With potential new coaching clients, one of the most important conversations we have is my explaining what coaching is, and distinguishing what it is not.  I have found that there is not one simple, easily-Googled definition of what executive coaching entails.  But after having this discussion numerous times, here’s a summary of what you can expect from executive coaching.

Executive coaching is one form of personalized leadership development.  Coaching supports the creation of sustainable “leadership habits” through enhanced self-awareness and by fostering inherent talents and strengths.  While coaching is one-on-one (or with teams), it can have a wider impact.  When leaders improve their effectiveness through coaching, this in turn can enhance team performance, change organizational culture, and affect business results.

Coaching is different than training or learning a specific skill.  I make a distinction between What You Do vs. How You Show Up.  John Kotter, Professor Emeritus of Leadership at the Harvard Business School, notes the difference between “management” and “leadership.”  Management is more about the task – bringing order to complexity and managing progress via plans, processes, and budgets.  Leadership is about determining a new direction, developing strategies to realize the vision, and motivating and inspiring employees to follow you.  It requires more emphasis on relationships.  It also necessitates getting out of day-to-day operations and focusing instead on the big picture and the future.  Accordingly, the focus of coaching is behavior shifts.

So how does coaching achieve this?  The first step is getting clear on the destination.  This means taking something that might be conceptual, like “develop executive presence” and describing what that is exactly.  How will you know that you have been effective in developing executive presence?  What behaviors and capabilities will you exhibit, in what situations, and with what people?  Is it leading critical decision-making discussions?  Or presenting with confidence and authority – and what does that look like?

With the future state defined, the next step is having purposeful coaching conversations.  An inherent aspect of coaching is that the client/coachee’s perspective is central in coaching.  Instead of me telling my coaching clients what to do, much of my role is to:  ask questions to evoke my client’s viewpoint, wisdom, and solutions; offer my observations, in service of my client’s awareness and learning; and help them design meaningful actions that move them toward their goals.  Our conversations include accountability for such actions, celebrating accomplishments, and working though challenges.  Coaching creates a trusted space to explore all of these things.

Coaching is a partnership between coachee and coach.  So each person in the coaching engagement has certain responsibilities.  I tell my clients that their responsibilities include things like:

  • Choosing the content and focus of coaching
  • Determining desired outcomes for the coaching
  • Setting priorities and agendas for coaching meetings
  • Learning and actions outside of coaching meetings

My responsibilities in turn include:

  • Providing the structure and process for coaching
  • Offering tools and templates to support the client in, for example, creating goals and setting agendas
  • Suggesting resources and exercises that aid client learning
  • Being a “thinking partner” for my clients as they create new awareness and new actions

Coaching is one of many ways to engage in leadership development.  It provides a framework for achieving outcomes, tailored to your individual needs, and a supportive relationship.  By understanding what coaching is and what it entails, you can determine if coaching is the best way for you to achieve your own leadership goals.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.


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