Executive Coaching Services: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding Executive Coaching

What is Executive Coaching?

If you don’t know exactly what Executive Coaching is, or why it’s used to develop leaders, you’re not alone. More than 25 years after its emergence as a way to accelerate talent development, Executive Coaching remains widely misunderstood and sadly misused.

In its simplest terms, Executive Coaching is a designed developmental partnership between an objective professional and an individual seeking to grow, learn, and align with their own—and their organization’s—goals for their future.

To the casual observer, Executive Coaching often appears to be a simple conversation—but when the coach is trained in specific leadership development skills, there’s nothing simple about it. Coaches listen, interpret, notice patterns, challenge assumptions, and incite behavior change through specific and precise questioning, confirming understanding, and offering alternate perspectives.

Importance of Executive Coaching

Not all leaders are created equal, so not every leader’s development needs will be met by a broadscale curriculum. Certainly, standardized courses can fill many knowledge and skill gaps. But when a leader needs to develop more amorphous competencies and establish their individual identity as someone who can hold a vision and garner support from others, the process needs to be tailored to that person in that particular context. Executive Coaching provides that unique support, meeting the leader where they are and creating a unique pathway to and equipping them to take on greater responsibilities.

Difference Between Executive Coaching and Mentoring

You’re probably thinking that Executive Coaching sounds a lot like mentoring. Mentoring is similarly valuable to, yet quite different from, Executive Coaching—in fact, in a perfect world every rising executive has access to both. The difference, though, is that a mentor is someone who has already walked the path the new leader is just beginning. They have climbed the ladder, made the mistakes, come to understand their business, and can offer insight about how to avoid pitfalls and leverage opportunities. The mentor has “been there”, and by sharing their experiences,can save their mentee much time and potential trouble.

A coach, in contrast, is actually most useful when they are objective–meaning they are best able to “see” the client when not encumbered by their own similar experiences. Coaching is about developing people, not downloading skills and knowledge, and as a result the coach does not need to have held the same job or even worked in the same function or industry as the client. We believe a coach is in the best position possible when they don’t have any of that same background.

The mentor’s role is to help the leader in question follow a smoother path based on knowledge and anticipation of company and/or industry-specific challenges. The coach’s job is to help the leader see themselves as clearly as possible, harness the wisdom they already possess, and use their judgment and instincts to move into the future with confidence.

Key Players in Executive Coaching

Role of an Executive Leadership Coach

An Executive Coach will be friendly, but not your friend. They will challenge you, and be your strongest supporter. They will give you direct developmental feedback and celebrate your accomplishments. They will offer you distinctions, nuances, perspectives, tools, frameworks, resources and suggestions—but not advice. An Executive Coach’s job is to provide a safe environment within which you can test ideas and hypotheses, be vulnerable, not “know,” be profoundly seen and heard, and access the self-awareness and confidence needed to achieve your goals.

Characteristics of a Successful Executive Coach

The only way an Executive Coach is successful is when their clients are successful. Ask any experienced Executive Coach about their success, and they will share client achievements and shifts long before mentioning how much money they earn or how many social media followers they have. That said, because most Executive Coaches are independent practitioners, they not only have to be skilled coaches, they must also know how to market themselves and manage a business. So the real litmus test of a coach’s success has two dimensions—case studies and testimonials from happy clients, and the business acumen to sustain a long-term thriving practice.

A great coach builds their business predominantly through referrals and word of mouth. Yes, networking and marketing through social media,, keynote speaking, and publishing books and articles can build awareness and lead to coaching engagements, but the real test is whether those engagements get renewed, whether that client tells their colleagues about their great experience, and whether the sponsoring organization sees enough change that they ask the coach to do further work for them.

If the coach is supporting themselves through coaching and coachingalone (rather than offering a litany of other services) there’s a pretty good chance they’re “successful.” If a coach defines themselves solely as one kind of coach (e.g. “executive coach,” or “leadership coach”) there’s a pretty good chance they’re successful. And if the coach primarily operates from within their own practice rather than having a long list of associate relationships, there’s a pretty good chance they’re successful.

Executive Coaching Companies and Firms

While most Executive Coaches operate as independent practitioners, many also have associate relationships with firms like ours. Our associates are not salaried staff—they are carefully chosen and fully vetted professionals who meet our strict specifications and who accept our client engagements when they have capacity and interest. Our business model is transparent—our coaches receive a large percentage of the client’s fee. The benefit of working through a firm like ours that offers a stable roster of associates is that those associates have been thoroughly vetted by the firm’s principal and continue to be part of the roster based on continuous positive client feedback.

