Executive Coaching – An Overview

Coaching in a business environment is a training method in which a more experienced or skilled individual provides an employee with advice and guidance intended to help develop the individual’s skills, performance and career. Coaching is distinguished from similar HR competencies of mentoring and counseling (as a step in a progressive discipline system). Coaching may be one of the means used for management development, but it is broader in application than just management training.

Coaching is a highly individualized process that depends on both the nature of the client and the coach’s knowledge, skills and abilities. However, coaches have several recognized techniques and tools to draw on in almost any coaching situation.

As organizations have come to recognize the many purposes and benefits of coaching, the field has grown dramatically, and some organizations actively work to create a culture of coaching. A coaching culture within an organization includes more than formal coaching; it is a culture in which coaching behaviors are used as a means of communicating, managing and influencing others. It is also an environment that values learning and the development of employees. See Putting Humanity into HR Compliance: Creating a Coaching Culture—Doing vs. Understanding.

Coaching should be approached like any other strategic goal. Successful execution requires commitment from the organization and the person being coached, a plan to obtain results, qualified coaches and a follow-up evaluation. Today, it is possible to obtain training and certification in the coaching field. As a career path, coaching usually involves independent consulting, although some large organizations employ coaches on their regular staff.


The hallmarks of coaching are that it is personalized and customized and that it is usually done one-on-one and over a period of time, and with a specific business objective in mind. Coaching is similar to, but distinct from, mentoring. The latter is a career development method whereby less experienced employees are matched with more experienced colleagues for guidance either through formal or informal programs. Coaching is frequently used to assist individuals as they prepare for or move into new assignments, improve work habits, adapt to a changing environment or overcome specific obstacles. See Coaching in the Workplace: It’s Different from Traditional Managing.

As used in this article, coaching is not counseling as a step or technique in a progressive discipline system, nor is coaching teaching or instruction; it is a process of guiding the person being coached from one level of competency to another.

Fundamentally, coaching is a business relationship between the organization, the coach and the person being coached, and it involves a tailored approach to fit the client. Depending on the position of the person being coached and the purpose of the coaching, different approaches are called for.


Coaching is a commonly used method of employee development that has generated positive business outcomes. A strong coaching culture has been linked to better talent and business outcomes, according to a 2019 survey from the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the Human Capital Institute (HCI).1

According to the ICF/HCI survey, respondents with a strong coaching culture reported higher outcomes in the areas such as:

  • Customer satisfaction.
  • Regulatory compliance.
  • Talent attraction.
  • Profitability.
  • Shareholder value.
  • Labor productivity.
  • Large-scale strategic change.
  • New product/service development and delivery.

However, coaching is not for everyone. Some individuals are not open to feedback, and some are unwilling to change. This is a problem with the person being coached, not a deficiency in the tool of coaching. Even a stellar employee can benefit from having a personal coach help him or her solve problems and excel even more. For those who make a commitment, coaching can open a whole new world in terms of greater candor, more respect from staff at all levels, professional alliances and relationships, and better skills to achieve strategic goals.

Techniques and Tools

At its best, coaching is about partnering rather than about one person being “the expert” and lecturing the other. The client is the expert in the organization; the coach helps the client develop a higher level of expertise. The coach can use a variety of methods to facilitate the coaching process:

  • Using data from anonymous 360-degree surveys or climate analysis surveys to identify objective behaviors that can be linked with business outcomes. CEOs are very often shocked at the disparity in their rating and their subordinates’ ratings of them. This might be the first awareness that they are out of touch.
  • Using personality and behavioral assessments to diagnose which traits and behaviors are dominant or lacking, and which might be easy or difficult to change.
  • Listening actively; the coach does not solve the client’s problems—the client solves his or her own problems.
  • Helping clients distinguish what is important from what is not.
  • Leading clients outside of their comfort zone.
  • Acknowledging the client’s accomplishments and empathizing (not sympathizing) when the client is down.
  • Providing perspective based on the coach’s own experiences.
  • Helping the client set goals, develop an action plan for moving ahead, and anticipate and overcome potential obstacles.
  • Recommending specific books or other sources of learning.
  • Encouraging journaling to gain awareness of emotions and behaviors and to track progress toward goals.
  • Participating in role-playing and simulations to promote skill practice.
  • Meeting on a regular basis, with on-the-job “homework” assignments between meetings.
  • Managing the confidentiality of the coaching partnership. In most cases, the official client is the organization paying the coaching invoice, yet the true client is the individual being coached.
  • Designing systems to track the return on investment of coaching.


The GROW model was popularized in the coaching industry by Sir John Whitmore in his 1992 book Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose. Whitmore’s acronym stands for:

Reality, or current reality.
Way forward, or what you will do.

Coaching Applications

The growth of the corporate coaching industry has been rapid. Similar to personal training in the private realm, coaching in the business environment is quickly becoming mainstream and branching out to all areas of organizational management. Coaching can be an effective tool in meeting numerous organizational needs. See Do You Want a Coach or a Mentor or Both?


Executive coaching, sometimes introduced to address senior leadership’s disruptive or ineffective behavior, can also help a capable executive perform at an even higher level. It is also useful for developing high-potential prospects for purposes of succession planning. Many organizations are looking toward the future and considering global expansion, which has brought into focus the need for new global leadership skills and more deliberate and structured pipelines of future leaders. See How to Maximize Your Executive Coaching ROI.

