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What is Executive Coaching and Does it Work?

Last Modified On: February 13, 2024, Author: Amy Sanchez

To answer the question "does executive coaching work," think about the last time someone sat down with you for an hour with someone who just focused on you and your needs.  They were genuinely curious about what you wanted and what might be getting in your way.

They asked you questions that helped you learn more about yourself and see your current situation more clearly.  By the end of the hour, you felt enlightened, empowered, and motivated to take the next steps you identified to help you achieve your desired goal.

Now, imagine you meet with this person regularly over several months and you take actionable steps that perpetuate incremental, positive changes after each meeting.  Over several months, the progress you made changes the trajectory of your life and those in your sphere of influence.  In a nutshell, this is what happens during an executive coaching engagement when you’re invested and you work with the right coach.

So does executive coaching work? The answer is- it depends. It depends on the coach and their training, the client's willingness to commit to the process, and the connection between the coach and the client. When all these things align- magic happens.

What Exactly is Coaching?

The most basic definition of coaching is that it’s about helping another person achieve their personal or professional goals.

However, there are a number of other ways you can go about this, outside of coaching.  The below explores the most common ways, although there are several others not mentioned here.  Take a look to help you decide if coaching, or another approach, is best for you.

How coaching is different from therapy?

Coaching isn’t therapy- therapy is focused on dissecting your past and diagnosing ailments.  Therapy is extremely helpful and therapeutic in certain situations and coaching can’t replace the need for this type of work when there is a mental diagnosis at play.

Oftentimes, prospective clients will come to me after they’ve been struggling with a challenge so long that they’ve become clinically depressed.  In this situation, it’s important to first address the depression before you begin coaching so you are able to fully benefit from the coaching experience.  The chemical imbalance that accompanies depression can prevent you from taking action, which is paramount to seeing the results you desire.

How coaching is different from a mentor?

Coaching isn’t mentorship- mentorship is a voluntary relationship usually with a less senior and more senior person where advice is given.  You shouldn’t hire a coach to give you advice. A coach will ask questions to help you arrive at the right solution for you.  If you want someone to tell you what to do, a mentor is a better solution.

How coaching is different from a sports coach?

A sports coach will analyze performance and provide instruction about what to improve.  Like a mentor, they will also provide specific advice to help you get better and develop drills that they select to help you get stronger.  Sports coaches can all have very different approaches- some beat you down first or tell you to toughen up in times of “weakness.”  Others will be more supportive.  If you’re a basketball fan, think John Wooden vs. Bobby Knight.  Both developed some of the most successful college basketball teams but they had very different styles.

Then what IS coaching?

In a nutshell, coaching at its very best is about helping people make profound and lasting shifts in their lives by pushing them to dig deeper so they can unlock their full potential.  Pretty cool, huh?

Seeing my clients achieve their “aha!” moments and unlock their full potential is an experience I cherish every time it happens.

What is Executive Coaching?

There are several different focuses within the realm of coaching- health coaching, wellness coaching, life coaching, career coaching, retirement coaching, relationship coaching- and the list goes on. The framework leveraged when working with a client is the same across sectors, if the coach has been classically trained as an ICF-certified coach. However, because coaches have such diverse backgrounds, each one brings their own style and additional offerings to the core skillset to help their clients unlock their potential. Also, you'll often find coaches focus on a certain sector because they have personal life experience in that area.

Executive coaching involves working specifically with leaders on their unique challenges.

Is There a Proven ROI from Executive Coaching?

There have been a number of studies to research the ROI (return on investment) from coaching.

Here are the results from the most reputable sources I found:

The International Coaching Federation (ICF), the governing body overall all of coaching, released a global study in partnership with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2009 that found:

  • Out of 2,165 worldwide coaching clients polled, 96% of respondents indicated that they would repeat the coaching experience given the same circumstances that led them there in the first place
  • 86% of companies who were able to calculate ROI on the coaching engagement indicated that their company had at least made their investment back, with 28% saying this saw an ROI 10 to 49 times the investment.

The Manchester Review conducted research on 100 executives who received executive coaching.  Here were some results from that study:

  • 86% of participants indicated that they were “very satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with the coaching process
  • 93% responded that they would coaching to others

In addition, GE, Goldman Sachs, and Google spend more than $1 billion per year on executive coaching in the US alone.  These titans don’t spend that kind of money unless they see the benefit.

