit to the organization.
Benefits of Executive Coaching
The obvious goal of executive coaching is to improve skill levels according to need. But, on a more general level, and from the point of view of the organization, it’s the job of an executive coach to boost the performance of executive-level managers and related stakeholders. Put another way, after an executive coaching engagement, the productivity of the executive, their subordinates, and their team should all improve.
And that’s precisely what studies have shown. According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), executive coaching provides the following outcomes:
- 70% increase in the performance of the executive
- 50% increase in performance of the executive team
- 48% increase in performance of the organization
But what about the cost? It’s important to boost the productivity of executives, but using coaching as a means to achieve this should come at a reasonable price.
Here too, executive coaching is effective. The ICF estimates that its return on investment is 600%.
Another benefit of executive coaching is its “trickle-down” effects. Executives who have the skills necessary for success are more likely to enjoy their work, be interested in what they do, and be willing to stay at the organization that allowed all of that to happen. This means higher rates of satisfaction, engagement, and retention.
Similarly, the people who surround a skilled executive also feel good. When a person successfully fulfills their role on the executive team, it adds to its productivity and cohesion. In addition, employees who deal with a competent and communicative executive do a better job and receive honest feedback that enables them to improve. Moreover, they avoid the tension, poor engagement, and higher quit rates that are common to workers who need to put up with substandard upper management.
How to Create an Executive Coaching Program
In general, an executive coaching program is a simple concept. Executive coaches observe the executive throughout their daily cycle, and even sometimes in their private lives, to see what is affecting the executive’s performance. The coach looks for strengths and weaknesses, and how they relate to the objective of the executive coaching program.
Alternatively, the coaching sessions can occur online. The cons of this method include the lack of direct observation of many factors that might be influencing the executive’s performance. The pros include scheduling convenience and access to more renowned coaches who would otherwise not be available. It is possible to combine both approaches, with more online interaction occurring once the coach has observed a satisfactory amount of locally-obtained information.
It is important to understand the precise role of the coach when developing an executive coaching program. To quote the Society for Human Resource Management, “Coaching in a business environment is a training method in which a more experienced or skilled individual provides an employee with advice and guidance…”
In other words, a coach does not tell the executive what to do. Instead, a coach guides the executive so that they realize the best approach to a challenge.
Executive coaching depends on a close relationship between the executive and the coach. Coaching is a unique style of learning because, at least in the “clean coaching” model, the coach has no expertise in the executive’s industry. This is to avoid any preconceptions on the part of the coach regarding how a business should be run or how the executive should behave.
One common framework for setting executive coaching objectives is the GROW model:
Goal – What do you want?
Reality – Where are you now?
Options – What could you do?
Will – What will you do?
This simple approach can be used by the coach during every session. The set of standardized questions is focused on what the executive wants to do, and enables the coach to guide them through a process of self-examination.
Executive coaching programs often last around nine months and cover twelve sessions. The time between sessions is used by the coach to view and analyze the executive’s performance to prepare a debriefing segment for the next meeting.
Quality Coaching Is Key
Perhaps more than any other type of individual within a company, an executive needs to optimize how they use their time. An executive coaching service must therefore provide the exact type of support that the executive requires at the optimum level of quality.
In addition, because executive coaching is based on a close relationship, it’s always a good idea to factor in “chemistry” when choosing a coach. It really boils down to a central qualification for any successful executive coaching program: accurate matching between coach and executive.
Growthspace and Executive Coaching
Growthspace was founded on the belief that learning and development is a business-critical function. Nowhere is this more true than for an executive coaching program. The Growthspace skills mastery platform can help HR teams to create, manage, and evaluate 1:1 coaching and mentoring, team coaching, cohort-based workshops, training, and internal mentoring programs for top executives as well as business leaders at all levels. This enables customers to drive business KPIs through human-to-human development programs.
By leveraging the world’s most robust talent development dataset and a network of over 2,000 global experts, Growthspace supports hundreds of customers, including Siemens, Microsoft, EY, Deloitte, J&J, ZoomInfo, and the U.S. Government. Through Growthspace, these organizations typically improve business performance by 5%+, lower attrition by 10%, and increase promotable base by 30%.