Executive Coaching Explained

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has to see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”
TOM LANDRY (US Football coach)
An executive coaching session

What is ‘Executive Coaching’?

There’s a lack of agreement about precise definitions, when it comes to coaching in general and Executive Coaching in particular, but it typically involves a senior manager, working on a ‘one to one’ basis with a professional coach, to improve some specific aspect of their performance.

David Peterson, Director of Leadership and Coaching at Google, sums it up like this:

“Executive Coaching is one-on-one, relationship based, methodology based, provided by a professional coach, scheduled in multiple sessions over time, goal-oriented for both individual and organizational benefit, customized to the person, and intended to enhance the person’s ability to learn and develop independently.”

When should you use Executive Coaching?

There are many methods for developing top executives (e.g. getting involved in professional bodies, taking training courses, secondments, volunteering etc.) but the highly personalised nature of coaching means that it can be an extremely effective way of building new capabilities in a short time scale. It works well when…

There is a challenging goal to be achieved and the Executive concerned could do with some support e.g. moving into a new business area, or undertaking a restructuring exercise.

There is a ‘gap’ or ‘weakness’ of some kind in an Executive’s capability that needs to be closed for them to perform at the top level e.g. maybe they need help to get better at making inspirational, motivational keynote speeches? Or perhaps they need to be better at the way they handle their relationship with shareholders and other investors.

Needs like this are often identified by the Executive themselves, but in larger organisations they often come out as a result of 360 feedback exercises and/or attendance at Development Centres.

Push Me – Pull You
(choosing the right Coach for you)

One of the most contentious areas when defining Executive Coaching concerns the issue of directive vs. non-directive approaches.

In Directive Coaching the Coach will encourage the Coachee to be introspective and question what they are doing, but they will also provide what we might call ‘content’ suggestions. For example, they might recommend an article, or TEDTALK, or explain a model, or suggest an action.

In Non-Directive Coaching the Coach will only provide what we might call ‘process’ suggestions to the Coachee. For example, they will ask questions (usually as part of a set methodology) that will allow the Coachee to reflect on what they are doing and find their own answers, in their own way, using their own resources. What they won’t do is offer any direct guidance.

Clearly, if you do want some ‘direction’ as part of the coaching, then the Coach you work with should ideally have some expertise in the topic being worked on e.g. Strategic Planning, Team Building, Conflict Management etc. While with process coaching it is sufficient that the Coach is expert in whatever coaching methodology they are planning to use.

It is of course possible to move between approaches, but some Coaches have very definite views on how things should go, so, (if you’re hiring a Coach) it’s worth understanding what type of experience you can expect if/when you work with them.

Who can be an Executive Coach?

Anyone can call themselves an Executive Coach. There are no mandatory qualifications or set of requirements, and coaches are drawn from a very wide variety of backgrounds e.g. Occupational Psychologists, HR professionals, experienced managers/leaders etc.

By 2012 the International Coaching Federation Global Coaching Study reported the number of professional coaches was estimated to be 47,500 worldwide and that number has grown since then. Worldwide the number of coach specific training schools/programs increased from eight in 1995 to over 164 today.

So, it is a crowded marketplace, and it pays to make the time to choose your Executive Coach with care!

Models used by Coaching Professionals

In the same way as definitions of coaching vary, so does the choice of coaching methods and tools used by Executive Coaches. These tools are often the same ones used in counselling interventions, just given a slightly different emphasis. Approaches include Expert Models, Competency Based Models, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Psychometric Based Models, Thinking Sessions, Clean Language Coaching, Rational Emotive Therapy, etc. etc. For the sake of example, let’s review two commonly used approaches in more detail… Solutions Based Coaching and WDEP Coaching…

Solution Centred Brief Coaching (SCBC). This is both a counselling and a coaching methodology. This approach was developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Berg, two American social workers, and comes out of the ‘Brief Therapy’ school of psychology.

The method starts by asking what is called the ‘Miracle Question’. This involves asking the person to imagine that (unbeknownst to them) a miracle happens while they are sleeping and the problem or issue they face is resolved overnight. Of course, when they wake up in the morning, they don’t initially know that anything has changed. The question is then – what small thing (or things) they would notice, as they go about their day, that would make them think, “Wow, something must have happened, the problem is gone!”

Next come Scaling Questions to help to quantify the issues involved e.g. On a scale of 1-10 what’s the worst the problem could be and what’s the best it could be? What would it take to move one point up or down the scale? What score would be good enough?

Followed by Exception Seeking Questions, e.g. is there ever a time (or scenario) where the issue doesn’t occur or is minimised?

Then Coping Questions, to show to the Coachee that they are already having some success at handling the issue at hand e.g. “How have you managed so far?”