In my personal experience as a coach, I’ve seen remarkable transformations

Here are the most notable achievements:

  • A senior director from a large pharmaceutical company, who was unsure of his value and miserable in his role, found the courage to leave an environment that no longer valued his contributions and landed a new role, with a promotion, in a company with a mission more closely aligned with his personal passion and expertise.  In the process of preparing for his negotiations via coaching, he was also able to sweeten his offer with a $100,000 signing bonus and additional RSU’s.
  • A lawyer who made partner at a young age moved across the globe and was looking for a new vocation that more closely aligned with the new lifestyle she hoped to create; one that gave her more flexibility for her family while also building a successful career.  Through coaching, she realized that she wanted to start her own business and help other lawyers find more balance in their lives.  She became accredited as a coach and built a successful and lucrative business in a short time that gave her the flexibility and fulfillment she was looking for.
  • A Senior Director at a start-up was left out of leadership meetings and strategic decision making.  He didn’t feel valued in his role and his motivation was waning.  Through coaching, he realized that being included in leadership meetings meant first becoming an indisputable problem solver to the organization.  After proactively tackling some large challenges for the organization (that he enjoyed), he was promoted to VP.  In parallel, he landed an offer at a large company with a mission more aligned to his values by a previous boss who was inspiring.  He was offered a VP role and received a significant raise and now feels like an integral part of the leadership team and is inspired by his work.

Who is a Good Candidate for Executive Coaching?

Many people seek coaches because they’re tired of their needs and life taking a backseat to the demands of their organization.  Coaching can put you back in the driver’s seat and enable you to perpetuate the life that you want to have, both professionally and personally.  Like a tapestry, each thread of your life is interwoven and closely dependent on the others.  So, done effectively, coaching involves being specific about your intended outcomes by exploring your life holistically to help you make your dreams a reality.

If you are a motivated person with a history of success and you recently find yourself wanting to explore a new path, build a more fulfilling life, or reach your full potential, coaching is likely the right option for you (see how it’s different that other approaches above to rule out the other options).

In a corporate setting, twenty years ago, executive coaching was used as an intervention for troubled staff.  Today, companies tend to use coaching as a perk to help high potential leaders become the best that they can be.  In my practice, I consider you creative, resourceful, and whole and my job is to help you see the things that are not apparent so you can break through your barriers and reach your goals.

How do I Choose an Executive Coach?

If you want to ensure that the process you’ll be following is backed by scientific research and adheres to the definition of coaching, look for a coach who has been accredited by the International Coaching Federation(ICF).  The coaching world isn’t yet widely regulated so people with diverse backgrounds can call themselves coaches without receiving the proper training.  There are great coaches out there who aren’t accredited by the ICF but in an unregulated industry, this is one additional guarantee that you’re getting a coach who has been classically trained in proper coaching methodology.

Once you’ve found a candidate whose credentials you are comfortable with, request a discovery call to ensure you like and trust the coach in question.  Most coaches will offer this for free.  Your comfort is paramount to enabling you can go deep with your coach.  And being vulnerable is key to helping you release the challenges that are holding you back from reaching your full potential.

How to Get the Most Out of Coaching?

If you decide that executive coaching is a good fit for what you’re looking for, here are some tips to get the most out of the investment you’re about to make.

  1. Carve out space in time to commit to the coaching

In The Manchester Review study cited above, those who didn’t see a significant, sustained change in behavior were asked what factors detracted from the coaching experience.  Here’s how one respondent replied:

“The demands of the organization allow me a relatively small amount of time to focus on the coaching.”

Just like with any new practice, it’s critical to commit to doing the work between coaching sessions.  Like working out, the weight won’t come off on its own, it requires dedicated effort and concerted behavior change to take the weight off.  The same applies to coaching.

2. Be prepared to go deep

We visit some pleasant and unpleasant places in coaching.  Both are critical to help you unlock the obstacle that’s been standing between you and your dreams.  Be prepared to get vulnerable, get out of your comfort zone, and embrace change.

3. Share with those you live with that you'll need more alone time to reflect- and that this time is sacred

You’ll need time and space to work through things that come up in coaching so tell anyone living with that you may need more private time than normal.  Ask them to be supportive of this process and explain that coaching will enable you to make changes that will allow you to be the person you want to be.  And it will likely lead to benefits for them too.

Whatever path you choose to help you unlock your full potential, I wish you the best.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Checkout the Services I provide;

About The Author

Leadership Consultant and Coach Amy Sanchez

Amy Sanchez is a certified executive and career coach located in the Bay Area who specializes in helping mid- to senior-level executives achieve their full potential and build the lives they want.

She has an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business and 13 years of corporate experience.

She is a skilled coach and neutral partner who provides clients with tangible tools and effective guidance to successfully navigate the waters of this fast-paced, hyper-connected, high-stakes job market.

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