Question: What is involved in an executive coaching process?

I'm already a successful executive and feel I would like to engage an executive coach to take me to the next level.

Not having experienced formal executive coaching before I'd like to be as prepared and knowledgeable about the initial steps, and the process, as possible.

What should I expect to happen from the first interaction to the end of, say, a 6-month or year-long engagement?


11 Expert Insights

You ask a reasonable question. The challenge is that selecting a coach is more art than science.

There are almost as many coaching methodologies as there are coaches. Some coaches focus on leadership behaviors, some focus on business & organizational skills. Some use psychological & personality instruments. Some use stakeholder centered feedback. There is no single best method. Some methods are a better fit for you than others.

There are certainly as many different personality matches as there are coaches. Your challenge is to pick a process that you think will produce the outcomes you want and a coach with a style that is a fit for you. Not easy!

I would call a few. Ask them to describe their process. If it makes sense to you, then see if you & the coach are a good personality fit. There is also a massive differential in coaching fees. The differential may not be rational, but the fee may be important to you. I think the best coaches are clear about their process & willing to say if what you want doesn’t fit their process.

In our process, we only charge if the client gets better; so, it is really important to us to make sure there is a good fit. We don't like wasting 6 months or a year with a client with whom we should never have worked in the first place.

Big question. Here are some of the things to be aware of:

A. There will be a huge range of types of interaction that people will call "coaching" - some will be consultants using the word, some will be credentialed through a coaching body like International Coach Federation, some will be PhD's who are Organizational Development oriented, some will be people with a specific "Leadership" frame or philosophy.

B. Some may use assessments, some may require them, some won't care, and some will use an interview process to gauge the external impact of the exec's current behavior. Without some frame of reference in some kind, the coaching will have limited effect.

C. Some will be inquiry based, using a Socratic approach of asking more questions than giving advice, designed to 'draw out your wisdom' vs. tell you what they think you should do. Others will do the opposite and rely mostly 'telling' whether it's observations or perspective sharing to outright "do this"

D. Most ALL of them will have contracts to clarify policies and procedures

E. They may or may not have prior Executive/ industry experience... not actually necessary for coaching per se but useful for 'mentoring. In some definitions, "Pure Coaching" doesn't require prior industry/ executive experience and in fact, benefits by not getting caught up in existing paradigms about what is/ isn't possible. BTW, "chemistry of fit" trumps prior experience almost every time

So... with all of those elements and more. Here are some questions to play with for clarity

1. What is the experience you want to have while using a coach to move forward?
2. What qualifications are important to you?
3. What style of interaction do you most resonate with?
4. What level of 'internal' work are you willing to do Vs. simply strategic/ tactical
5. What outcome is most important to you?
6. What will tell you, you've achieved that outcome?
7. How clear are you on the "you" you want to become?
8. What are you willing to own in the coaching interaction?

Jim & Michael have already covered lots of coaching decision considerations, so I won't attempt to rehash any of that information.  The big question I would consider is, "am I ready for coaching"?  As the client, you will be doing 80+% of the work.  You will need to understand your own degree of change comfort and what you want to change into.

My best clients tend to take over the process because they realize that its what they do, not what I do that propels them forward.  Take your time with your decision.  Talk to others who have had good experiences and get some referrals of coaches who they felt really good about.  Take advantage of the complimentary sessions being offered.  This is your best way to determine if a personal fit exists or not.  It also gives you a chance to experience their method of coaching and how it makes you think about your circumstances.

Coaching is a catalyst for change.  How much you need or want to change will be guided by the coaching process, but is largely up to you.

Now that you’ve determined that you could benefit from executive coaching, finding the right fit is critical to the success of your engagement.  Here are some guidelines for determining a fit.

While you want to be "comfortable" with your coach, be aware that an effective coach must have the ability to make you "uncomfortable" enough with the status quo to commit to changing and stepping outside of your comfort zone.  Ideally you are looking to hire a "personal change agent".

