Executive coaching is a technique used for senior leaders to develop personally and professionally, achieve business goals, and facilitate performance improvement with the assistance of a professional coach, often hired from outside the organization. Issues addressed in typical executive coaching relationships, according to Mike Harris, CEO of Patina Solutions, “include preparing leaders for growth, driving innovation, improving communication, improving the ability to engage employees, effective delegation and conflict management.”

The Benefits of Executive Coaching

Having high-performing executives at the helm is, of course, critical for organizational success. But why is executive coaching specifically a beneficial tool to develop senior leaders?

Gary Harpst, founder of Six Disciplines, believes that “training needs to be integrated with the whole management system” and that coaching is a key part in that process. He stresses the role coaching plays in accountability, saying that one of the most common benefits cited by Six Disciplines’ clients is the reinforcement and accountability provided by having coaches on site multiple times per year to “keep them on the program.”

“External coaches,” says Silvia Masini, national practice director of talent development solutions at Patina, “provide high-quality, professional experiences for participants in a safe environment.” These experiences result in improved performance for the individuals or leadership team being coached, deliver on practical and individualized leadership development outcomes, and help the organization retain leaders and prepare for the future.

“The advantages gained from coaching are more important than ever,” Masini says. “New roles and responsibilities emerge every day, and technology and innovative business delivery solutions threaten traditional business models.” Executive coaches can help leaders navigate these changes and lead through both threats and opportunities.

What to Look For

Six Disciplines has built four principles into its coaching program, based on research from Weight Watchers. The first is having a formal coaching system, and the second is to provide external accountability. Third is reporting on results, and fourth is “shared learning,” or encouraging people to share what’s working and what’s not. These four elements, Harpst says, has led to “wild success” at Weight Watchers, and he believes that they can apply to professional coaching as well.

To find the coach, he recommends using referrals from peers who have had successful coaching experiences. Here are some other factors to look for:

  • The techniques the coach uses should be time-tested or backed by research.
  • Experts differ on whether the coach should be credentialed. “We’re seeing a significant increase in demand for coaches who may not have professional coach training but have experienced the role in which they coach and have a proven track record of success,” says Masini. On the other hand, many coaches recommend finding an executive coach who is certified by the International Coaching Federation.
  • Choose a coach based on the executive’s and organization’s specific needs and goals. “Whether experience-based or training-based,” Masini says, “great coaches set clear goals and objectives.”

Once you’ve identified a potential coach, Tegan Trovato, founder of Bright Arrow Coaching, recommends using a discovery coaching session to provide the executive and the coach to make sure they are a good fit. In that session, the executive should look for synergy, determine the minimum time commitment and frequency of meetings, identify expected outcomes, and find out if the coach also sometimes works with a coach (“This is how we grow and bring new skills and ideas back into our own practices!”). Harpst agrees, saying that the executive and coach should have good chemistry, and the coach should be “strong enough to challenge” the executive.

Evaluating Effectiveness

“A well-developed coaching experience,” says Harris, “delivers clear, tangible results and achievement of agreed-upon goals.” The key there is “clear” and “tangible.” Establish metrics ahead of time; what does the organization and the executive want to come of the coaching engagement? How will you know if those goals have been achieved? “Setting specific and measurable goals, defining performance improvement needs, and establishing the evidentiary markers for behavior change all set the stage for impact measurement,” Harris says.

“While the coach cannot promise an increase in productivity by X%, increased sales or improved attitudes and skills,” writes Trovato, “what they should be able to articulate for you is how to calculate the ROI of typical coaching outcomes.” Involve all parties in evaluation. Seek feedback from the executive, his or her supervisor (if any), his or her direct reports, the coach, and the organization (perhaps the training or HR department and/or the employee base at large).

“Be patient,” says Harpst. “Change takes time.” Neither the organization nor the executive should look for immediate results, but over time, performance should improve.