Everyone has their own unique path to becoming an executive coach.
I personally came to executive coaching only after completing graduate psychology and business degrees, and after then spending more than another decade actively performing a wide variety of organizational development (OD) and leadership development (LD) work.
I do know that other coaches have had quite different paths, however. I have also been asked by people in their 20’s about becoming an executive coach, as well as by therapist friends and career-switchers. This has led me to wonder whether or not one could serve as an effective as an executive coach without certain characteristics, including at least a decade of in-the-trenches, organizational experience.
I am typically loathe to deny anyone their desire to try to do anything new, or well, at any age. However, I do wonder if this is always realistic. As a very thoughtful, long-experienced coach and coach supervisor remarked to me, “One just can’t skip developmental stages, can one?” She was referring to people maturing as an executive coach.
By this comment, she was suggesting that there are developmental stages for a coach, accompanied by specific knowledge, which one requires time and active experience to acquire. This makes intuitive sense: A talented tennis player at 13 years old is not at the same level of skill and performance that they are, say, five (5) or more years later, after many additional hours of practice, experience, and coaching.
However, that said, maturity in and of itself is likely not necessarily dependent on age. In a discussion on evaluating coach proficiency, and matching coaches to clients, another experienced coach recently commented, in a week-long, online conference/discussion event hosted from the UK, that “the stage of development of and perceived maturity (not age) of the coach is considered to be an important element of the matching (of coach to client.)” This makes sense, along with the idea that the capabilities of any individuals should be judged individually.
Nevertheless, going with an assumption about normal maturity, and proceeding with the more likely scenario that experience helps develop it, what kinds of exposure, over time and experience, does one need to have, to be successful as an executive coach?
(For our purposes, I will define “success” as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose” (Google definition of success, 1-1-17.) I will also posit that the aim or purpose for an executive coach is to “partner with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today's uncertain and complex environment,” as per the ICF definition of coaching. Finally, APECS notes that “executive coaching differs from other forms of coaching in that it is primarily concerned with the development of the executive in the context of the needs of their organization.” APECS further defines "Executive" as a person who has a level of leadership responsibility (financial / operational / people) and/or responsibility for policy formulation and/or who makes a significant business critical individual contribution to the organization.” https://www.apecs.org/ )
Three categories of characteristics invaluable for an executive coach
From my experiences and conversations with peers and suppliers, I have broadly grouped what I perceive to be a mature and successful coach into three categories: Business/organizational knowledge, psychological knowledge, and personal qualities, both internal towards oneself and outwards towards others. I added this last, practical category of “personal qualities”, because if this function is not managed effectively, an external coach will not be able to practice or grow their service offering with clients. (And while internal coaching is a growing practice, at present the majority of coaches seem to be external.) And the stories I have heard, and tell below, bear this addition out:
I. Business/Organizational Experience
- Business experience – At a minimum, knowing how a business works from a functional perspective. Potentially, even greater depth is gained by those who have themselves have served as executives in an in organization. In addition to being valuable for context, language, and relationship-building with organizational clients, demonstrating this quality hastens the building of trust and respect needed for a healthy coaching partnership.
- Organizational savvy/knowledge – This refers to having a good understanding of the informal structure and dynamics of a business: the operations of politics, ambitions, resources, the culture, and all that informally is needed to for people to get things done effectively, inside an organization. This will give you material to draw on, and to help guide organizational clients towards their own solutions.
II. Psychological Knowledge
- Psychological knowledge – At least possessing some breadth of valid knowledge concerning core, hopefully well-researched psychological theories and models, especially those that are often at play in interactions between human beings in a social/organizational context.
- Being “psychologically-minded” – Being willing and able to look beneath the surface of human interactions, including one’s own, to understand the dynamics in action. This includes being willing to work with one’s own and others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and help guide their movement in a particular direction.
