There are two primary methods in executive coaching today, each at opposite ends of the spectrum: facilitation and direction. The most effective executive coaches incorporate both in their repertoires. The facilitative approach initiates client dialogue through a Socratic method to stimulate insights and brainstorm solutions. The prescriptive approach is more direct; in these cases, the executive coach outlines specific steps that the executive should take to address workplace challenges. A common dilemma, though, is deciding which route to take and when.

There are three factors to help determine whether to cross the threshold from facilitation to directive coaching: urgency, emotion and enlightenment.

Factor 1: Urgency

Late on a Sunday night, Melissa, a brilliant 45-year-old vice president of biostatistics, received an email from her boss and was alarmed by what she read. It contained a disturbing chain of communications, much of it negative commentary on her work performance. If left unchecked, the perceptions could imperil her career. She sought the help of her longtime executive coach, Lois, who immediately saw the urgency of the situation. There was no time to collaborate in generating potential solutions. Here, the situation called for a fast, prescriptive solution dictated by the executive coach.

“You are not going to like this, but this is exactly what you need to do,” counseled Lois. Knowing well that the recommendations would be outside Melissa’s natural inclination, Lois advised scheduling a series of in-person meetings with her colleagues and boss and outlined a narrative for her to deliver in person and in written follow-up communications. In the end, Melissa emerged from a precarious political situation with new advocates. They later discussed the dynamics that led to that night and the lessons Melissa learned.

Melissa is smart, experienced, and highly logical, but the situation called for an approach beyond traditional facilitation. Such a prescriptive approach was not only outside Melissa’s comfort zone but also ran contrary to how executive coaches typically work: establishing a dialogue with the client to elevate understanding and jointly generate potential solutions.

In Melissa’s case, urgency was paramount. By Monday morning, her internal standing and career prospects would be at stake due to the political crossfire; she needed to act with immediacy. Her situation also illustrates the two components that determine degree of urgency: time limitations and the issue’s severity.

Factor 2: Emotion

Emotion brings workplace issues to an even higher alert status. Emotionality occurs when emotion overrides an executive’s critical thinking. Here’s an example:

The night before his performance review with the CEO, Martin, a 47-year-old business unit president, speculated he wouldn’t receive the promotion and compensation he believed were overdue. He shared with his executive coach, Laura, what he planned to say in such a scenario. From his heated tone, it was obvious to Laura that the prospect of disappointment was so upsetting that emotion had overtaken Martin’s ability for rational thought. She advised, “Stop and listen. This is what you will say – nothing more and nothing less.” Martin’s expectations, indeed, turned out to be accurate; however, he followed Laura’s advice and didn’t burn a bridge or derail his trajectory. Instead, Martin and the CEO had a productive discussion about his future.


Factor 3: Enlightenment

Enlightenment comes into play when the executive doesn’t see alternative perspectives or fails to consider differing viewpoints. In these situations, the coach needs to help the client recognize such self-inflicted “blinders” from the outset. It’s an effective method to overcome such hurdles and “force” clients to consider new perspectives they wouldn’t otherwise. For instance:

Karen, 41, joined a new company as CFO. Early on, she kept her head down, learned the business and produced quality deliverables. Karen believed her work would speak for itself and build her credibility. To the contrary, 360-degree interviews revealed that colleagues believed she didn’t fully understand the business. As her coach, Laura first needed to enlighten Karen that her engrained belief that work quality alone would determine ascendance was holding her back from her career aspirations. She confronted Karen and insisted she also focus on networking and building relationships. In short order, Karen tamped down the negative perceptions before they took hold.

Factor 3A: Age/Stage of Maturity

Age is also a factor and, obviously, more tangible than the other three. A recent field study explored whether age decades or generational groupings (e.g., millennials, Generation X and baby boomers) are better predictors of executive behavior and motivation. The statistical analysis found that executives’ specific stage of maturity (i.e., whether they’re in their 30s, 40s or 50s) is the most accurate predictor, by far.

Since a number of clients increasingly send 30-somethings through executive coaching, the study also looked at what set this demographic apart from its older C-suite peers. Among other findings, the study found that those in their 30s tend to require more direction. As newly minted professionals, they typically remain attached to ideals that they learned early in their careers and which were reinforced by early success. For this group, the role of the coach is to supplant old axioms with new rules within the context of a trusted relationship. For example:

Zoe, a 34-year-old program manager, was vocal in her disapproval of a specific company policy. Her argument made sense, but as her coach, Lois counseled Zoe to let it go. The issue simply didn’t warrant a high-priority battle, which would have created internal tensions. Lois recognized that Zoe’s relative inexperience and attachment to unrealistic ideals could detract from her ultimate effectiveness in the corporate setting. In the long run, by accepting her coach’s counsel, Zoe achieved her objectives by fortifying, not aggravating, alliances.

Directness is always required in a coaching engagement. However, the degree of prescriptiveness is typically dictated by age, urgency, emotion and/or enlightenment. Interestingly, the shift from directness to facilitation often occurs naturally in the course of a single engagement as insight and learning take hold.

A skilled coach intuitively knows when to facilitate or direct solutions to workplace challenges. Regardless, both approaches need to be considered and incorporated into training programs.