What’s the difference between an executive coach and a therapist?


In the category of “what’s frequently misunderstood about coaching?” is this one.

It most often arises when we’re presented with a client who hasn’t bought into the idea of working with an executive coach, or worse has been given the impression that there’s something they need to “fix” about themselves in order to be successful.

There are definitely conditions that need to be true in order for coaching to be the right choice to support a leader. Consider the difference between “willing” and “able.” An individual who has received feedback but doesn’t agree or take ownership of what changes they need to make – that’s someone who’s unwilling, and as such is not a good candidate for coaching – at least not yet. An individual who says they are willing but who can’t take action or absorb risk or make decisions might not be “able” – might not be strong and healthy enough to take on the challenging work of behaviour change. Ideal coaching conditions require both “willing” and “able” to be true.

We might be able to work with “willing.”

“Able” is most often outside the purview of a coach.

Note: I’m not a therapist, so I don’t pretend to be an expert on what the view is from the other side, but I have always been an ardent advocate for coaches honouring the very distinct lines between coaching and therapy. For me, a client who really struggles, who really seems stuck, who circles issues without being able to make decisions or take action – that’s an individual I’ll ask to consider speaking to a therapist. Or, as the Co-Active Training Institute says, as a coach we believe our clients are “creative, resourceful and whole” and if a coach isn’t sure whether their prospective client is all of those things this might not be a coaching situation.

In corporate, leadership and executive coaching, we are often confronted with a situation where feedback hasn’t been clearly or directly delivered, so the individual isn’t sure why they are being subjected to the indignity of outside assistance. Hence the “willing” problem.

Whether it’s the individual themselves, or the HR leader or gatekeeper for the use of coaching, I offer the following two questions to ascertain whether coaching is the right path to travel:

  1. Does the individual understand and agree that there is a gap between where they are now and where they need to be?
  2. Does the individual accept that it’s up to them to take actions to close the gap?

Note that the language in the first question is very important. I personally don’t believe in “good/bad” or “right/wrong” assessments of behaviour. What I do believe is that we all have gaps, and in some cases those gaps are creating an impediment to success or forward movement. “Gap” is an assessment, not a judgment, so it’s emotionally neutral. Envision having a conversation with someone about their ability to be successful and telling them their behaviour is “bad” or “weak” or “problematic.” Now envision discussing a gap. Where’s your finger pointing in each case? Judgments are about the person, assessments are about the behaviour. Subtle but massive difference.

In the second question what we are looking for is a sense of whether they take ownership for the impact of their current choices and are they willing to make new choices. Better – do they understand that all behaviours are choices?

Many – many – years ago I was asked to be part of a group of coaches working with an executive team, all of whom were going to “get” coaches. What that meant, I was soon to discover, was that each executive had been TOLD that they would be working with a coach, with varying degrees of clarity as to why or what they were expected to accomplish. Not surprisingly, some were a bit resistant.

One of the executives with whom I was matched was adamant that he didn’t need a coach, didn’t want a coach, and thought the whole thing was a waste of time – not “willing.” I managed to persuade him to suspend disbelief for an agreed period of time, and so we got to work.

Several sessions in, the skeptic showed up to a session bursting with excitement.

“I’ve got it, I’ve got it! I figured it out!”

“What?” I asked.

“The difference. The difference between coaching and therapy.”

I hadn’t realized that that was the root of his issue with being “forced” to work with a coach. He thought he’d been labelled someone who needed “fixing” and that he was being set up with a therapist masquerading as something more palatable. It all started to get clearer.

“Great, what’s the insight?”

“A therapist is a ‘shrink.’ An executive coach is a ‘stretch.'”

Having had a few sessions, I presume it had become clear that I wasn’t trying to fix him, and that in fact I was challenging him to be his best and bring all of his strengths to his role. I was, yes, asking him to “stretch.”

That statement was a gift that’s kept on giving – it’s been the sound bite I’ve used in response to the “what’s the difference” question ever since I heard it. It helps the client understand, it lightens the mood, and it sets the tone for the work ahead.

Working one on one in confidential conversations based on trust is a privilege not to be taken lightly. Executive coaches are powerful partners in development, but unless they are ALSO trained therapists the boundaries of coaching must be understood and adhered to, in the best interest of the health and well-being of the client.