What Is Executive Coaching?

…and how does it differ from other forms of consulting? What purposes or aims does it serve, and how are these best achieved? How does one measure its success?

Executive coaching is best explained by defining the two words that make up the term. “Executive” refers to senior level leaders in an organization, industrial, service, for profit or not for profit. Sometimes the term also applies to what are considered mid-level leaders in larger organizations. Such senior or mid-level managers are the subjects or immediate clients of Executive Coaching.

“Coaching” in this context refers to the process of assisting clients to develop and improve executive skills and to work toward solutions for problems and challenges they may face in the workplace. The overall focus is on problem solving. This entails gathering facts, determining causes, choosing solutions from among the alternatives, and testing the solution after implementation. Far from being mechanical, the process of Executive Coaching is highly customized and has three main facets.

First, it is almost always accomplished in a one-to-one setting. To use an academic analogy, it is less like classroom instruction and more like an honors tutorial, wherein a student meets alone on a regularly scheduled basis with a top professor for a Socratic-style dialogue. This also explains the way in which Executive Coaching differs from leadership training and development, or team-building, which are done in a group or seminar setting.

The Socratic nature of the dialogue means that the coach’s role is not so much to be a provider of answers as it is to be the facilitator of the client’s discovery of answers. In other words, the expert and successful coach is not necessarily a subject matter expert. The coach’s expertise comes in drawing information from the client through insightful questioning and assessing, listening with empathy as well as understanding, exploring alternatives and their implications, and thereby guiding the client to an acceptable and workable answer in terms of that client’s goals, objectives, values, and priorities.

At the same time, the Socratic role in Executive Coaching can be over emphasized. Therefore, the Second Facet of effective Executive Coaching is that the coach is someone who has considerable business leadership experience. Otherwise there will be little credibility or trust in the coach’s professional competence, regardless of other credentials. In this way, Executive Coaching is like coaching in other areas, such as sports or opera. A good baseball coach will be someone who has played the game at championship level, and a respected opera coach will have been an accomplished singer, even though both hope to produce proteges who will exceed their own accomplishments.

Likewise, clients of Executive Coaches seek someone who has faced similar challenges and learned how to deal effectively with them. If the clients are to reach the “top of their game,” they need guidance and advice and illustrations of how to proceed, just as surely as the aspiring star athelete or performing artist. They need informed and expert feedback on how they have performed, what seems to work well and what needs to be improved and how.

Mulkern and Associates Executive Coaching

The Third Facet of Executive Coaching, interwoven with the other two, is that of counselor. Clients who seek Executive Coaches are frequently experiencing new challenges and stresses that can be anxiety provoking in a number of ways. Fully exploring these issues requires that the coach be able to establish emotional trust and rapport, such that the client reveals in some depth and texture and detail how he or she is experiencing the current situation. Listening with and expressing empathy in a non-perfunctory or “programmed” fashion is critical. Asking further exploratory questions and supportively challenging apparent inconsistencies in the client’s presentation of the facts and feelings are also key to making progress. These counseling activities go beyond the intellectually weighted, problem-solving Socratic dialogue and also beyond the advice and example giving of skill development. But without all three facets the coaching is deficient and will likely be short-lived.

Other Forms of Consulting

Other forms of consulting tend by their very nature to be less private. Training and development, for example, is a group function, and consultants’ reports are usually made available to a group. These forms of consulting, to be sure, may also involve assessments, questionnaires, listening, empathy, recommendations and advice. But in no other kind of consulting is there forged so strongly the confidential, mentoring bond between one human being and another which is at the heart of the best Executive Coaching.