Working with and through a coaching firm can have great advantages—and some drawbacks. Many coaching firms are run like large consulting firms, and as such measure their businesses based on hours billed to the client. In our view that overlooks the most important aspect of executive coaching—the client’s success. But consulting companies have infrastructure and overheads and a need to measure their work, so hourly continues to be their primary approach. We consider that hourly model to be a significant drawback to working with the “big” firms. Yes, large firms usually have the capacity to take on big projects, and often we are unable to match their ability to deploy coaching at scale, so if you represent an organization that wants to implement a wide ranging coaching program all at once, the big firms are likely your best resource.

Finding a qualified, experienced, skilled executive coach is extremely difficult. There are no barriers to entry into the field, and there are legions of people attempting to solicit business as coaches with no training or meaningful qualifications. Building a relationship with a reputable firm who maintains training, experience and background standards for their coaches can save massive amounts of time and remove the costly and frustrating “trial and error” process suffered by too many.

Benefits of Executive Coaching

To quote author and friend of our firm, Charlie Gilkey, “You can’t read the label from inside the jar.” None of us is able to see our own true selves as objectively as someone sees us from a distance. An executive coach not only sees their clients objectively, but has the skills to promote clarity of thought, self-awareness and confidence, and then prompt behavior changes that make the client better able to lead people and achieve goals (ideally while also enjoying health, mental fitness and overall improved happiness). Having a coach is often likened to the experience of working with a personal trainer, but this is over simplistic, because a great coach can unlock potential and possibilities in every realm of a client’s life. As one client offered in a testimonial, “My staff and family thank you.” Even better, from another client; “I even think it’s helped my golf game.”

Executive Coaching Benefits for Individuals and Organizations

While change is best started and sponsored from the top, we don’t always get to start there—and that’s okay.

The Gallup organization’s research shows that 72% of people who change jobs aren’t leaving because of the work or even necessarily the organization, but because of their direct manager. If our work can help a manager be a better people leader, that makes the ripple effect of executive coaching even more meaningful to us.

The more we can access the most senior decision makers and support their development as people leaders, the broader the impact of our work. When we can demonstrate the impact of “coaching culture” and the use of coaching skills by people managers (not to mention the enhanced self-awareness that arises from ongoing work with a coach) we know that the employee experience of work is transformed.

Finding the Right Executive Coach

Factors to Consider When Selecting an Executive Coach

There’s magic in a great coach/client fit, so the choice is not something to be taken lightly. Nor is it a decision that ought to be made by anyone other than the direct client. That said, an HR partner or Talent Development leader can provide great support in crafting a list of potential coaches based on some specific attributes and qualifications.

In our view, there are some basic minimum criteria that we consider non-negotiable. First, the coach must have invested in and completed coach-specific education. Next, ) we believe that a business education is incredibly valuable, particularly for coaches working at the most senior levels of leadership. Third, having had a corporate career to the executive level themself is helpful for understanding the realities and complexities of an executive’s life. Finally, an ongoing commitment to, and appetite for, learning and their own development ensures the coach will stay abreast of developments in the field as well as doing their own personal growth work.

In addition, the coach should be able to describe case histories and stories (with results) of their work with other clients. Having previous clients who will act as references can be helpful as well.

Executive Coaching Services: What to Look For

Beyond the individual qualifications of the coach, it is critical that there be a distinct process for initiating and conducting the engagement that ensures the coach gains an understanding of the client’s growth history and their career aspirations. In addition, because executive coaching is focused on supporting a leader’s success within the sponsoring organization, it’s also critical that the coach’s process include steps designed to understand the company culture and business issues. Most importantly, there must be an agreed process for how the success of the coaching will be evaluated—beyond the number of hours spent.

How to Choose the Best Executive Coaching Firm

Whether you choose to work with an independent practitioner or with a firm depends to some extent on whether you envision offering coaching to more than one leader in your organization. For a one-off engagement an independent coach—providing they have the appropriate skills, qualifications and process—can be sufficient. When an organization intends to support multiple leaders, it makes more sense to work with a firm, which means one point of contact and one vendor contract.

As for deciding which firm will best suit your needs, like any relationship, the ideal fit will be based on a combination of concrete characteristics and less visible but no less important “chemistry” aspects. If you’re planning to establish a long term partnership with a firm, you’ll want to meet the key contacts and ensure they are people with whom you’ll want to work closely over time.

