Introduction to Leadership and Executive Coaching

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Introduction to Leadership and Executive Coaching

This article provides a general introduction to executive and leadership coaching.

How does one define Leadership Coaching?

"The field of coaching leaders is still in it’s infancy"; the point is debatable, but at present it is probably still more of a practiced art than a true discipline – without more than general agreement around definitions, methodologies or measurements for outcome. We begin by reviewing the current state of consensus around basic working definitions relevant to the field. We follow by introducing some of the ongoing debate and controversies on how best to refine those definitions as the profession evolves.

Executive coaching* – definition

Until recently, coaching of leaders was relatively confined to the business world, where the term “executive coaching” was directly applicable and defined by the organizational role of the coachee. As a quick primer for those new to the field, in this 5 minute video clip from the thecoachszone, Chris Ruisi (former president and Chief Operating Officer of USLIFE Corporation, turned coach) shares a few of his pragmatic definitions. He answers, at a basic level, the questions: What makes a good coach? What is Executive Coaching? Why would an executive hire a coach? What makes a good executive coach? What is the difference between an executive coach and a business coach?


Ruisi’s comments are consistent with the early focus of executive coaching engagements; they typically revolved around one or more of the following four scenarios identified by Bruce Peltier:

  1. Helping an executive efficiently innovate and adapt their leadership style to meet big organizational changes such as those required by mergers and acquisitions.

  2. Paving the way for a smooth individual career transition – e.g., ensuring rapid acquisition of general leadership skill sets required to move from being a manager to an executive.

  3. Teaching specific new awareness and skills – such as those required because of increased visibility (contexts such as the construction and delivery of press releases, working with an advisory board, etc.).

  4. Resolving specific problems - remediation (minimizing or repairing damage caused by discrete dysfunctional behavior(s) that create obstacles for personal, team, or corporate best performance).

In the simplest terms, the common ground shared by typical coaching engagements was that they were requested in order to effect behavioral change(s) that increased the likelihood of achieving business-related bottom lines. This point allows us to introduce one of the basic controversies in the field: does a background in behavioral psychology, organizational development, or business strategy, make you a more effective coach?

If you are looking for one good basic and one more advanced primer on Executive Coaching, told from perspectives rooted in psychology, you could start with Bruce Peltier’s “The Psychology of Executive Coaching” (first published in 2001 and reissued this year) and the collection of classic articles edited by Richard Kilburg and Richard Diedrich, “The Wisdom of Coaching: Essential papers in consulting psychology for a world of change (2007) ”. In particular, the opening article, Toward a conceptual understanding and definition of executive coaching by Kilburg himself (originally published in the Consulting Psychology Journal, 1996), provides a summary overview that still reads well today.

Don’t forget, though - it is a fact that many very successful executive coaches have had little or even no formal training in psychology at all. Instead, they’ve come from widely disparate backgrounds: organizational development or human resources, management training or consulting, all other facets of the business world, linguistics, education, sports, the entertainment world, etc. Thus, many schools of thought on how to coach executives have evolved almost in parallel. They continue to contribute to a growing tidal wave of concepts about what exactly should be called executive coaching and how it should best be conducted or credentialed. There are at least as many attempts as there are websites expounding it’s virtues - as examples, take a look at the definitions found in Basics LT5 - Websites. This varied heritage, coupled with the highly personalized interaction between coach and client, has fostered a rich and entertaining literature. But at the same time, it has hampered early efforts to consolidate and generate consensus around key definitions, including exactly what should constitute executive coaching!

How has process of executive coaching typically been defined?

Because this is a debated and evolving area, we have chosen not to expand on this at present. Instead, we simply share with you, as a means of stimulating discussion, the elements of the coaching process that until recently have been most commonly cited as being at the core of an executive leader/coach relationship.

Proposed key components of coach/client interactions conducted in a business context include that it be:

  • One-on-one

  • Relationship-based

  • Highly tailored to the individual clients’ business environment and need(s)

  • Characterized by first defining opportunities for growth – a process accomplished via interview(s), survey instruments, or any of a host of other assessment tools such as the 360 degree assessment, Myers Briggs Personality Test Inventory, FIRO-B, etc ( see Assessment Tools)

  • Delineated, in a goal-oriented fashion, with a structured plan formally contracted in writing

  • Employ a variety of approaches and techniques (see executive coaching models and techniques)

  • Conducted through a series of focused sessions that occur over time (typically 6 to 12 months)

  • Conducted by a professional, preferably external to the organization, whose primary role is coaching

  • Ultimately optimize the clients’ performance so that they can deliver and/or surpass their organizational goals

  • Include follow-through

  • Include accountability

  • Equip the client with lasting heightened awareness and the skills to continue to self develop

Various permutations of this basic road map are found in Top Picks - books (see also Coaching Practices).