Next, comes, Problem Free Talk and Solutions Talk, for setting realistic, short term, improvement goals.

WDEP Coaching. This is both a therapeutic and coaching model
developed by William Glasser, based on Reality Therapy techniques. There are four stages…Wants + Doing + Evaluation + Planning; in a little more detail they involve…

  1. Wants (What are the person’s wants and needs? What motivates them? What’s important to them?)
  2. Doing (What are you currently doing? How are you spending your time? What emotions are you experiencing?)
  3. Evaluation (Is what you’re currently doing working? What could you do differently?)
  4. Planning (Develop a realistic, measurable plan to improve things.)

The Coaching Contract

A Coaching Contract is a service agreement designed specifically for the coaching relationship, where a professional Coach (as opposed to a Line Manager) is doing the coaching. It is at the heart of making sure that all the parties to a coaching assignment (the Coach, the Coachee, and the Sponsoring Organisation) have clear and aligned expectations of what will happen during the coaching process. They should cover:

Parties to the Coaching – Who will be involved in the coaching? Usually there are three parties. The Coach, the Coachee, and the Sponsor (a company representative who makes sure the coaching delivers results for the business, often the Coachee’s boss or the HR VP).

Coaching Goal – What specifically is the purpose of the coaching? How will success be measured?

The Coaching Process – Where and how does the coaching take place? What’s the expected time frame of the coaching and how long is the time between sessions? What is the policy for rescheduling sessions?

Expectations – What methods, and techniques will be used; what support is offered in-between formal coaching sessions etc.?

Reporting – How is progress captured? Who is entitled to updates e.g., will the Company (if they are paying for the coaching) be given feedback on the progress the Coachee is making?

Confidentiality – What information is deemed to be private and what information can be shared (and under what circumstances)?

Financial Arrangements – Fees, Payment terms, Cancellation policy and refund policy.

The $64,000 Dollar Question

In the USA in the 1950’s there was a quiz show called “The $64,000 Question”, where people answered general knowledge questions – the top prize being $64,000 (about $800,000 in today’s values). In time the ‘$64,000-dollar question’ came to be shorthand for ‘the most important question that needs to be answered’.

So, the $64,000 question for Executive Coaching is, “Is there any evidence that it works?” The answer to that question is “yes”, there are a number of studies that clearly show the benefits of executive coaching…

For example, Smither et al. (2003) conducted an impact study on Executive Coaching. It included 1202 senior managers assessed over two consecutive years. The results showed that multi-source feedback from clients’ supervisors, peers and subordinates, as well as evaluations by independent researchers, was found to be overall more positive for those managers who did work with a Coach. The specific areas of improvement were goal setting, soliciting ideas for improvement, and ratings from direct reports and superiors.

Grant et al. (2009) found that Executive Coaching significantly enhanced goal attainment, resilience and workplace well-being, and reduced depression and stress in healthcare managers in comparison to a wait-list control group.

Theeboom, T., Beersma, B., & van Vianen, A. E. M. (2014) conducted a meta- analysis on ‘Does coaching work?’ and concluded that it has significant positive effects on performance/skills, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal- directed self-regulation.

What makes for effective Executive Coaching?

Research suggests that coaching effectiveness is not primarily a function of specific coaching techniques, but the quality of the coaching relationship, based upon empathic understanding, and positive expectations (De Haan et al., 2011 and 2013).

While Blackman et al. (2015) summarised the historical research into coaching effectiveness by highlighting the need to…

  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Display empathy and acceptance of the Coachee
  • Be organised
  • Communicate clearly
  • Display self-confidence

This suggests that some kind of ‘chemistry check’ is central to ensuring that coaching assignments proceed according to plan!

Putting it all together

Executive Coaching as an activity and a profession is booming. Done well it is an excellent method for developing people in a highly tailored way. However, given all the possible permutations of approaches, methods and techniques, it pays to plan any coaching intervention carefully to make sure that the Coach and the Coachee have a positive experience and the organisation sees an increase in performance!

So what’s next?

Examine your past for how you have used Executive Coaching; either by hiring a coach for yourself, or for a colleague. What has gone well and what could be improved?


Try reading this HBR Article on The Leader as Coach (Nov- Dec 2019)


Watch this 16-minute-long TED Talk on “Want to get great at something? Get a Coach!” by Atul Gawande


Consider signing up your managers to our 4-hour-long, in-company, Feedback & Grow Model Coaching Workshop, run either as a face-to- face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you to develop your skills.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.


So, to conclude we end with a quote from the Harvard Business Review…

“The goal of coaching is good management: to make the most of an organisation’s valuable resources.”