Executive Coaching Process

Steps Involved in Executive Coaching

Conduct a Google search for “executive coaching model” or “executive coaching process” and you’ll find thousands of pretty graphics and lengthy process documents. At the end of the day, however, every effective process will include all of the following:

  • Coach matching and selection.
  • Identification of and meeting with an executive sponsor for the coaching engagement, with agreement on areas of focus and desired outcomes for the work.
  • Feedback regarding the client’s strengths and areas for development.
  • A predictable, agreed cadence of coaching sessions.
  • Agreed checkpoints with the sponsor.
  • A concluding meeting with the client summarizing their learnings, the changes they’ve made, their commitments going forward and any requests for additional ongoing support.

Customized Executive Coaching Programs

Every executive coaching program should be tailored to the needs and goals of the client. Humans are unique, and it’s unreasonable to expect that one approach will achieve optimal results with a variety of different individuals.

A consistent engagement structure and philosophical approach is important, but the specifics of session flow and content must be unique to each client. As a result we don’t use the term “program” to refer to our client engagements because this implies that there is something standardized about our work with leaders. Nothing could be further from the truth, except for our commitment to delivering the results as agreed with the client and their sponsoring organization.

Onboarding Executives: Importance and Process

One of the most common and useful applications of Executive Coaching is what’s often referred to as “onboarding”—the support given to an executive in a new role. In fact, we’ve been approached by executive recruiters who want to add coaching to their senior level placement agreements as a sort of a warranty, increasing the chances of success and retention over the critical first 12 to 18 months.

Onboarding coaching is helpful for numerous reasons. When new to a role, the leader is new to a leadership team, new as a direct report to a new boss, and new as the driver of a function’s strategy and results. Until they find their footing and build relationships and credibility, this position can feel pretty lonely. Having an executive coach provides the new leader with a safe, objective space within which to test ideas, evaluate observations, prioritize efforts and calibrate their experiences against their expectations and desires.

Our process for executive coaching as onboarding support is largely the same as it is for developmental coaching with leaders in place,with one key distinction. Our investigation of the culture and business issues is oriented around what the expectations are for the role and the leader stepping into it. Obviously when a leader is new, their peers are not immediately able to assess their success, so we focus on their expectations for the leader’s success 6 to 12 months after they start their new role.

Often when we are approached to provide onboarding support, we are asked to support the first 90 days, based on the organization’s belief that this is the most critical and challenging time for the executive new in the role. However, we believe—and see regularly—that the real challenges only start to reveal themselves once the honeymoon phase has faded a little. On that basis, we offer onboarding for at least the first 6 months, and ideally for the first 12.

Costs Associated with Executive Coaching

Factors Affecting Executive Coaching Costs

Like anything, time, training and experience usually creates great results. Investing in a coach to support a senior leader should not be an exercise in price comparison. The longer a coach has been practicing usually means the more training and education they’ve done, and the more client success stories they have to share. If you are seeking a coach to work with a senior leader, consider the cost of that leader failing, and the business upside if that leader is extraordinarily successful. You’ll quickly see that the relatively modest investment of a few thousand dollars in coaching pales in comparison to the cost/benefit attached to that executive thriving and contributing at their highest possible level.

Understanding the Investment in Executive Coaching

Fees for executive coaching are best evaluated in terms of the benefit to the business of a leader being a better developer of talent, a better communicator, and a more self-aware, collaborative colleague. We have proven examples of leaders delivering millions of dollars to their organization as a result of their improved focus, self-awareness, and ability to collaborate and communicate clearly and effectively.

Executive coaching fees vary enormously, so it’s impossible to specify what’s appropriate or not. That said, an experienced and successful coach can give examples of the business value resulting from a coaching investment. And remember, when you hire a good coach, you’re not paying them for an hour of their time, you’re paying for their years of experience and training and their thousands of hours working with leaders who are more successful because of their guidance.

Determining the ROI of Executive Coaching

One of the most controversial topics in the world of coaching is measuring the Return on Investment (ROI). Measuring ROI in coaching is imprecise and subjective—as is measuring the success of a leader.

