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Executive CoachingMore than half of all organizations in the U.S. are using or have used executive coaching. There is also a fair amount of attention in the media on executive coaching. Yet I still run across individuals and organizations that are curious about what an executive coach does.

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There are four common misperceptions that I often hear. So let’s talk about what it isn’t first. Executive coaching isn’t:

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Just a conversation: As you will see, executive coaching is much more than a conversation. It entails the use of a process, tools, and skills on the part of the coach.

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Consulting: Generally, consulting is geared toward process improvements in the organization. Coaching is geared toward improvements in an individual or team.

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Workplace therapy: An individual who is mentally ill should see a therapist, not a coach. Coaching is for people who can take personal responsibility and are willing to take some risks and move quickly toward their goals.

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For poor performers: The resources required for executive coaching will best be applied toward your good to great performers. It just doesn’t work well for most poor performers.

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Over the years, we’ve seen an evolution in the executive coaching profession. We can now be much more precise when explaining what we do, as there is some standardization. There are two major areas of expertise that you should be looking for from any executive coach that you bring into your organization: a process and a skill set.

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The process

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The most common process that executive coaches use to work with their individual and team clients can generally be broken down into these steps:

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1.       Assess: The methodology of assessing a client is variable depending on the needs of the client, the organization and the tools the coach has. Some coaches use self-assessment tools (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or DiSC), stakeholder interviews, and/or 360’s or a combination of any of these.

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2.       Set goal(s): Based on the information gathered in the assessment phase, the coach will assist the client in setting professional/personal goals for the coaching engagement.

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3.       Develop a written coaching plan: Once the client’s goals are articulated, a written action plan, including action steps, measures, and milestones, is developed.

4.       Gain sponsor support: The coaching action plan is presented to the coaching sponsors (usually the client’s manager and often someone in HR or OD/LD) for their suggested changes, approval, and ongoing support.

5.       Implement the plan: The plan is now ready to be implemented. The coach and client will schedule regular meetings to reflect on the actions the client is taking and discuss tweaking them when necessary.

6.       Measure and reassess: Some assessment via the client’s stakeholders to ask them what they’ve observed that the client may be doing differently should be conducted at some point. The individuals being coached may also be encouraged to ask for feedback on a regular basis. Some coaches may also re-administer an electronic 360 or check in with the executive’s boss. Some organizations and coaches may conduct ROI studies.

7.       Transition to long term development: Once the client’s goals are achieved, the coach will help them to transition to long term development plans. A new development plan can be devised, which is shared with the executive’s boss and/or HR. Their pledge of support creates continued accountability once the coach is gone.

The skill set

A coaching conversation includes a framework of communication that is hidden to all but the most observant individual, making it easy to mistake it as “just a conversation”. The net result of this kind of conversation is that the coach is able to engender trust, shed light on what is important and move the client along to taking action on their goals. These are the major skills – there are others – that are used by a skilled coach:

  • Listening: A coach should be an excellent listener, which includes paying attention to what is not said: inflection, tone, body language and facial expression.
  • Inquiry: A coach will often use questions in place of statements (“ask, don’t tell”) to assist the client in gaining insight and clarity into their behavior or situation.
  • Insight: A coach will have insight into the client’s behavior or situation that the client doesn’t have themselves.
  • Non-judgmental feedback: A coach is able to give feedback in such a way that the client doesn’t feel threatened or attacked.

There you have it. The process and skill sets outlined are what an executive coach will (or should) do. What questions do you have?

Mary Jo Asmus is the president of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC,  an executive coaching firm that develops coaching programs and coaches executives in mid-sized to Fortune 500 organizations. She also maintains a popular blog on leadership at her website

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