III. Personal Qualities
- Self-reflective & development-oriented - This is “walking the talk” of coaching. Is one just as willing and able to look at one’s own behavior, beliefs, motivations, emotions, thought-patterns, etc., as we’d hope our most motivated clients are? And are we as willing and effective at instituting changes to develop, in whichever ways we deem best, through that examination? Finally, are we as coaches demonstrating the willingness and ability to regularly find and utilize the same kind of space we offer as a service to our clients, for ourselves, through coach supervision and/or other methods of self-reflection? Do we apply what we learn to improve our coaching practice? And how do you know you have applied it successfully?
- Creates and maintains a safe, accepting, and trustworthy relationship with others – To create the right space for our clients to share what is most important to them, we need to be able to show and support, at all times, words, actions, and attitudes that consistently convey respect for the client and their safety in all regards. We need to let them know, sincerely, that whatever they say will be accepted as normal by the coach (within ethical and practical limits.) We need to lead them to feel they can trust their coach to support them with sincere caring, good attention, and constant respect. This includes but goes beyond the limits of confidentiality and other ethical expectations, which are delineated early on and continually expected between coach and client.
- Formal training and qualifications – This can be either, or a combination of, academic training and professional coursework. A graduate degree is common and often expected, at the Master’s level, preferably in a relevant field like Psychology or Business. Many hiring organizations also prefer or require accreditation from a professional association such as APECS, ICF, EMCC, or others.
- Entrepreneurial – External executive coaches often function as sole practitioners, and/or contractors to and/or of others. In order to provide the service we do, we must make ourselves “find-able” and “hire-able”, to those who could benefit from it. We must be willing and able to create and manage running our own practice and business, including successfully executing the business functions of marketing, sales, branding, accounting, purchasing, legal, and any and all other functions needed to successfully run a business (just like our clients.)
Please note that these are a few items in an initial attempt to start articulating what might ideally contribute to the development of an excellent executive coach. Others’ thoughts, additions, challenges, and suggestions are welcome, to clarify and refine this list
Checking out my criteria with the market
Various professional executive coaching associations, coaching firms, and client organizations reflect these criteria in terms of who they hire as executive coaches. For example, despite 15 years of coaching experience, one pharmaceutical firm did not even want to talk to me about possibly coaching their executives until after I had attained PCC accreditation from the ICF. As an organization dedicated purely to executive coaching, APECS’s accreditation criteria require at least five (5) years of practice, with a significant percent of one’s work consisting exclusively of stand-alone executive coaching engagements. For accreditation, APECS also expects an executive coach to demonstrate organizational, business, psychological and ethical knowledge, as well as detailing specifics of a coach’s commitment to regular learning and self-reflection practices, including supervision.
Coaching firms can be even more stringent in some of their criteria
I spoke with the heads of two global executive coaching organizations, and asked them about their hiring criteria for their coaches. One, which I’ll call Org. A, requires an advanced degree and at least seven (7) years of executive coaching experience at the mid- to upper levels of executives from commercial businesses. They do not accept coaching experiences from non-profit or governmental settings, citing the differences in the organizational knowledge and practices that coaches would require for their main client base. They also require that their coaches have been independent and self-supporting for at least five (5), and preferably seven (7+) or more years, with coaching experience in at least 20 different client companies. (This is in part where my Entrepreneurial criterion comes from, above.)
Org. B, on the other hand, said that their main criteria include, will the client hire them? As this leader said, a CEO will hire someone who they feel can help them, in their business context, asking “What can this person teach me that I don’t already know?” While this leader said it’s not the coach’s age, per se, that leads the CEO to answer that question “yes” and hire Org. B’s coaches, it’s also unlikely for a coach in their 20s to have the context to help senior leaders. Org. B’s main criteria for coaches are, does this coach have the experience, skills, background, and presentation to get hired by our clients? They would like to see at least two (2) years of coaching experience, and a “reasonable” client list, as well as a commitment to staying independent.
