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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

Do You Need an Executive Coach? Read This

Who needs a coach? What does coaching look like? How does it work, or does it work at all? This article is for people who might want a coach, people who have coaches, and people just curious about the craft.

The coaching industry is booming. Depending on how you categorize the service of coaching, its total market size is anywhere from $2B to $15B. The International Coach Federation estimates that coaching in North America alone grew 35% from 2011 to 2015 (updated study numbers are coming out this year).

With all this activity, you’re very likely to encounter coaching at some point in your life — if you haven’t already. The rise of the knowledge worker is fueling demand for people just like you to be stronger leaders, work smarter together, and make better decisions. And coaching is here to help.

I’m especially talking to startup executives here. They’re one of my main client groups and most founders I’ve met have a lot of interest in the value of coaching without much access to it. But the message rings true for anyone.

Just what is coaching?

“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.” –Galileo Galilei

When I set out to become an executive coach, I didn’t really understand what coaching was. I often describe it as trying to understand the water from the diving board. I knew abstractly what coaching was, and I knew the qualities of it that I loved. But I didn’t know what it was really like to be in the water.

Now that I’ve been doing this as a profession, I realize that there are still lots of definitions of what coaching is. Let’s begin with what it’s not.

What coaching isn’t

Coaching is not consulting. Consulting is problem-oriented and works largely with organizations to drive toward a defined goal. Problems like “how do we think about entering the market in China” or “how can we reduce procurement spend next year.” They can even be org problems, like “how do we restructure our teams to be more efficient.” Yes, often you’ll need to counsel clients along the way, but this is not coaching.

Coaching is not training. Often focused on groups, training is about transferring specific knowledge or skills to others. And again, it’s toward a defined organizational goal. There may be a bit of training in coaching, especially when it comes to coaching skills themselves, but it’s not the main focus.

Coaching is not managing. At least not necessarily. Confusingly, the best managers will also be great at coaching. It’s why sometimes we train (see above) clients on coaching tools. But in reality, this is just part of the broader job. Managing is about moving a team toward an objective and creating the structures and resources to get there.

Coaching is not mentorship. This is a tricky one. Although it’s also one-on-one, mentoring is not coaching. Mentors are often there because of some content knowledge or experience that puts them in a position to offer that to others who aren’t quite as far along the journey as they are. This can sometimes look like a blend of coaching and training, with the mentor thoughtfully probing but also offering more concrete advice and support.

Coaching is not therapy. A decade ago, this was a bit more clear. Therapy was all about diagnosing conditions and helping patients become functioning members of society. And coaching was very results-oriented.

Today, however, a lot of therapists focus on positive psychology and help high-functioning individuals grow. And a lot of coaching can be process-focused, delving into feelings and personal life. Largely, though, therapy is past-looking and diagnostic, while coaching is forward-looking and based on achieving goals that the clients set for themselves.

There can be overlap in all the above, but coaching is its own special thing. Here’s a fun metaphor that describes the differences in another way:

What coaching is

So what is coaching? Simply put, coaching is a process of uncovering new meaning and deeper awareness, and then growing and making better choices with that new information.

Coaching helps people look at life from new perspectives. It’s about coming with questions, not with answers. Said differently, coaching isn’t about having your questions answered, it’s about having your answers questioned.

Coaching meets people where they are. A fundamental belief of good coaching is that people have everything they need inside of them already, they just need some help to ask the questions that surface those answers. Coaches don’t see their clients as broken or in need of being fixed.

Coaching is about accountability and action. The objective of coaching is to grow and change, but also to appreciate the journey. Coaching isn’t thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, it’s realizing that the grass is greener where we water it.

Coaching is about transformative growth at the peak of performance. Just like in athletics, coaching is at its highest potential not when taking people from bad to good, or even good to great. Breakthrough coaching is taking people from great to exceptional.

Coaching is about power questions that focus on the person, not the problem. Because it’s focused on questions and probing deeply, context doesn’t really matter. A coach doesn’t need to be an industry expert to serve a client in that industry. They don’t need to have been a CEO to coach CEOs.

Let me share my own experience. My coaches have never been in the military, never been a consultant, and never worked with startups. But they have done a lot of the hard, gritty, emotional work to build their own self-awareness. And this made them better at holding me in the work I wanted to do.

My coaches have also been amazing at helping me grow. They spent time helping me uncover my limiting beliefs and build awareness of what really matters. They challenged me at a fundamental and often uncomfortable level and called me on my BS.

They offered wildly different perspectives, but also held me in a non-judgmental place, supporting me wholeheartedly and celebrating my accomplishments. They have been equal parts challenger and champion, and always with my best interests at heart.

What about “executive” coaching?

There are a lot of different “types” of coaches. Career coaches, life coaches, executive coaches. Really, though, the coaching approach is the same. Just the topic and audience change a bit.

Executive coaching is largely focused on the business world, but it isn’t just for executives. And it might not always be focused on leadership growth. I have clients that are CEOs and clients that are individual contributors. I have clients that are unemployed or transitioning out a career, wondering what’s next.

Most of my clients, though, have an area in life where they’re hungry for more. Sometimes it’s very clear, like trying to earn a promotion. Sometimes it’s a little less direct, like actioning feedback they’ve got in pursuit of being a better leader.

And sometimes it’s deeply personal, diving into problems with their marriages or relationships. The topics might sit outside of work, but you better believe that we carry them in to work with us each morning.

