Executive coaching – making it work for you – Part two

Executive coaching – making it work for you – Part two

Executive coaching – making it work for you – Part two

What coaching is and is not

To understand what executive coaching is, I find it useful to start with a definition.   According to leading authorities in the field, executive coaching is a collaborative relationship between coach and client that aims to help the client to achieve their professional or personal development outcomes.

Coaching is a goal focused process that helps the executive to develop and stretch their current capacity or performance so they can achieve a goal.  The process assists clients to identify their desired outcomes, establish specific goals, build motivation, enhance self-confidence, develop specific action plans, assess their progress, and to improve their actions based on feedback.   Most importantly there is an unequivocal consensus among leading practitioners that coaching uses an evidence-based approach to achieve behaviour change.   This means that any qualified coach should be able to point out the research that clearly shows that the methods that they are using can help the client achieve their goals and gain greater self-confidence.   

Based on this definition, coaching is not a chat with a friend, a conversation over a cup of coffee, a discussion with your manager or asking someone’s opinion about a possible course of action.    These can all be helpful.  But they do not involve identifying desired outcomes, setting goals, building motivation, setting action plans or monitoring progress.    

One popular evidence-based approach is solution-focused coaching which has a core set of assumptions that includes: 

  • Clients can change rapidly: Solution-focused coaching does not need to take a long time.  Effective coaches help clients to focus on what they want and assist them to develop action plans to get to where they want to be, 
  • A non-pathological model: the medical/pathological approach of diagnosis is not helpful in coaching as problems are best defined by the client in their own words.
  • Solution – not problem – focus: the coach will typically spend much more time developing solutions with the client rather than talking about the past and trying to understand the source of the problem.
  • Using existing client resources: the coach will help the client to understand and use their own resources of which at the time they may be unaware.  For example, the coach may ask if the client wants to use their existing relaxation, meditation, or exercise approach to deal better with distress rather than suggesting a new training programme.  
  • Positive change will happen: from the coach’s perspective, positive change is almost inevitable if the client is given the right degree of care and encouragement.  
  • Each client is unique, so coaching is tailor made: coaching does not involve the use of standard training processes; rather all steps are designed specifically for each client.
  • The future focus: coaching places a strong emphasis on looking forward and helping the client to get what they want, rather than examining the past. 
Executive coaching – making it work for you – Part two

What does a good coach do?

Good coaches tend to use a simple systematic process to help a client reach their goals.  Typical steps are:  

  • Develop rapportAt the start of coaching the client is often asked to talk about their problem or issue.  The coach listens attentively and builds understanding. 
  • Listen for solutionsAs the coach listens, they look for strengths and possible solutions in the client’s story.  
  • Probe for solutions.  When the coach identifies possible solutions, they will ask questions to understand more about the client’s strengths.  For example, the client may have faced the problem before and have already partly solved it.   
  • Talk about solutions.  The coach then helps the client to identify potential or actual solutions.  The coach may ask what the client would like to do if the problem did not exist.   For example, “What would you do if you had more confidence?” The client may answer that they would speak up at work.  The coach would then help the client identify the easiest possible time to speak up as a way to start building their confidence. 
  • Action planning.   The coach and client may then agree on the action steps.  For example, the client will speak up in one meeting in the upcoming month.  The action plan will usually be simple and easy to achieve so the client’s chances of success are high.   
  • Follow up. In later sessions the coach will check how the client is progressing and how they can build on any successes they have had. 
Executive coaching – making it work for you – Part two

If the client is unable to decide how to move forward, they may ask the coach for advice.  The effective coach will not say “You should do X!” but is likely to say, ‘Here are two of three options, what would work best for you?”  The coach aims to help the client to see a range of ways of moving forward, but still asks the client to pick the best option.  The coach wants the client to think through and choose the path forward with which they feel most comfortable and therefore most likely to action.   

Coaching is a fundamentally different process from instructing, advising, directing, or just chatting.  It is not about getting the client to do what they coach wants.  Rather it aims to help the client to develop their awareness about options, to choose the option that works best for them, to agree an action plan and to follow up to ensure progress.   Coaching is about building self-confidence and capability in the long term.  

Choosing a coach

Understanding the types of coach that are in the marketplace can be very helpful in selecting one:    

  • If you want to talk to an independent person openly and frankly, then there are many coaches who have some form of training with an accreditation with the International Coaching Federation or The European Mentoring and Coaching Council EMCC Global
  • If you want a specialist coach to assist you as a lawyer, a medical doctor, a salesperson, an IT professional, for example, there are a very wide range of specialist coaches available through an internet search.   These individuals often have a background in one profession and have then trained as coaches, so they are able to offer unique insights into professional challenges.   
  • If your problem is more serious, or you want a more highly trained professional, then there are a wide range of chartered or registered psychologists who are also coaches.   Some are organisational psychologists, and well versed in workplace issues, while others are clinical psychologists who can treat more challenging personal dysfunctions.  


Coaching is a goal focused process that can help you be more effective at work and in your personal life.   Effective coaches are trained in evidence-based approaches and follow well-documented methods that deliver results.   However, as a largely unregulated profession that has been compared to the wild west, selecting a coach needs care and preferably feedback from individuals who you trust about their experience with coaches.

Iain McCormick PhD, Executive Coach
Iain McCormick PhD, Executive Coach

Worked on the article: