Executive Coaching Services
The Complete Guide to a Successful Engagement
Executive coaching services are incredibly impactful, because executives make or break the organizations they lead.
There’s a reason leading executives have the name recognition of movie stars. Look around the modern business world, and the outsized influence of top executives on organizational success is obvious. Jeff Bezos, Mary Barra, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg — they’re household names for good reason: their leadership successes and failures drive the successes and failures of entire organizations. It’s no stretch to say that a look at Tesla’s stock price over time is a look at the public perception of its CEO's successes and failures.
Organizations depend on executives. And executive coaches, in turn, can play critical roles in executive success.
At Emily Bermes + Associates, we’ve been helping executives to grow for over 15 years. From Fortune 100 corporations to industry-shifting startups, and from VP-level positions to C-Suite leaders, we’ve provided executive coaching services with a success rate of virtually 100% as measured by stakeholder reports. That breadth of experience leaves us well-positioned to identify the crucial components that influence the success of an executive coaching engagement.
With that in mind, this page is designed to provide a comprehensive outline of successful executive coaching service engagements. We’ll begin at a basic level, defining the services that executive coaching entails, and move through the totality of the process to determine how executive coaches can best impact success.
Don’t implement executive coaching services without careful consideration of their impact. Executives and their organizations can’t afford it. With that in mind, here are the keys to success in executive coaching engagements.
Executive Coaching Services Guide: The Outline
What is an Executive Coach?
Yes, the words themselves are self-explanatory in nature. Still, to best understand the impact of an executive coach, it’s useful to narrow the definition of their role based on widely accepted understanding within the field.
One of the more widely-held articulations of the role originates from the 1999 International Executive Coaching Summit:
“Executive Coaching is a facilitative one-to-one, mutually designed relationship between a professional coach and a key contributor who has a powerful position in the organization. The coaching is contracted for the benefit of a client who is accountable for highly complex decisions with wide scope of impact on the organization and industry as a whole. The focus of the coaching is usually focused on organizational performance or development, but it may also serve a personal component as well.”
So, by nature, executive coaching services are administered in an individual (as opposed to a group) context. Additionally, executive coaching services involve high-impact individuals, with an emphasis on their influence within an organization. We’d go so far as to say that an executive coach must, necessarily, be meeting with an executive. So management coaches, though similar, are separate in discipline.
The Harvard Business Review clarifies the role of an executive coach further. Per their research, the top three reasons that executive coaches are engaged are: to develop high potentials or facilitate transition, to act as a sounding board, or to address derailing behavior. Their corresponding report also notes that personal issues inevitably enter into coaching as these goals are pursued.
In all engagements, the underlying expectation is that working with an executive coach will improve both executives’ effectiveness and the effectiveness of the organizations they lead.
When to Work with an Executive Coach
The reality is that not all executive contexts necessitate the involvement of an executive coach. Executive positions require a wide set of capabilities, some of which are simply innate. The truism known by basketball coaches applies here: you can’t coach tall. In the same way, there are some factors toward success that an executive coach is unable to improve.
Getting the most value from an executive coaching engagement means using the service in the right contexts. So, don’t use coaching as a hammer to pound away at a screw. Instead, focus on coaching engagements for individuals and contexts where it can provide value.
With those considerations in mind, here is what an executive coach can’t impact, what they can impact, and when you should choose to implement executive coaching services.
Executive coaches can’t impact:
Expertise in hard skills. Coaching engagements should never be focused around hard skill acquisition, such as practical accounting knowledge or research capabilities. If an executive lands in a role without the hard skills necessary for success in that role, they don’t need an executive coach; they need to be moved to a different role.
Intelligence. Again, you can’t coach tall — you can’t impact intelligence. Thankfully, most executives are in high-level positions because of their intelligence, not in spite of it. However, if intelligence is an issue, the best path forward is an honest assessment of the situation and a corresponding transfer of the executive to a new position more closely aligned with their capabilities.
Character. This is true in two parts. First, on a moral level: executive coaching can’t make mean people nice. Don’t hire an executive coach to make a bad apple good. Second, executive coaching can’t impact innate, amoral characteristics, such as a high tendency toward individualism. In other words, executive coaching shouldn’t be used as a method of changing a person into something they can’t become.
Executive coaches can impact:
People management skills
How to Make the Decision
In short: working with an executive coach is impactful when the factors for growth are the soft (but vital) skills of leadership and emotional intelligence.
How to Pick the Right Executive Coach
The success of an executive coaching service does depend, to a level, on the context of that engagement. Yes, certain coaching services have higher success rates across a broader range of contexts (and we happen to be one of them). However, no single executive coach is able to comprehensively address every single situation where executive coaching is necessary.