Before looking for a coach, ask yourself…

*  What does "the next level" mean/look like for you?
*  Once you have that "vision", what obstacles are preventing you from getting there?
*  If my coaching engagement resulted in spectacular success, what would I need to see, hear or experience to know that this has occurred?
*  What changes will I need to make to assure this happens?
*  What has prevented this success from happening in the past?
*  Are my desired outcomes measurable? If so, how?
*  Am I looking to delegate responsibility for my success or am I willing to do my own pushups?
*  Am I expecting a quick-fix?

Here are some recommendations for Insight to gain and some questions to ask in the interview process with a prospective coach…

*  How much of their ability comes from book knowledge/theory and how much from practical experience?
*  Do I sense that the coach understands me, my situation and my agenda or am I just another sale?
*  What is my level of "connection" with the coach?
*  Am I getting a canned program, or will my unique individual needs be addressed?
*  What is my sense about this person’s integrity and commitment to the profession?
*  Has the coach encountered similar scenarios to mine and how did he/she handle it?
*  How would you characterize your coaching style?
*  Why did you become a coach?
*  How does your approach fit my situation?
*  Can the coach provide references/case studies that speak in terms of measurable results?

Previous answers gave you a great deal to reflect on, including the process for selecting a coach and setting your goals.

To the specifics of your request, "What should I expect to happen from the first interaction to the end…?" I add:

1. You complete preparation & self-assessment (as noted, coaches use various tools as part of your prep)

2. We conduct a two-hour intake, during which we establish the logistics of the relationship and deeply explore the goals you hold

3. We schedule ongoing Conversations, e.g. weekly or bi-weekly. The general flow of those sessions (which will vary by client and need) will look like this:

-Check-in: What's happened since last session; what did you try or do, what worked/not, what did you learn, what reflections are you bringing today?

  -Agenda: what is your focus for today?  What do you want to accomplish or take away from this session? What is important about that right now?

  -Coaching/Exploration of the topic

  -Close: What are you taking away?  What will you do or practice over the next week or two?

4. If part of the initial agreement, your coaching may include onsite work, e.g. shadowing you in your native habitat

5. At intervals, we pause to review progress & value, adjusting as needed.

6. Closure:  Reflection on the value and learning from your coaching, how you will continue learning and progress, or anything that is important to declare as you wrap the relationship.


~ Your goals form the foundation for all conversations, and these may evolve as you discover/uncover more about yourself, so you may "re-contract" along the way.

~ The exploration in any single session is organic and based on where you are right now. Questions are a primary means of exploration.  

~ My approach is ontological, so we work with your head, body, & emotional space, making it a more holistic experience -- and really, isn't that what Leadership is all about, the whole experience?  

Good luck with your decision!

It comes down to what you want to get out of working with an experienced executive coach. Are you interested in growing professionally and in your current position or are you interested in working with a coach so you can pursue something different?

If you choose a coach who had not been an executive then you are not going to get the same level of experience guiding you to your end result. If you cannot point-blank ask your prospective coach "Have you been where I was and have you achieved what I want to achieve?" and get a "yes" to both parts of that question, then move on, because you probably won't be satisfied with the results. Experience trumps knowledge so "knowing" how to help vs. helping from experience is very different.

You have a lot of good information above and it is not necessary to repeat it.  Here are a couple of questions to consider:

* What is driving your belief to get coaching?

* What does your end-game look like?  If you got everything you wanted from coaching, how would your situation be better?

* How can you capitalize (expand on, or stretch yourself based) on your strengths? In what areas can you improve? What would be better?

In all, it is best to find a coach you respect and with whom you feel comfortable.

Historically, executive coaching embraced quantitative data about the person who would be coached from a sample of people she worked with, for, or who supervised that person.  That measure came to be called "a 360" because the views of 5 to 10 other people expressed as answers to a standardized questionnaire was seen as providing a global assessment, with the additional advantage of a quantitative measure.  The original results could then be easily compared to answers to the same questionnaire after periods of coaching and progress - or the lack of it - could be assessed objectively.  Many professional and successful coaches continue to rely on "the 360."  But I don't.  Why?  Whenever a questionnaire is created, the people who wrote it, have selected the topics THEY feel are important.  In this way, they impose their judgments and narrow the focus about what matters.

