Executive Coaching

Colin Powell is a great leadership coach
Colin Powell is a great leadership coach

The Path to Become an Executive Coach 

Basketball coaches are the most active players on the court. They move with the ball, directing each play and dribble. Their actual efficiency on the court, however, is often very low. Barking orders has never been the best productivity booster. This is a lesson in how not to coach. There is much more to coaching than yelling out game plays.

When coaching is a two-way street, it is a highly rewarding experience. The best coaches get back what they give. When making the decision to become an executive coach, it is worthwhile to explore your true motivations. Many management “gurus” are motivated by ego.

General Colin Powell, as a leadership coach, wisely counsels: “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego falls with it.”

Executive coaching is a catalyst for change in a professional’s life, and you can be the facilitator of that change. Most of your clients will approach you for counsel at a transition point in their career – something is going very well, a promotion to a new position, or very badly, sales are plummeting – and they need your advice. A leader may want to motivate better performance from his team, and deliver higher levels of customer satisfaction. A sales executive may be losing sales to new competitors and is seeking guidance on developing a new market strategy.

He may already have a boss who is barking at him to shape up or ship out. The foundation for any real, sustainable change is some form of personal and professional development. The executive coach can facilitate this development by understanding how to increase human performance, build self-esteem, develop communication skills and improve interpersonal relationships. Successfully applying these skills as an executive coach is one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet.

The Demand for Executive Coaches

Companies have never placed more value on developing leadership skills. Today, leadership development begins as soon as fresh university recruits enter the job market. Companies now recognize the link between investing in leadership development and profitability. The world’s most profitable companies also consistently rank as the best companies for leadership development. They include industry stalwarts such as Dow Chemical, GE, IBM, and P&G.

Executives require coaching in many different areas. If you seek to become an executive coach, you can do well if you position yourself for success in the market. Following is a list of skills that are driving demand for executive coaching, and some well-troddened career paths followed by executive coaches into these areas of specialization.

Soft Skills

Executive coaches spend a lot of time teaching soft skills. The difference between a good and great leader often comes down to human relations skills. Companies increasingly recognize the importance of investing in soft skills. Recent research on female leadership and business performance has increased investment in soft skills development. Companies with more female leaders are more profitable, according to a 2016 survey by Petersen Institute/EY study on female leadership and profitability. Female leadership adds “functional or skills diversity among the leadership group” finds the report.

Women, of course, are widely credited with bringing a soft touch to the workplace. If you can coach soft skills, you will find demand for your services from both female and male executives. You may also want to apply the soft touch to your executive coaching approach toward women. Corporate leadership training programs are largely perceived as failing women. Women are more apt to invest in and support women mentoring programs, which are on the rise, than use terms such as executive coaching. From Silicon Valley to New York, more women are introducing a new model of female executive development – a combination of mentoring, coaching, networking and investing in female-led businesses.

Engagement Skills

A lack of engagement skills has been showing up as a key weakness of executives on CEO and leadership surveys for years. Like the basketball coach, executives often do a lot of talking to employees but may not hold a meaningful conversation with them. Engagement requires empowering employees and supporting bottom-up decision making, and leaders are bad at these skills, too. The press is full of stories of profitable companies that have achieved an engaged and empowered workforce. In its annual list of companies leading the world in employee engagement, Gallup reports that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged. This is a huge market opportunity for an executive coach.

Helping leaders first measure their true level of engagement is a good place to start. It is not uncommon to see sports coaches who are popular with the public be fired because they are not popular with the team. Their popularity often surges after a transition in coaches. The new coach leads the team to win the season’s title. But if the coach does not truly engage with that team, the team will lose the next year, and the next. In these cases, the championship win had very little to do with the new coach. The coach is then fired, but due to his championship win is quickly snatched up by another team. When he starts to fail again, your phone will ring. The tough guy wants some of those soft skills – the secrets of female leaders who motivate high performance from their workplace teams.

Team Building Skills 

“When you’re in championships, it’s never about what you do. It’s always about what other people do.” As one of the best centers in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal understands team dynamics and how to coordinate moves that require quick thinking under stressful conditions. Companies spend fortunes each year training executives and middle managers in team development and leadership skills. It is no coincidence that executive coaches come from two worlds – the business world and the sports world. Sports coaches and team managers will never make it if they do not understand team dynamics.

Whether they honed their skills in the business suite or dugout with a bunch of sweaty men, the basic skills are universal. In fact, many sports professionals find a second career in executive coaching and giving executive speeches and workshops. An executive coach who understands team dynamics can keep busy developing a niche in team building. The type of executive coaching you choose should reflect your own experience. The best proof of your coaching ability is evidence that you have succeeded in the area yourself.

Strategic Thinking

Another professional who does well in executive coaching is the military leader. While he can coach in many areas, strategic thinking is his area of expertise. The hyper-competition ushered in by globalization has made not only strategy but fast and nimble strategy development an essential executive skill. This is the domain of anyone who has experience leading military operations. Military professionals often enter management consulting. Executive coaching also provides opportunities to coach team leadership and strategic management skills. Coveting these skills, leading management consultancies market directly to military veterans when searching for new consultants.

Some executive coaches specialize in working with senior military leadership transitioning to the civilian workforce, many of whom find work in consultancy and coaching. General Colin Powell is one of the most famous military leaders to make this transition. The strategic advice of the general who led US troops in a bloodless invasion of Iraq executed over days is highly sought through his leadership books and speaking engagements. Another executive coach has compiled 13 Executive Coaching Insights From Colin Powell.

If you are non-military and want to become an executive coach who specializes in strategic thinking, many pathways exist. Business executives who have led mergers and acquisitions are sought in consolidating industries by executives who must strategize both M&A and non-takeover defense strategies. Experience in new market development, especially fast-growing developing markets such as China and India, is highly prized.

Communication Skills

Some executive coaches choose to specialize in executive speech coaching. There is particularly high demand in the entrepreneur market. Leaders who have gone the traditional route from MBA classes to the leadership trainee program at a multinational have made many speeches along the way. More executives today go from engineering classes or their own garage high-tech outfit to entrepreneur seemingly overnight. It is not uncommon for the executive suite of a technology startup to become stock option rich before they have developed professional speaking skills. Their experience may be limited to chatting up their technology at investor roadshows. Even then, an early VC investor usually takes the lead.

Whatever the path to leadership, the trend toward younger and more inexperienced leaders is growing. Increasingly, these leaders have to operate globally but have limited business communications experience. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech in Chinese is the exception. His speechwriter’s recent defection to SpaceX speaks to the demand for speech and related communication coaching. Leaders in larger organizations want and need more than the Dale Carnegie speech club lessons. They are seeking elocution lessons. How a leader speaks influences whether she is perceived as having leadership qualities. Executives also want advice on business etiquette in Asia, or how to shake hands in Britain but never slap backs. Above all, they want to know how to engage an audience when they deliver an investor presentation.

Management Skills

There is a fine line, if any, between the executive management coach and management consultant. If you become famous, you may be called a management guru. This area is booming. As globalization introduces more complexity to the executive manager’s job, he not only wants management advice but also a hand to hold. To excel in this area, corporate coaches need to distinguish themselves from the teams of consultants arriving with spreadsheets from the big consulting firms.

The best way to make a name for yourself is to accomplish a distinguished feat in the management ranks. José Mourinho was famously fired as the Chelsea football team manager but it has not hurt the executive speech business of the four-time winner of the best football manager award by International Federation of Football. Executive coaching is one area in which people will remember what you did well if you did it better than anyone else, rather than what you failed at. Think of Steve Jobs’ famous comeback after the management consultants tossed him out. Two types of executive management coaching have evolved: famous managers who speak to very large audiences through books and speeches, and hands-on coaches who have an impressive performance record as a manager.

Successful company leaders are the most in demand. GE’s Jack Welch is the king of this domain. His coaching was delivered through books, whose business management lessons are still devoured by business leaders. Another popular track is management consultancies. McKinsey & Company has established itself as the leader in executive management consultancy. A look at a young McKinsey consultant’s resume easily reveals why. Even a junior McKinsey consultant has already consulted on numerous projects across many countries, industries, and disciplines.

Your Path to Become a Business Leader

The path to become an executive coach is a very personal one, based on your unique career experiences and expertise. The demand for executive coaches is high and growing across many areas. If you do your job well, the coaching experience should be a professional and personal development opportunity for both the coach and your executive clients. To succeed, you need to walk the walk – empower, engage and develop meaningful communication. Simply lecturing about your lessons learned could result in no repeat business. Remember the basketball coach? His team players performed when he was on the court barking at them. When he moved down the court, however, to bark at other players, the center player froze and did not perform.

Similarly, executives on the business court must be empowered and grow from within. Their performance should never depend on you. If the new teams you have developed fall into acrimony the day after you finish your executive coaching assignment, you will not be called back.

No doubt on your journey to become an executive coach you will face a few obstacles, especially in the beginning. Take counsel from General Colin Powell’s leadership tips: “Do not let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.”