There are a range of factors that influence coaching success. When picking an executive coach, you’d do well to consider:
Whether the coach has an organic or structured process. Organic processes leave time for discovery but can fall short for those who prefer measurable outcomes. Structured processes focus totally on strategic goals, but can hinder flexibility. There are, of course, approaches on either side of the continuum and within the middle ground.
Whether the coach is militaristic or encouraging in style. Militaristic coaches focus on the gaps between necessary behavior and current behavior, and do all they can to eliminate them. Encouraging coaches are there for support. Different executives tend to prefer coaches with different styles.
Whether the coach has experience in similar coaching engagements. When considering experience, prioritize it in terms of desired objectives (say, a history of implementing organizational turnaround), then similar roles (say, a history of VP-level engagements), and lastly industry (which, in honesty, is of minimal importance).
Weigh these three factors, and your odds of picking the right executive coach will be greatly increased.
And, if at all possible, set up a meeting with the prospective coach before committing to the engagement, so that the executive can determine whether or not there is the potential for rapport.
What It’s Like to Work with an Executive Coach
Once you’ve identified the need for an executive coach and selected a coach that fits well with your intended context, the real fun begins.
Here’s what it’s like to work with an executive coach, based on our process and our experience across a range of industries and contexts.
Ideally, this should occur before the engagement begins, but it’s worth identifying due to its necessity in the coaching process. The introductory meeting should clarify a strategic and personal fit between executive and coach to ensure that the engagement is founded upon the potential for success.
With fit and rapport established, the initial stages of an executive coaching service engagement should be focused around an analysis of the executive’s skillset and context. During this stage, we like to use the 360 assessment tool, soliciting feedback from a comprehensive array of stakeholders to identify, as accurately as possible, any performance gaps that exist between an executive’s current state and their ideal performance.
This analysis is then presented both to the coaching recipient and to any relevant stakeholders.
Based on performance gaps, areas of high-impact are identified. The goals for improvement are narrowed and defined, giving scope to the coaching engagement and ensuring that its effects will be measurable.
The thrust of a coaching engagement is typically a defined series of one-to-one meetings in pursuit of the predefined goals. These may involve workshops, directed conversations around behavior, directed conversations around relevant situations, or organic room for discussion.
Throughout an executive coaching engagement, feedback on executive coaching performance is gathered from stakeholders and relayed both to the participant within the engagement and to the organizational stakeholders. The engagement may be refined based on developing outcomes.
At the culmination of a coaching engagement, a final assessment of executive performance is conducted to identify progress toward the predefined goals. Results are gathered and reported to both the participant and the organizational stakeholders, and recommendations for further action may be made.
What Executive Coaching Services Help With
As mentioned previously, there are certain factors that executive coaching service simply cannot help with. What executive coaching service can impact are the soft skills of people management and leadership. That sounds wonderful, but, for full clarity, let’s break those areas down further toward items that are a bit more practical.
Here’s what executive coaching services help with (along with a bit of how they do so):
The first step toward improvement is measurement. After all, what is measured tends to improve - and a lack of measurement negates even a concept of what improvement could be.
We’ve found 360-degree assessments to be a comprehensive and necessary measuring tool in understanding executive performance, and they’re generally the first step in an executive coaching engagement. They lay the foundation for coaching, and play a large role in goal-setting.
Their purpose is to assess a leaders’ impact on an organization, in terms both positive and negative. Impact is measured in both technical expertise and in terms of relationship management.
It’s worth noting that 360-degree assessments aren’t performance reviews; their purposes are purely developmental.
How 360-Degree Feedback is Collected
Feedback is collected primarily via interviews with individuals who regularly interact with the executive being assessed. Out of those interviews, a practitioner then compiles the data into a report that outlines current performance - both the strengths of the executive, and their areas of improvement.
Why 360-Degree Data is Valid
360-degree data is only reported if corroborated by at least three respondents. This negates the likelihood of irrelevant feedback. Additionally, 360-degree feedback protects respondent confidentiality, meaning that feedback is less likely to be filtered to preserve social capital with an executive.
Who Provides 360-Degree Feedback
The goal of a 360-degree assessment is to gather a comprehensive data set. That means targeting a representative sample of respondents.
Ideally, participants should include:
• The subject’s boss(es)
• Three peers
• Three direct reports (if possible)
• Four internal / external customers
Additionally, for senior executives, it may be appropriate to gather board-level feedback. 360 participants should request a boss or HR representative approval on the list of respondents to ensure the list appears balanced and appropriate.
