What is Executive Coaching?

Executive coaching is used by many executives as well as new managers to grow their emotional intelligence, understand their strengths/weaknesses, and to become a well-rounded leader. Executive coaches use a variety of approaches to help clients, but core to this is teaching self-awareness and holding clients accountable.

The goal of this article is to answer many of the biggest questions I get about how executive coaching works. This is meant as an overview--I have more in-depth articles on each of these topics if you want to go deeper.

Why executive coaching?

Ever felt stuck in your career? Ever wondered if you are in the right profession? Are there conversations you wish you could have with your co-workers but are afraid to have? Does it ever feel like you are not ready for the next-level? Are there behaviors or emotions that hold you back in your personal or professional life over and again? These are the types of questions that executive coaching aims to answer.

In the past 10 years executive coaching has been on the rise. There are a number of reasons for this (modern companies are investing less in training, parts of our jobs are becoming automated and the “human” part are becoming more important, etc); however, one of the biggest reasons for this rise is a growing understanding that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is essential for leadership success.

Daniel Goleman, a researcher at Harvard, in his book Emotional Intelligence, shares a study he completed of Fortune 500 executives which highlights an important truth: IQ is a threshold skill for leadership (a baseline necessity) and EQ is more correlated with long-term success.

People with strong EQ are better able to navigate office politics, hire and retain talent, build team culture, and overcome crisis. Traditionally, EQ was not taught in school or in the workplace and this is where coaches come in.

Can emotional intelligence be learned?

Studies show that yes, EQ can be learned and improved. These studies have been conducted at the childhood level, at the young-adult level (where one study found that emotional training was able to reduce behavioral issues at target schools vs control schools by over 30%), and at the adult/professional level.

While every coaching relationship is different, a universal goal should be to help you grow your emotional intelligence.

What are some other benefits of executive coaching?

  1. Becoming aware of your patterns/behaviors and breaking outdated stories you have about yourself.

  2. Help holding you accountable on your goals.

  3. Help with transitioning into a new role or job.

  4. Mediation between teammates during periods of conflict.

  5. Conducting 360-reviews to improve your self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses.

  6. Help articulating your values and help keeping you focused on the right priorities (personally and professionally)

What’s the difference between a Coach vs a Therapist vs a Consultant?

It’s important to note that there is a huge variety of coaches, therapists and consultants. There are coaches who have psychology degrees and therapists who are certified coaches.

The most common difference between coaches and therapists is that therapists focus on the past (how have your development, family, and past experiences influenced your psychology) and coaching focuses on the now (what actions can you take to build new habits and achieve).

This chart is another way to understand these differences:

Coaching vs Therapy vs Consulting

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To summarize:

  • Therapists are trained to help diagnose your psychology and how this impacts your behavior, mood and decisions.

  • Coaches are trained to help you reflect on your values, what actions you need to take to reach goals, and then hold you accountable.

  • Consultants are paid to give you advice.

Each of these individuals can be right for your current needs. Therapists are ideal to work with you are suffering from mental health challenges. Coaches are excellent if you are looking to grow in your professional goals. Consultants are right if you are looking to solve business problems in an area you know less about or don’t have time to focus on.

How Do I Choose an Executive Coach?

First and foremost, you need to pick a coach you respect and who you trust. A coach will become a major partner in your life and we all need someone different in this role. Trust your intuition when interviewing coaches.

Things to consider:

  • Her/His Background. Some coaches were previously CEOs, startup founders, CTOs or something else. It’s often helpful to work with someone who understands your line of work.

  • Her/His Coaching Philosophy. There are coaches who specialize in neurology, the enneagram, accountability, motivation, spirituality, and more.

  • Is she/he certified? Twenty years ago very few coaches were certified. Today, most are. Each coaching school has its own specialty and area of focus.

  • Get a referral. A referral can be incredibly helpful in finding a coach you trust.

  • Shop around. When picking a coach it's important to talk to different coaches and see who you have a good relationship with. Also, you should consider the first couple of months of your coaching arrangement a trial period, before committing to a longer partnership.

Questions to ask a coach you are interviewing:

  • What outcomes can I expect from us working together?

  • Are you certified? Where did you receive your training?

  • What is your coaching philosophy?

  • What types of clients do you typically work with?

  • Where did you work before becoming a coach?

  • What are success stories from some other clients you work with?

  • How long have you been coaching for?

What are some common outcomes of coaching?

When beginning to work with an executive coach, within the first few sessions they should work with you to define an overarching topic or goal for your time together. After 2-3 months you should both check-in to talk about what progress is being made on that topic.

