What Makes a Good Executive Coach?

January, 2018

In the Media

With executive coaching still a nascent field, what are the qualifications of a good coach?

Although executive coaching courses are emerging in universities, there is a wide range of expertise present in the field.

“Many turn to it as a second or third profession, so the background varies widely; to a person, almost,” said Brooke Vuckovic, adjunct lecturer of leadership coaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She also owns an executive and career coaching practice under Brooke Vuckovic and Associates.

Currently, certificate programs help to credential executive coaches, but universities are stepping in with more rigor and research-based training, Vuckovic said. Until executive coaching develops into a more verified profession, though, there certainly are qualities of great coaches.

First, executive coaches should have a fundamental understanding of how businesses and the executive level operate, Vuckovic said. Though the coaching itself won’t be covering those basics, the foundational knowledge of daily experiences facing executives is critical for coaches to know.

Coaches should also understand how adults learn and develop over time, she said.

Knowing inquiry and how to build confidence in the executive also becomes important, so the client can develop into being the best possible leader. The executive should understand who they are, their strengths, why they lead, what they need in a team and how to adjust behavior based on situations and audiences, Vuckovic said. Thus, the fundamentals of coaching are around emotional intelligence and classic areas of self-awareness and self-management, she said.

Because of their experience with leading, many executive coaches are former or current leaders, said Jeffrey Cohn, managing partner of Elevate Partners, a New York City-based leadership advisory. Many of them have made the transition because they want to give back and help a next generation of leaders. Others get restless if they’re out of a position with responsibility, so being a coach is an interesting way for them to stay in the executive world. It usually comes down to wanting to help build their own leadership pipeline or simply liking the person they’re coaching.

Just as qualifications vary, the needs of particular executives differ, so their coaching needs will as well. The biggest challenge is then in matching coaches and executives, Cohn said.

Matching Executives and Executive Coaches

Finding the right fit between executive and coach requires a vetting process built on trust.

Executives should seek coaches through multiple referrals by those of similar experience, Northwestern University’s Vuckovic said. The coaches they explore should be certified by the International Coach Federation and have a strong background in industrial psychology. This is the lowest bar for requirements, Vuckovic said.

If internal executive coaches are still in leadership positions, they should vet mentees as well, Elevate Partners’ Cohn said. Prospective coaches need to ensure that they can properly allocate their time, meaning they shouldn’t be coaching those without potential. “That’s a harsh reality and a tough thing to say, because you want to think that the process should be completely democratized, but in reality, it’s not,” he said. “It’s only efficient if the coach can focus on the people that have the most leadership potential.”

This requires the individual to prove and articulate to the coach why they deserve the time, meaning they must have some self-awareness and ability to communicate their own strengths and developmental needs, Cohn said.

With this and other arrangements where the coach has a relationship with the company, there need to be ground rules around what’s going back to the CEO and board, said Wendy Murphy, managing director of RSR Partners, an executive search firm headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut. “There has to be that trust,” she said.

Additionally, there should be a stated end date for the coaching relationship. “Good coaching is time based,” Murphy said. The goal is to find the root cause of an issue, correct and continue with work. Of course, the executive can re-engage at another time, but there’s otherwise no motivation to get the progress they need, Murphy said. Life coaches would have an ongoing relationship with their clients, but this is not the case with executive coaches.

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