Current executives. As coaching clients, CEOs, in particular, may be unaware that the competencies that have gotten them to the top may not be the ones that will ensure their continued success. Moreover, CEOs tend to be very dynamic people who are not always receptive to unsolicited feedback. Staff members may avoid saying what needs to be said, fearing a “kill the messenger” response, reprisal or exclusion from the inner circle. If C-suite occupants perceive coaching as a practice that comes with the territory, they may be more likely to be receptive to it, making it an effective tool in addressing their development.

Executive coaching is a practical, goal-focused form of one-on-one development. C-suite coaching clients are typically looking for a thinking partner with whom to discuss decision options, expand perspectives, balance work and home activities, and strategize through difficult or unusual circumstances. Strategic coaching should integrate organizational and personal needs. Each engagement should be custom-designed, focusing on a leader’s particular development goals. The CEO typically needs six to eight months of one-on-one coaching to ingrain new behaviors. Practice, observation and feedback are key to changed behaviors.

Potential executives. Many individuals who currently hold executive-level positions are nearing retirement. Organizations want changes in leadership to occur with as little disruption as possible. To increase the chances of a smooth transition, companies are using coaching as a means of developing the next generation of leaders. Factors such as an individual’s outstanding achievement of development objectives, positive assessment from the coach, and the coached individual’s ability to take on new tasks are also recognized benefits of executive coaching. In light of this looming change in executive-level positions, the funding traditionally directed toward senior leaders has begun to shift to first- and mid-level management. See Developing Organizational Leaders.


Supervisors and managers are on the front lines of organizational performance and need to develop skills to motivate collective effort. Sometimes, supervisors and managers lack necessary people skills, such as skills in setting goals, delegating, providing accountability, delivering effective performance reviews and even coaching itself. Coaching can help them develop such skills. See Virtual Coaches Give Managers Leadership Advice at Scale.

A manager probably has succeeded at a supervisory level and been promoted or hired into a higher level. Accordingly, the manager may benefit from coaching on big-picture issues or may need polishing in a particular area such as delegating work, time management, team-building, performance management, hiring, or communication or negotiation skills. Similarly, a supervisor is often a person promoted from the rank-and-file and, as such, may benefit from coaching on how to effectively transition to the new role of being a boss. See What tips can we offer for new managers who were formerly peers?


Coaching can be an important developmental approach for HR professionals. Perhaps the most pressing reasons HR professionals seek coaching are to help them become more effective in:

  • Demonstrating their value to the organization’s bottom line.
  • Making the case for the importance of HR programs.
  • Strategic planning.
  • Showing return on investment.
  • Institutionalizing HR initiatives.
  • Corporate communications.
  • HR can Learn from Executive Coaching


Coaching can also be an effective tool to support an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, although organizations must take care that such efforts do not amount to unlawful discrimination. Diversity-based coaching activities might focus on:

Awareness and inclusion. Coaching can be used to sensitize individual employees who may have exhibited or been accused of inappropriate, discriminatory or harassing behaviors. The objective would be to help them see things through the eyes of persons who are different from them in terms of gender, race, religion or other characteristics and to respond effectively in a business environment. (This is distinct from any disciplinary remedy that may be called for.)
Generational differences. Coaching can assist older and younger workers in understanding the differing world views and skills of the various generations, learning how their different experiences affect the way they view the workplace and discovering how they can most effectively work together to achieve organizational goals. Coaching can also help identify and eliminate generational stereotypes.
Behavioral and personal styles. Coaching can help individuals better understand how their business counterparts are similar and different from them and how to interact effectively with individuals with different styles.


As the business world continues to evolve in a global marketplace, executive coaching takes on a new dimension: cross-cultural perspectives. Whether company leaders are dealing with cultural changes through mergers or acquisitions or working with a workforce of different ethnic and national viewpoints, values and expectations, coaches can be effective in helping executives navigate cross-cultural environments.


In this age of consumer-directed health care, health coaching is taking on a more prominent role in educating and empowering employees to make smart health care purchasing decisions—and smarter decisions about their own health. Studies show that individuals who participate in health coaching are better able to navigate health care services and ultimately reduce health care spending.2 See Crafting Wellness Efforts for Those Most in Need of Them.


Coaching can also be applied to a variety of other situations, including internal transitions such as:

  • An employee’s first international assignment.
  • An expat repatriation.
  • After an employee’s promotion.
  • Following a merger or acquisition.
  • After an employee’s role has changed significantly in scope or scale.
  • After an employee is assigned to a task force or key initiative.
  • Accelerating a high-potential employee’s development.
  • Part of succession development and/or development of the organization’s leadership pipeline.

Training and Certification

A successful coaching career requires a combination of skills, credentials, experience and business acumen. To qualify for a regular position as an executive coach, a person might well need to have a graduate degree in organizational development or leadership development.

Numerous organizations provide certification in the coaching competency:

For HR professionals with the right background and credentials, coaching can present significant opportunities. Coaching careers usually involve external consulting. Getting one’s foot in the door for independent consultants is an exercise in self-marketing, networking, website establishment, credibility establishment with the corporate community and an ever-expanding list of coaching success stories that one can write about and share with prospective clients.

Virtually all coaches offer additional services such as consulting and training. While the profession continues to grow, it has currently outpaced its research base demonstrating the return on investment (ROI) and return on expectation (ROE) delivered from professional coaching services. The development of consistent metrics that clearly communicate the value of the services is currently one of the challenges to the growth potential for the profession.

While most coaches are external contractors, internal coaches are becoming more common, especially for mid-level employees. Some large organizations employ coaches on their regular staff.


Book: A Manager’s Guide to Coaching

Book: The Coaching Companion: Get the Most from Your Coaching Experience

Virtual training course: Workplace Coaching & Mentoring

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