Some typical outcomes include:

  • Greater clarity on your values.

  • Ability to use your values to make decisions. Less indecision overall.

  • Knowledge of your professional (and personal) strengths and weaknesses.

  • Greater emotional self-awareness, self-control, and empathy.

  • Growth towards your professional goals.

  • Trust. In your relationship with this person and that they are a force for good in your life.

Lastly, transformation is a goal for all coaching relationships. This happens when in working with a highly skilled coach and you identify an old behavior or pattern that has been blocking you from advancing in your career or life. Identifying this pattern is step 1, but working together, and taking actions to uproot this patten is the hard and more time-consuming part of the process.

Transformation can happen quickly or it can take years. I like to give the analogy to cracking open a walnut. If a walnut is not ripe or ready then its almost impossible to open. But once it is ripe, all it takes is a small, skilled tap, to open it up.

Some people come into coaching ripe for change, for others, the goal of coaching is to begin that ripening process.

How to prepare for executive coaching?

The only key to preparing for coaching is to come with an open mind. Most people won’t seek out a coach if there isn’t something in your life that want to change. That said, the change itself can be incredibly challenging to face. A good coach will use the right amount of support and prodding (at the right moments) to help you navigate this process. Think of it like going down a series of rapids in a raft. Looking down the river and into the rapids is scary, but if you trust your partners and commit to the challenge, you can make through safely, and come out changed on the other side.

The Burnout Epidemic

It was the fall of 2015 and 6 years since my co-founder and I launched Looksharp. Since that day we had been on a near constant sprint to build our business. We had been through an accelerator program, hired 20+ employees, been through multiple rounds of funding, and scaled our student audience to millions of students. On my end, I had learned search engine optimization, PR, email marketing, SQL, HTML, management, design and numerous other skills, almost entirely from scratch.

It was an amazing ride, until it wasn’t.

November 16, 2015, was the day I realized I wasn’t just burnout, I was toast. We had been working nights, weekends and holidays for almost six years. In fact, I remember one Memorial Weekend where we sent an email to our leadership team telling them to make sure to take Sunday off--the assumption being we'd all be working on Saturday and Monday, the holiday.

As stress took over, I decided to book a trip to Vancouver to run a half marathon and find clarity.

When I arrived at the airport, I realized I didn’t have my passport with me and I broke down. After briefly regaining myself, I moved my flight back a few hours, drove home, got my passport, returned to the airport, made it to Vancouver, and completed the run; but I was done. The next week, we decided to hire a new marketing executive, reduce my responsibilities and I took some time to recover.

I had been burnt out for about a year and during that time I had to work twice as hard to eek out half as much work, like trying to pull milkshake through a narrow straw.

Not Alone

Burnout in America has reached epidemic proportions. A recent study by Kronos found that 50% of all employee attrition is due to burnout.

A separate research report found that 27% of Americans work in the hours between 10 pm and 5 am, more than any other country in the world.

There are many issues causing burnout, but technology is certainly one of them. In San Francisco, it's hard to go anywhere on the weekend where your phone doesn't beep with new Slack notifications. 

The bigger question though, is what to do when you get burnt out? The problem is that once you are truly burnt out, it’s too late. Productivity declines and without a serious reboot (usually 2-3 weeks+) it won’t come back.

The issue is fulfillment:

The reason we burnout isn’t because we are working too hard (although that can certainly contribute). It’s because we are working towards the wrong goal.

For me in 2015, I burnt out because I was no longer in love with the work I was doing. Two major changes had happened to my job, which I didn’t realize until after the fact:

First, we had switched focus from marketing to students, a mission I felt passionate about, to selling to employers, a challenge that's important, but which I felt less connected to.

Second, my job changed from being entrepreneurial and growing new marketing channels, to being operational and trying to squeeze additional ROI out of existing channels.

Since then, I found out that what I truly care about is growing people, something I got to do from time-to-time at Looksharp, but it was not my primary focus.

Finding Your Personal Mission:

Finding your personal mission is not easy, but it’s worth the effort. There are many people who spend their whole life without figuring out what truly motivates them and it leads to a lot of unhappiness.

There is no magic flip to switch to find your purpose, but if you were an archaeologist, the first place to start digging is by defining your values. Values are unique to every person and act as guideposts during any big life decision.

If you’ve never completed a values exercise I highly recommend it. Feel free to email me and I can share a number of resources that you can use to begin this process and begin fighting the slow pull towards burning out.