360-degree feedback generally takes about four to six weeks to collect and compile. Again, this is the recommended first step in any executive coaching engagement. At the end of the engagement, a second assessment may be conducted to measure improvement against goals.
It’s easy to identify a lack of self-awareness in other people. By definition, it’s harder to identify a lack of self-awareness in yourself. Yet self-awareness is a critical component in executive success.
Fortunately, executive coaching can help.
The best tool for correcting a self-awareness deficiency is honest assessment. That’s why the previously-discussed 360-degree assessment is so helpful. Executives, interestingly enough, tend to struggle with self-awareness, because they often receive feedback from those underneath them that has been filtered to maintain their approval.
Executive coaches can help to remove the blinders.
New Executive Assimilation
One of our executive coaching focuses is in assimilation - helping new executives successfully navigate the challenges of a new role.
Incredibly, 50% of new executives fail within their first 18 months on the job. Since these individuals are being tasked to run high-level positions, the toll that failure takes on organizations can be devastating. Fortunately, executive coaching for assimilation can greatly increase the chances of success for new executives.
Why the Failure Rate is 50%
There are misaligned expectations for the new executive
The executive misunderstands or does not fit with the company culture
There is low trust from key stakeholders
The new executive’s go-to leadership approach isn’t effective in their new context
The new executive makes early missteps that erode trust early on and can’t be overcome
How Executive Coaching Helps
Executive coaching offers a chance for honest assessment and feedback
Executive coaching offers objective analysis of company culture, leadership approach, charter, and more
It offers time-tested strategies to improve soft skills like relationship management, communication, leadership, and more
It offers continual feedback
It offers ongoing support
One of the soft skills that executive coaching improves upon is an executive’s ability to give feedback.
Again, feedback is critical in enhancing any individual’s chances at success. For executives, giving feedback is even more crucial, since they’re ultimately tasked with optimizing organizational performance. Coaching can help.
A few tips:
As possible, give feedback in real time.
Immediate feedback makes action and consequences more tangible. That said, it’s often unwise to call a person out during a meeting. Seek out the right place, but don’t put it off.
Prepare for conflict.
Feedback (especially critical feedback) often puts people on the defensive. Prepare for conflict. Stick to the facts. Be gracious, but be firm, too.
Get a wide range of feedback.
Obviously, it’s difficult to give real-time feedback in a way that also incorporates a wide range of perspectives. This method of giving feedback is best done to address longer-standing issues. Corroborated feedback is a powerful way of ensuring its accuracy.
It’s easy to sugarcoat things. It’s harder to be honest. But in the end, it’s kinder to tell the truth, because the truth will always out.
Give feedback as a means of improvement, not as a personal attack.
Feedback should never be a personal indictment. It should always be given from what Brené Brown calls “the same side of the table” - a perspective that makes it clear that the giver and recipient of feedback are, ultimately, on the same team to accomplish what’s best for everyone.
Implementing an Executive Agenda
Here’s another soft skill that executive coaching can benefit: implementing an executive agenda.
The most important factor in this is buy-in. Agendas don’t stand much of a chance if they’re being pushed through the crowd by an executive at the top. On the other hand, agendas will inevitably succeed if they have large-scale organizational buy-in. The key is to earn trust and invite collaboration.
Nobody knows everything. Executives who act as if they do erode trust. Executives who solicit feedback on agendas from within their organization will gain credibility.
Executive coaching can help to make that happen.
Influencing Organizational Culture
Organizational culture. It’s broad in scope, nebulous in meaning, and complicated to affect. Yet in addition to accomplishing hard metrics, executives are often tasked with influencing organizational culture.
Again, executive coaching can help.
With coaching, executives can better understand:
When to go with the flow of organizational culture
When to push back against bad culture (and how to do so)
How to get buy-in on cultural change initiatives
How to enact cultural change
Developing Executive Leadership Skills
Finally, executive coaching can help the individuals tasked with leading organizations to develop the real leadership skills they’ll need to do so.
Executive coaching helps with things like:
Leaders shouldn’t have to go it alone. They’re much better equipped for success if they have support.
How to Get Started with Executive Coaching
Hopefully, this page has helped to provide some context to executive coaching services. If you’re considering executive coaching for yourself, or if you’re seeking executive coaching for individuals within your organization, we’re here to help.
How to get started with executive coaching: get in touch with us. We’ll talk through your executive coaching needs, and work to identify whether our services may be a good fit. Nothing is more engaging to us than rich conversations about tough problems that need elegant solutions.