Because this is so growth- and development-focused, it’s not uncommon for executive coaches to offer a bit more training and mentoring than other coaches. Tools on how to give stronger feedback, recommendations on a meditation book to read, an approach to running more effective meetings. But answers and frameworks are not the starting point.

Who actually needs coaching?

“May your dreams be larger than mountains and may you have the courage to scale their summits.” -Harley King

Here’s a shout-out to my startup people — take a look at the below chart:

Although this is data specific to venture investments, the message rings true for any team anywhere. People matter. And teams are not static, they can be grown and nurtured. Leaders can be grown and nurtured, and coaching is a great means to that end.

So who needs coaching? In short, nobody! Nobody needs coaching like some people might need therapy. Coaching is about working with high-functioning people and helping them grow even more.

The real value of coaching is tied to the value of the objective. We might not need professional growth or a promotion at work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly important to us. We might not need to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life, but it would be a shame to miss out on the one life we have.

Taking all this to heart, someone might value a coach to:

  • Build out their self-awareness to understand what they really want

  • Improve their performance at work and become a better leader

  • Bolster their confidence and quiet the voices of self-doubt

  • Identify self-limiting stories and work to rewrite them

  • Gain new perspectives on an issue they’ve been stuck on

  • Live a more meaningful and fulfilling life, in and out of work

  • Have closer relationships and deeper connections with others

  • Process disappointment and loss in work or life

  • Explore a change in a new job or different career

  • Anything that really matters to them as a human

One last note. Some coaches also work with teams and treat the team as a client. This is sometimes called systems coaching, and any group working together is a system (couple, team, etc.). We won’t get into it here.

How does coaching work?

I might get some hate mail for this, but I think the process of coaching is formulaic. That’s not to say it’s linear or simple, it’s neither of those things. But it’s easier to understand if we can break coaching out into five stages.

Imagine a mountain that you want to climb. It’s your goal, your wish for yourself. And maybe it’s such a big, scary goal that you want someone to guide you up the mountain or help carry the load. This metaphor is a great starting place for what coaching is.

Intent. This is basecamp. You’re looking at your map, figuring out where you want to be. What do you truly want and where do you want to go? This is where good coaching begins, in challenging that objective and asking “why?” enough times to get clear on what success looks like.

Then the work turns to prepare to climb. What’s the path to take? How do you want to get there? What equipment and supplies will be helpful?

Understanding. Once you set out on your journey, you’re starting to climb. This is where the hard work is. It can be grueling at times. You might find that you need to change your route. You might find obstacles and bad weather and it might take longer than you thought. You might have to turn back. But this is also productive work.

Once you get above the treeline and pass through the fog, you’ll see more clearly where you need to go. Your understanding of the path you’re on will become deeper. There may be false summits, but you and your coach will climb on.

Awareness. You made it! From the top of the mountain, you can see more clearly than ever. The world that you left at the bottom looks distant, different. You feel a wave of accomplishment and you know in your body that you’ve arrived at clarity. This is the “awareness” stage of coaching, where clients actually understand what’s at the core of what matters to them and can make a real decision on where to go next.

Choice. Where to go from here? Do you want to go back down the way you came and return to where you were, but with this new perspective? Or do you choose to go somewhere else, to a new way of existing?

The heart of coaching is in building this conscious choice so that the client is in command of their destiny, not a victim to their circumstances. Coming down the mountain from a place of awareness is easier than the climb up, but it’s still hard work.

Transformation. When you arrive back at the bottom, you are forever changed. You can’t unsee the views from the top of the mountain. This is the place where new lives are forged. New ways of being and acting, informed by the journey and celebrated as a success. Maybe from here, you want to climb a bigger mountain. Maybe this one mountain was a lifetimes worth of meaning. Your next step, like your first step, is up to you.

I love this metaphor because so many parallels about climbing and coaching are true. You may recognize this as the iceberg model turned upside down because it is. But I like mine better.

Choosing a coach

If you’re thinking about coaching, have a few initial conversations. Look for a coach that fits well with you and one that you’re going to feel comfortable with. If you can’t be vulnerable and dig deep, you won’t get deep results.

I can’t stress enough to choose a coach that fits. Having a coach you don’t work well with is like being in a bad relationship for six months, for both people. Here are some more things to look for:

  • A coach that has real experience in coaching and does it professionally

  • A coach who is certified by a professional body like the ICF

  • A coach that you will feel comfortable opening up to

  • A coach that is interested in how to serve you, not how to process your payment

  • A coach that will challenge you and call you on you BS

  • A coach that will champion you and celebrate your victories

Where can you find a coach? Chances are, there’s one in your network. Relationships matter in coaching, look first to who you know. Your mentors may have had a coach, start there. If you work at a large company, they may have preferred coaches or even internal coaches already.

Closing thoughts

“It is not in the pursuit of happiness that we find fulfillment, it is in the happiness of pursuit.” -Denis Waitley

Good coaching is life-changing. It’s transformative, deep, and for me, it has been worth every penny. How much money do you set aside for your own growth and development? What share of your income do you invest in yourself? What would be your return on that investment?

The goals and the dreams you have for yourself take work. It takes preparation, planning, and the right equipment to climb higher than you’ve climbed before.

Great coaching is built on partnerships. The coach is there to work with you and to help keep you accountable, to push you and encourage you.

Every coach is different, just like every client is different. If you might value coaching, find a coach that works for you. I hope that this article helps you better understand what coaching is and isn’t and that it gives you a little insight into what coaching can look like.

Originally published in The Startup


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