How to Make Sure Executive Coaching Pays Off

The Road to RichesWhether you want to improve your own leadership effectiveness or someone else’s, leveraging an Executive Coach can be a wise investment. Here’s how to make sure an investment in coaching will pay off:

1. When NOT to use a coach:

Of course, coaching is only one of several options for accelerating learning, developing skills and improving performance.

  • Are you looking to help a group improve performance in a common skill area? Try classroom training, live workshops and webinars.
  • Want to scale a self-directed and self-paced approach to train a large population on a skill or topic? Try on-line and e-learning options.
  • Want to build awareness in a skill area that will prime the pump for skills training? Leverage videos, books and articles.
  • Want to gain the wisdom of experience from someone who’s been there? Enlist a mentor.
  • Need advice and a solution? Call a consultant.

Before you hire a coach, be sure that coaching is the best solution for the problem you’re trying to solve.

2. When to use a coach:

Executive coaching is best used when the options described above won’t suffice – such as when you need an individualized approach to make a difficult, adaptive change. Coaching is unique in that it provides ongoing focus, supportive accountability, reflective learning and strategic action over an extended period of time. It involves practice and feedback in the context of a powerful relationship where the focus is on achieving the executive’s goals.

In an organizational context, coaching is best used with leaders whose performance and influence is especially critical. Usually executives and senior leaders are the best candidates – assuming they are open to coaching.

Here are a few scenarios where Executive Coaching may be a great investment:

  • Onboarding: Get off to a great start with a new role (or with new responsibilities); accelerate time to productivity.
  • Strengthening a skill: Improve performance in an important leadership area where there’s a skill gap, such as self-awareness and emotional intelligence or motivating and managing a team.
  • Getting unstuck: Increase motivation and ability to move beyond a career speed bump or plateau.
  • Navigating organizational politics: Handle relational or political challenges with more effectiveness and influence.
  • Career advancement: Clarify career goals and make a plan to achieve them.
  • High potential development and succession planning: Create and execute the individualized development plan needed to build skills and prepare for advancement or for a key role as quickly as possible.

3. How to choose a coach:

Not all coaches are good coaches, and not all coaches are good for you. As you hire a coach, ask these questions:

  • Is the coach trained? Most expert coaches have specialized training in professional coaching. The International Coach Federation and the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches are two examples of professional coaching associations that offer certifications to coaches that receive accredited training, mentoring and supervision. If a coach is certified through a professional association like ICF or WABC, then you know they understand baseline core competencies and ethical standards for their coaching approach. And you also know they are required to take continuing education to keep certification – and to keep their skills sharp. Though coach training and certification are not guarantees that a coach is highly competent, they can be helpful screening criteria.
  • Does the coach get your corporate world? Not only should an Executive Coach have training and education in coaching and human development, but he should also have corporate experience and/or experience helping corporate leaders.
  • Does the coach have experience and success in coaching people in the areas where you want help? If you want to lead your team more effectively, you want to know that the coach has experience helping others in this area. And if you’re a corporate CFO for an insurance company, the coach doesn’t need to be a finance or insurance expert (at least not if you’re hiring them to help you lead your team better), but she should have a basic understanding of your business setting and industry.
  • Does the coach come recommended? And if you can’t find some good options by asking people you know and trust, try searching for a coach through a professional coach association website. ICF and WABC have directories that allow you to enter search criteria to find possible coaches.
  • Is the coach a good fit for my style? Interviewing a couple of coaches can help you assess skills and experience, and – just as importantly – it’s a way to see if you think you’d be a good fit. For example, if you do best in an atmosphere of encouragement and affirmation, and one coach has a no-nonsense approach that’s very direct and challenging, then maybe you want a different coach.

4. Getting maximum value from coaching:

After you’ve chosen a coach, remember the following tips to make the most of your investment.

  • Get clear on what you want from coaching. This will help you find the right coach and focus your coaching.
  • Tie coaching goals to the organization’s goals. If the organization is sponsoring the coaching, both the executive and the organization need to be motivated for the executive to achieve the coaching goals.
  • Involve key stakeholders. Involving a supervisor and/or HR, for example, in setting coaching goals and checking progress is a powerful tool for increasing accountability, visibility and recognition of progress.
  • Set and reset expectations. You’ll save valuable time and wheel-spinning if you’re clear and assertive in discussing not only your goals but also your preferences in approach and agendas for coaching sessions.
  • Set defined check-points and a duration. One or two sessions are sufficient for debriefing a 360 feedback or leadership assessment and creating a development action plan. But plan on 3-6 months or a year with a coach to execute the plan. And schedule a check-point or two along the way to confirm progress, assess the coaching relationship and consider adjustments if needed.
  • Find a cadence. I recommend meetings (or calls) with a coach every week or every other week – at least initially – to build trust and momentum needed to make progress as quickly as possible.
  • Come to sessions and come prepared. The three biggest predictors of coaching success are regular coaching sessions, doing agreed-upon assignments and supervisor involvement.

Several studies in the last 20 years have shown the impressive ROI of Executive Coaching. Following these guidelines about when to use a coach, which coach to choose and how to maximize the coaching relationship will help ensure you get the payoff you want.

For further reading, see Ready for the Big Leagues? Ask a Career Coach and Six Situations for Engaging an Executive Coach.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. He has been a leadership consultant and executive coach for over 15 years, working internally at Accenture and then working externally with PeopleResults with executive leaders across companies and industries. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.