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13 January 2020


An introduction to this professional discipline

As I consider my developing coaching practice and the conversations I have had with people about executive coaching, I recognise that there are gaps between understanding what executive coaching entails, how it works and where it differs from other forms of professional support.

To help develop a better understanding of coaching and how it may be of use, I plan to break down the discipline over the coming months into the key elements that are required to build a strong coaching relationship and to share this insight in the form of regular blog posts. In doing so, I am hoping that more people can visualise what coaching involves and how it may be of use to them.

So, what is Executive Coaching?

Executive coaching is concerned with supporting an individual (the client) to achieve their potential in the work environment. Its focus is on helping the individual to develop a greater awareness of what it is they want to achieve, what might be holding such individuals back and what they need to do release their potential. The coach, in this relationship, will use questioning techniques, as well as actively listening, to support the client on this exploration.

Unlike mentoring, training and consultancy support, coaching is not at its heart an advice-giving service. Rather it is about supporting the client to identify the best way forward, through a better understanding of client objectives and how best to achieve them.

What is the difference between executive coaching and life coaching?

There are a couple of key differences between the two that should be noted. The first is that executive coaching is primarily focused on a client’s professional objectives, whereas life coaching centres on a client’s personal goals and objectives. There is often an element of life coaching in many executive coaching sessions, as what happens at work impacts what happens outside of work (and vice versa), most obviously when working on a work/life balance objective with a client, for example.

The second key difference is that executive coaching is typically paid for by the organisation that the client works for, whereas life coaching is usually paid for by the client. This creates an additional dynamic in executive coaching, in that there is often a three-way relationship involved; a coach, a client and a sponsor. The sponsor might be the client’s line manager or someone else from within the client’s organisation who has an interest in the client’s development. 

To recognise the sponsor’s role in such coaching, they can be included in confirming the objectives of the agreed coaching and in reviewing the success of this coaching to ensure that goals are achieved.

My coaching approach typically involves:

A free, introductory client meeting, often called the ‘chemistry session’.

This allows for the client and myself (the coach) to get to know each other, for me to explain how coaching could work and for the client to discuss objectives. After this meeting, the client can decide on whether to proceed and we can also discuss other practicalities, such as the preferred frequency of sessions and where to meet.

The option of a three-way meeting.

If the executive coaching is funded by an employer, a meeting will be held with the client and sponsor to confirm the shared objectives. At this meeting, the parties can agree on the number of sessions required to work on the stated objectives.

The coaching sessions begin.

Coaching is about creating trust and confidence so I can help the client to develop better awareness and an understanding of what can be achieved. The number of sessions required will vary (6 to 8 is typical), while the coaching sessions themselves will typically be face-to-face (though they can also be conducted via videoconference). All coaching sessions are confidential between client and coach, even when supported and paid for by an employer.

Midpoint and post-coaching evaluation.

We review the outcomes and effectiveness of the coaching received against the initially agreed objectives. This can also include the sponsor. Any feedback would be from the client to the sponsor to maintain confidentiality between client and coach.

What happens in a typical coaching session?

A typical coaching session starts with an update from the client concerning progress against any areas the client has chosen to work on since the previous session and the benefit of that work.

The client will indicate his or her focus re the objective of the new session.

The coach will then support the client to explore the objective in terms of what it entails and what the client wants to achieve with it. This is delivered via the coach actively listening to the client and using questioning techniques to support the client to better understand the objective and the reality of achieving the stated objective. The coach may also use some creative techniques to assist the client to see the situation from a different perspective and, in doing so, to develop a fuller understanding of the challenge.

At the end of the session, the client will summarise what is seen as the key take away points from the session and anything the client can work on before the next session.

More and more people are turning to coaching at work to help them address a host of objectives.

These objectives can include:

1) Developing their leadership style

2) How to be more strategic

3) Managing difficult relationships

4) Performing in a new role

5) Preparing for promotion

6) Building resilience

7) Managing work/life balance

It is becoming more common for coaching to begin earlier in someone’s career. So, instead of being reserved for senior leaders or middle management, clients' are now using coaching much earlier in their career to help them shape their thinking about how they can best deliver their objectives and how they want their career to develop.

A coaching relationship can create a safe, confidential space, where such individuals can (and should!) feel at ease discussing topics of importance to them whilst also establishing what can be planned to address such topics. As such, it can add measurable value as well as ongoing support.

David Alcock

From the author:

As coaching is not an advice-giving service, these blogs are not written with the intention of proposing solutions to common leadership challenges. Instead, they are thought pieces with the aim of prompting the reader to think more deeply about the topic and reflect on whether it warrants further exploration, with or without a coach.

If you would like to hear more about coaching and how to make it work for you, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter and to share this blog with anyone that might be interested in learning about executive coaching, how it works and whether it could be of benefit to them.