Certainly a leader can only be deemed successful if they consistently deliver their business objectives. But we all can cite examples of leaders who create sustainable, positive work environments and cultures where their people can thrive—and those who don’t. We like to distinguish between the “what” and the “how” of leadership. The “what” consists of the measurable business deliverables, which are the leader’s primary responsibility. The “how” refers to the style, values, behaviors, and competencies that make up the leader’s unique approach.

Online Executive Coaching

Rise of Online Executive Coaching Platforms

As with almost every other field, technology is changing the world of coaching. There are now several online coaching platforms available, some of which are attempting to target executive coaching as their focus.

It’s critical to distinguish between an “online coach” and an “online coaching platform.” Most coaches do some or all of their work via phone and video call, and while technically that means they work “online”, it’s a misrepresentation of their work to label them “online coaches.”

That said, many coaching companies do offer what is truly “online coaching”—which usually takes the form of text message exchanges with a bit of a time lag. Some companies use video modules that create a learning pathway (which makes these training programs, not coaching programs). These programs can be useful for low level feedback and accountability around course completion, but they have strict limits pertaining to personalization and individual development support.

In contrast, online coaching platforms (where sessions can be tracked, between-session activities and commitments can be monitored, journal entries recorded, and chat messages can be exchanged) can be incredibly useful. These platforms are support for coaching, not a replacement for direct real-time work with a coach.

Choosing the Right Online Executive Coach

We do not support AI-based or otherwise automated coaching support for executive level leaders. Executive’s roles are too complex, and the decisions they must make are too nuanced, to risk accepting guidance from an accumulation of available online information.

As for the online platforms used by firms deploying coaching at scale, they’re tremendously helpful for managing a high volume of engagements and tracking client engagement. But they’re not “online coaches.” Even when deploying a large number of coaching engagements, it’s still most desirable to have human coaches interacting with human clients. While programmed content can aid newer, less experienced managers, the more senior the client, the more important it is that the coach and client have real time human interaction.

Certification and Accreditation for Executive Coaches

Importance of Certification for Executive Coaches

We distinguish between “certification” and “accreditation.” In our view, the successful completion of a comprehensive coach training program—certification—is critical. Getting a stamp of approval from a third party body? Less so.

A comprehensive coach training program, one that requires a minimum 120 hours of training, is—as described by one program’s founder—“long, difficult and extremely expensive.” In other words, it’s a big commitment of time, money and output, and its completion is a testament to the coach’s determination to pursue and be successful in their field.

With no barriers to entry, it’s all too common to find “wannabe” coaches justifying their lack of training by claiming “I’ve always been great with people” or “I give great advice” or similar. These statements—and the many others we’ve heard—are evidence that this individual doesn’t really understand the big difference between being a true coach and just being a good friend, or supportive colleague, or even a good boss.

It’s possible, even valuable, for most people in most fields to understand and be able to use basic coaching skills. We call that “a coach approach”. If you reflect on your best bosses, or even your hairstylist or a bartender, you may notice that they ask great questions and listen attentively. But having these basic skills does not qualify an individual to seek meaningful compensation from a client on the basis of supporting their growth and development in an accelerated way like a real coach is able to do.

Recognized Accreditation Bodies for Executive Coaching

While there are several organizations who offer accreditation, there is no one “right” badge or piece of paper. Longest standing are the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC). Both provide thorough processes for reviewing a coach’s education and coaching skills. But, at least in our view, neither of these institutions do it better than what’s required by a good coach training program to complete and graduate. And the good coach training programs are, for the most part, those who have submitted their programs for review by those professional associations and have proven they include sufficient training, supervision hours, and a comprehensive enough curriculum to provide an effective baseline coaching training..

Therefore, while being blessed by one of the accrediting bodies can provide feedback on a coach’s skills, if they’ve completed an accredited 120+ hour training program that includes a practicum and supervision, this is the real proof that they deserve the external validation.


If your organization has offered you the opportunity to work with an Executive Coach, first check to see that you and your manager (or whomever will be the sponsor for your development) agree on the areas of focus and desired outcomes of the coaching. Do sufficient research to find two or three coaches who, 1) are trained in coaching-specific skills, 2) have had business experience to the executive level, 3) have had business education, and 4) have a methodology that supports the unique challenge of coaching in a sponsored engagement. Interview at least a couple of coaches because finding one you trust and align with is critical.

Even easier, reach out to us to talk about what you are hoping to accomplish by working with an Executive Coach. We’ve done the work to ensure that every member of our team is qualified, extraordinarily skilled, and has a lengthy track record of success. If we’re your first call, we promise you won’t need to make another.