Whether each of these points deserves inclusion in a basic definition of executive coaching remains controversial. The complexity of the discussion has also recently increased because the scope of coaching engagements continues to expand both laterally (beyond the themes outlined above) and vertically (reaching downwards into management tiers). In addition, the term “executive coaching” and accompanying methodologies are rapidly being translated into working with other professionals (physicians, lawyers, engineers, etc., with stature but not necessarily managerial authority) and those required to function at high levels (in academics, government, the military, non-profit organizations, service fields, etc.) outside the traditional business world.

Therefore, it is clear that a new era of coaching individuals with high visibility and potential to influence widely in many different arenas is looming. So, we’ve titled this section “Leadership” as opposed to “Executive” coaching. Let’s take a look at a few more issues relevant to the basic definition of coaching leaders……

* synonyms: executive development, leader coaching, leadership development. Analogous organizational terms: corporate coaching, business coaching.

How do we define leaders and what do we need to understand about them to coach effectively?

 Leadership may defined as follows:

  • " the energetic process of getting people fully and willingly committed to a new and sustainable course of action, to meet commonly agreed objectives whilst having commonly held values".

  • Hogan et al.,1994: “leadership involves persuading other people to set aside for a period of time their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the responsibilities and welfare of a group”

  • Alan Keith: "Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen."

Of note, these definitions do not specify who assumes the leading role - an individual, team, network of individuals (machines??). The specifics relevant to defining the leader, per se, have likely purposefully been left ambiguous. For the present, one can assume that the leader is either an individual or a team of individuals linked by a common purpose and the shared mission of influencing others’ behavior towards that purpose.

More than the field executive coaching per se, Leadership is a stand-alone discipline, replete with a more weighty body of research and theory. By beginning by understanding the relevant literature, there is opportunity to begin to shape this coaching field  - if we begin to invest in the time and effort it takes to construct and test specific hypotheses. An increasing number of coaching leader-based research endeavors are beginning to take up this challenge: as examples, various arms of the US Military (US Veteran Affairs, Air Force, Navy, Intelligence) Avolio, Salmon, 2010; the World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Fellows Program (peer group coaching and external one-on-one coaching over a three year period).

Trends in Leadership Coaching

The scope, pressures, and style of leadership are also dramatically changing. In the following 8-minute video clip, participants from the 2010 Harvard Business School Imagining the Future of Leadership conference share insights on some of the ways in which leaders of the future will be additionally challenged as they deal with both the potential and the uncertainty that comes with increasingly with global, multicultural, less hierarchical, higher staked, and faster paced interactions. 

The Role of Tomorrow's Leaders

Based on these comments, here are some of the areas that one could predict that coaches will be increasingly asked to work with clients on:

  • visioning

  • sharing as opposed to owning leadership

  • aligning work with personal values

  • influencing vast networks of people instead of a finite number of direct reports

  • communicating cross-culturally (and remotely at that!)

  • working sequentially or even simultaneously in several geographic locations (again, often remotely)

  • grooming younger people significantly (even decades) earlier than in the past, for roles where they will have positions of influence on multi-disciplinary teams

  • optimizing engagement and retention

  • planning for succession, not of an individual, but of concepts supported by networks of people

In addition, although the issues that coaches have focused on with executives will continue to remain a part of the core work in coaching leaders, the partnership with these highly sophisticated individuals will increasingly shift to helping them learn and develop innovative strategies and efficiencies as quickly as possible, so that they are continually and asymptotically approaching not only peak performance but are maximally engaged at any given phase of their highly mobile and varied careers.

In contrast to the recent past executive coaching focus on one or a few individuals in a hierarchical organization, the trend towards imbuing different aspects of leadership within networks of individuals for large scale initiatives will likely require novel coaching strategies. The currently prized one-on-one relationship with a single very senior executive may, as a corollary, fade more rapidly than currently anticipated, in importance.

So, in the future, what competencies will define the kind of coaches who will work with leaders?

This topic is an area of keen debate and is addressed in more detail in the Good to Great section. The current master coach criteria (for example, see the International Coach Federation criteria for Master Coach Certification) are relatively field-agnostic and emphasize the need for strict adherence to “pure” coaching methodology within sessions. However, if one agrees that the key common outcomes achieved by incorporating coaching tools in any context should remain peak performance and flow, then individuals who work with leaders will inevitably find themselves using all their wits and harnessing, in the moment, multiple theoretical and practical perspectives derived from coaching, educational, consulting, mentoring, behavioral and emotional intelligence skills and other approaches in order to be able to “dance in the moment”.

In the simplest terms, one of the hallmarks of coaching in the leader field is likely to remain the fact that the coach needs to be able to match the demands of their clients’ complex intellectual contexts, stay grounded in the face of the weight of ramifications of their clients’ choices, keep pace with the dynamic high intensity of the work, all with an uncompromising level of integrity and likely share their clients’ stamina to work in more than a few timezones!

Readers of this section may enjoy perusing the following:

Webinars on Leadership

Putting leaders on the couch: An Interview with Manfred Kets De Vries

The new deal at the top

Moss Kanter on leadership

The Executive Coaching Handbook: Principles and Guidelines for a Successful Coaching Partnership

Harvard Business School Leadership Videos:

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