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August | Executive Coaching | Read time: calculating...

What is executive coaching?


Executive coaching defined

What is executive coaching? Executive coaching involves ‘partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential’ (International Coaching Federation definition).

Executive coaching involves personal and professional development in a confidential relationship between the executive coach and an executive of an organization. It is also a collaborative relationship with its core purpose to enable the process of leadership development. For a senior executive this is generally by enhancing their performance through the development of new skills and better decision making. In turn, this impacts the leader’s team, the entire organization and has flow on effects for clients of the organization through better service.

The coaching process empowers an executive to build their leadership style throughout their career, resulting in a greater and more positive impact on people within organizations. Leaders don’t always have unlimited access to career advice through human resources and therefore, coaches can fill an important role in helping executives plan out their career and the requirements of their leadership development journey.

Route start and end markers


What happens in executive coaching?

A leadership coaching engagement run by external coaches generally involves a number of coaching sessions, often six or more. They could potentially be ongoing sessions depending on the engagement and the need of the executive. Sessions primarily run as one on ones for an hour to an hour an a half. Coaching clients may also have a need for team coaching, which has a goal of building high performance teams. This form of coaching helps the leader develop their team building skills. Executive coaching engagements may also incorporate group coaching, career coaching, involving a leader’s client and potentially other key people in the business.

Executive coaching solutions generally have an emphasis on performance coaching, which differs significantly to a business coach. Executive coaching is directed at the individual and their development, whilst a business coaching service focusses on the development of an organization and it’s profitability.

Often human resources, with a quality assurance remit, are involved in assisting managers to identify a good coach who will assist in enabling higher performance and improved leadership style. Whilst the human resources function often has responsibility in the organization for developing managers and leaders through training and the use of coaching, the decision to find the right coach should rest solely with the individual leader.


Leadership development and the executive coach

Executive development often involves the development of leaders and managers through the provision of leadership training programs. These training programs provide knowledge, models and frameworks and whilst there may be some skill development included in the program, the need for this to transfer into the workplace is critical. This is where coaching comes into the picture. Coaching complements the training programs content and process through the development of leadership skills and competency in the workplace.

Coaching enhances the transfer of training, which is often where the ROI on training falls short. Training on its own as a development tool, may not always result in significant change, as the knowledge learnt in the training may not be applied as ‘on the ground skills’ in the workplace. Coaching focuses on the development of these skills based on the knowledge, models and frameworks learnt in training. In this way, what is learnt in training is transferred to the workplace, therefore enhancing the performance of the senior leaders.

A senior leader is often involved in training with the primary focus on the development of leadership skills. Such skills are seen to have a greater impact on business performance than managerial skills. There is a flow on effect for direct reports who benefit more directly from improved leadership skills and the leader’s capacity the improve the fundamentals for team performance. In addition, the leader’s organization benefits through a stronger culture, improved productivity and better decisions. Effective leaders understand the benefits of coaching to their skill development.

Management development whilst providing an underpinning for getting tasks done does not address the need as Dwight D. Eisenhower would say:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he (sic) wants to do it.”

The objectives of leadership development are directed toward Eisenhower’s thoughts. Coaching leaders is about assisting leaders to leverage off their style in order to positively influence people to get tasks completed. Management is about the what and leadership about the why and motivating people.


How does executive coaching work in leadership development?

Coaching can take a leader beyond the boundaries of their coach or leader’s perception of their capability to create unforeseen possibilities. Its collaboration relies on the coach’s belief in leader potential rather than the focus on leadership problems. Coaching is essential in achieving optimum performance as it raises leader’s awareness and generates the responsibility of taking actions.

Executive coaching works by facilitating self awareness, new skill development and building conceptual understanding within the business world of work. Coaching compliments training and focuses on supporting the executive to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, helps the executive to think differently and in a manner that facilitates making decisions or taking actions that lead to better outcomes.

Executive coaching engagements utilise behavioural psychology to help the executive consider situations from differing perspectives. The leadership coaching process often uses a focus on development activities developed using a framework such as the GROW model. Many coaches use the GROW model which involves setting a Goal within the Reality of the leaders situation, developing a number of Options to achieve the goal and capped off with clarity on what the manager Will do. In other words leaders’ focus on a goal, within the context of their situation, by trying a number of different approaches characterised by tangibles behaviour that they commit to doing in the workplace.


hand holding compass in wilderness


Whilst there are different coaching practices they all aim to have the leader future focussed with some developmental goals or objectives defined, along with behavioural options identified to implement the desired changes within a targeted timeframe. Importantly, the leader needs to stop and reflect on the success of these behavioural options in order to continually learn. When the leader is clear about their developmental objectives, often included in a development plan, this provides focus for leader to develop their style in a proactive manner.

The primary tool in a coaching session is the question.  Questions used by coaches are designed to challenge the senior manager and their thinking, build self awareness and assist them to find different ways of thinking about an issue.  Leadership coaching can also act as a sounding board, allowing the executive to talk through their decisions, actions or ideas and helping them reflect on the outcomes and or emotions that they or another person may have experienced in an exchange. Coaching may introduce new frameworks or model for executive to use in their arsenal of tools. These frameworks and model allow leaders to think in a structured manner about solutions to issues that present themselves.


Is leadership coaching effective?

Executive coaching makes a difference to the effectiveness of executives.  An International Coaching Federation (ICF) study indicated a seven times return on an investment in executive coaching. A Fortune 500 company looked at the ROI of executive coaching and found a return of nearly 800%. Other studies indicate increased productivity, better customer service, improved peer to peer relationships, greater job satisfaction and increased retention of executives.

In a study by the ICF, they found that 86% of organizations had a ROI for coaching engagements. A further 96% of those who had coaches, said they would repeat the process again. Both tangible, as well as intangible factors, were identified. Tangible factors of increased productivity, higher employee performance, reduced costs, growth in sales and revenue along with higher employee retention and engagement were found. Intangible factors highlighted that coaching helped develop increased confidence of leaders and managers and stronger stakeholder relationships were built through improved communications.

Whilst these findings are impressive the executive coaching industry continues to grow with an annualized rate of 5.6% realising an increase of revenue to fifteen billion dollars in 2019 from $2,356 billion in 2015 (Uta, I., 2019). Sustained rapid growth of executive coaching industry in the global community indicates that coaching is effective as more employees from vice president, senior leader to team leader utilise coaches for skill development. Enhanced performance of leaders and their organization is reflected in the ROI of coaching leaders.


What do I want in executive coaches?

Executive coaching solutions generally involve career or performance coaching, assist in team development and develop the leader’s capacity for better decision. All these factors are positively correlated with the performance of an organisation. Leaders or managers need to recognise the importance of directing energy toward finding the right person for their coaching circumstances and career stage.

Coaching is a critical part of leadership development and getting the right coach requires careful thought and research prior to making a decision.  Coaches should also enable leaders to develop greater personal confidence and can assist in career development as well.


What will coaching do for me?

Working through these criteria and questions will assist you in making a decision on an coach. Firstly, consider the following points as to what the executive coach will do for you.

  • Will they make you think and question your approach?
  • Will they assist you to find better or new ways to be more successful?
  • Will they help you see from differing perspectives?
  • Will they motivate you to make changes to your approach?
  • Will they build your confidence to try something new
  • Will they challenge your thinking or decisions?


Interpersonal fit / rapport and trustworthy

As the relationship between you and an executive coach is confidential and collaborative this provides guidance on the nature of the relationship you will need to have with the coach.  Firstly, you will need a high level of interpersonal fit and rapport, so conversations can be in-depth, relaxed and yet potentially highly personal.  You need to have a high level of trust with your coach underpinned by the belief that your coach is looking after your best interests, as some conversations may be personally challenging and confronting in nature.

Curious and passionate

You want your coach to be curious, the kind of person that asks questions to dig deeper or to follow up on a hunch, the type of person that wants to explore with you, your perception of the world.  Finally, you need a person that is passionate about helping you be the best version of yourself.  Passionate in facilitating people’s development. Ask them ‘Are you passionate about facilitating people’s development and why?’ They will likely tell you that if you have success, so do they and importantly they feel they have added value to your life.


Outcomes focussed

Entering into a coaching relationship is about the outcomes of enhanced leadership style ultimately providing better ‘people and business’ outcomes.  So, your executive coach should apply best practice coaching approaches to propel your leadership development outcomes, such as enhanced influence, increased leadership presence or improved business culture.  A focus on outcomes also enables a more solution focussed approach and not one that is stuck in defining the problem.


Experience, skills and qualifications

Your coach should have the requisite experience, coaching skills and qualifications in executive coaching. So look for experience in the realms of executive coaching as well as leadership – Have they been a leader of people and teams? Have they had the experience of leading people that they can draw on?

Whilst there are many qualifications that may lead a person into executive coaching, having an in-depth understanding of people’s behaviour and the dynamics behind that is very important. This enables the coach to communicate and direct questions that can bring forth greater understanding and meaning for you, the leader, in the conversation at hand.


Communicator and listener

Underpinning much of what has been discussed is the coaches capacity for clear and appropriate communication along with an understanding of body language. A big portion of coaching involves communication and strong listening skills. Listening for what is and also what isn’t said is an important skill in the coaches repertoire so they can frame applicable questions to facilitate your thinking. Understanding the body language of a person’s response will also set the context for appropriate questions.


Costs and availability

Finally, you need to consider the cost and logistics of the coaching being offered by your executive coach.  Is the cost within your, or the business’s budget? Are the coaching sessions available when you can fit them in? Is it easy to travel to their offices or do they come to your offices?



Support in between sessions as well as through the coaching assignment is important to your developmental progress. Having your coach believe in you, and your efforts at changing or trying something new provides a backdrop for building your confidence as a leader. Consider these aspects in your selection of a coach.

Why not get in touch to learn more about how Keogh’s executive coaching services can help you.


Image credits: nils_ks, Christina @ on Unsplash