I prefer to take time from the start to create a relationship with the person to be coached.  Why?  First, in order for that person to really change their behavior and their perception of their behavior, they need to trust and respect me. That does not occur just because I have a title and a degree.  I have to earn that.  Second, I am more interested in how the coached person views themselves, than I am in what others think of them, although I do want to know that. If there is a real relationship, over time the coached person will talk freely and the problems will become clear.

In this context, it is vital that I have decades of consulting to corporations and have served more than a decade on corporate boards.  I know how business usually works. That knowledge increases the executive's level of comfort with me and respect for me.

The important skills are insightful listening and questioning by the coach.  You know you're on the right track when you feel free to be spontaneous. Spontaneity is experienced by both parties as being honest and trusting, both of you will move closer to the major issues.

An often-overlooked aspect of selecting a coach is asking for referrals. In getting those referrals, you'll want to provide the coach with some orientation to your situation. Is there a particular sort of gap you're wanting to address, or are you looking for more of a sounding board and thinking partner. Maybe you've been told your presentation skills need work. So ask prospective coaches for their experience, and references, around improving presentation skills.  The more you can disclose in the first meeting, the better the prospective coach can offer insights and experiences that might align.

As with any new hire, it's possible that a coach who does well in the "interview," will not be as compelling once the work starts. I'm not a fan of 30-60-90 day termination clauses as an executive might feel trapped to continue working with a coach who is not optimally effective. Generally, the coach and client will have a good feel for chemistry and value within 2 or 3 meetings. So ensure you have at least that long to jettison the coach without penalty.

Finally, ask yourself after the first session, and every session thereafter, "Was this helpful? Did my perspective expand? Do I have better possibilities on how to move as a result of this dialogue?" As long as you continue to answer in the affirmative, the coaching investment is probably worthwhile.

Great question! Even the best athletes have coaches and personal trainers who help them to improve their skills and stay on top of their game. Similarly, people who are already successful can benefit from hiring an executive coach to help them set even higher expectations and be able to exceed them with the right level of support and accountability to help keep them focused and motivated.

An executive coach will use dialogue to guide you through a self-discovery process to gain clarity around your priorities and deepen your self-awareness so you can achieve specific goals or outcomes. A coach may use additional resources such as relevant articles, checklists, assessments or models to facilitate your thinking and better inform your choices.

During your coaching engagement, you will have online or phone conversations with your coach to discuss progress towards your goals, any roadblocks you may have encountered, as well as what you are learning as a result of participating in the coaching process. Your coach will have specific questions s/he will ask to prompt you to share, and also will empower you to contribute to the focus of each conversation to ensure that you’re able to discuss specific issues or concerns with which you are dealing.

The first session is an opportunity for you and your coach to get really clear about your short and long term goals, and the nature of the coaching relationship. It’s also the chance to uncover any obstacles (internal and external) that have been holding you back from achieving those goals – often, an underlying reason for you to hire a coach in the first place. Your coach also will explore your willingness to take new actions and move out of your comfort zone to achieve your goals – i.e., “is this what you REALLY want?” “Are you READY to make this change?” You will make the ultimate choice about any actions you will (or won’t) take; and your coach is there to provide you with ideas, support, and accountability as needed.

I assume you are referring to executive coaching so you must be interested in hiring someone who will help you be a better executive. However, the coach you will work best with is one who probably has previous experience in your particular field. For example, I have held CFO, CEO, Board, and Chairman positions in everything from a startup to a market leading subsidiary, division and worldwide HQ of multi-billion dollar companies, which makes me an ideal coach for executives in these positions. Although I do also work with executives in other positions, it is often a challenge for me because I am perceived by those clients as taking a view that is inappropriate given their level.

Whatever discipline you are seeking to be coached in, the objective is the same: to be better at your job. This means you want a coach who will challenge you and your assumptions about your work and the company you work in. You want to come away from most coaching sessions with an "ah ha" moment.