I then asked both of these leaders for examples of a coach’s personal qualities, which I thought might be helpful in narrowing down what is essentially needed. Org. A cited judgment, maturity (there is that word again), and the flexibility and adaptability to go where the client might want to go in a session. Other “obvious” personal qualities were said to be high quality coaching, analytical, intuitive, caring, curious, and able to push-back on clients. This organization avoids those who offer consulting rather than coaching, and coaches that are “uninspiring”, “wooden”, “lacking a spark of learning”, and/or “who don’t draw you into a relationship with them.” As an exemplary story of a coach-fail, they told me a story of an interview with a coach who wanted to work for them. Immediately after being invited to sit down for the interview, this coach pulled out a nail file and started filing their nails. This was not an example of maturity, good judgment, or much of anything else desirable in their eyes.
Org. B had some similar examples to give. In their experience of interviewing coaches, the most common lack was ‘sufficient external experience’ in coaching individual leaders. One coach-candidate had graduated from an Ivy League institution, had a decade of coaching and of personal leadership experience as an executive, and over 30 years of business experience. Yet, as they probed deeper in the interview, this individual was not able to convince the interviewers that they could win or execute an executive coaching assignment on their own. Similarly, another potential candidate had similar years of business and coaching experience, a relevant Ph.D., PCC accreditation… but had mostly done internal coaching or with small business owners, and on the topic of career change as opposed to broader leadership issues. This coach-candidate also wasn’t taken on for the reason that they were not convincing to interviewers, that a client-leader would hire them.
Granted, these are perspectives from the leaders of only two coaching organizations. However, there seems to be a rough convergence of personal and professional factors between them, on what makes for an effective practicing executive coach.
What does this mean, and where to go next?
Having had the opportunity to speak with others, and share from my own learning and experience, about the characteristics that might be required for a good, and even successful, executive coach, is only the start of a very important question to me. Each of the above categories might be refined or changed, since they are based on a small number of people’s experiences and points of views. For example, greater light could be shed on what “maturity” might mean, and look like, for each unique coach, in terms of their actual behaviors and actions. Also, how might maturity be pragmatically identified and evaluated, regardless of the age of the person?
As above, it can mean and look like something different for each person, and can vary by context. People might now “know it when they see it”, yet verbalizing/describing what it is and how it is embodied at a rigorous level requires the coach or those hiring coaches to be aware and able to express what this means and looks like clearly, and variously, for their audiences. More importantly, the validation of the items, and the varying specific impact of different levels of these qualities, remain to be described more concretely as well as conceptually.
Furthermore, the third category ‘Personal Qualities’ is a recognition of what I and others bring to our professional experience and for the broader market. Without a doubt, it’s important to have a good understanding of commercial practices, since that provides a real indication of how relevant these services are with the current market needs. How do I and others know that we are maturing in our practice, and that our maturity is continually having the same positive, reproducible impact on each of our clients that we’d like to have?
Doubtless, it’s important to check with others on the standards being set for what makes an excellent executive coach. There’s still much to investigate and discuss! I am interested in hearing how 1) you might add to the list of initial criteria I’ve articulated, and/or 2) how you articulate for yourself what makes you a good coach. I look forward to our conversation!
Thanks to all those who have contributed, directly or indirectly, to this piece, including: Yvonne Thackray, Heads of Org.’s A and B, Fiona Adamson, Margaret Bishop, Bath Consultancy Group, Michael Frisch, Jeremy Ridge, Chris Smith, Nick Smith, Denise Wright, and many other colleagues, in APECS and elsewhere.
To connect with Lilian Abrams,
Lilian Abrams (Ph.D., MBA, PCC) is an organizational psychologist with more than twenty years of Fortune 50 consulting experience, in all manner of organization and leadership development areas and applied research. She has been a senior consultant for Towers Perrin, Watson Wyatt, Nabisco, and Kaiser Permanente, and an accredited executive coach for many client organizations, including ADP, BASF, BMS, KPMG, Unilever, Warby-Parker, Sanofi, New York Presbyterian Hosipital, and the FAA. As former New Jersey Organization Development (NJOD) Learning Community's Education Team Chair, she facilitated learning to bridge the gap between academia and practice. She teaches, publishes, and serves, always seeking to learn and bring the right learning to the right people at the right time.