What is an executive coach?


These come with free wifi and on-board WC.

By Martin Vogel

This month’s Real Session, on changing how coaching happens, was our first without a guest speaker. This helped emphasise the ethos of the programme in putting the focus on the conversation among participants. The evening demonstrated that there’s enough wisdom among the APECS membership to sustain a compelling peer learning session. And enough diversity to leave open the question of what it is we do as executive coaches.

Facilitated by Eamon O’Brien of the Real Sessions team, we ascertained a shared interest among those in the room in benchmarking our business development practices against each other and, to a lesser extent, sharing notes on what we are actually selling as coaches.

It was evident that there was copious experience among us, with some participants having been practising as coaches for 15 or 20 years. But all were noticing the commodification of coaching and the need to be differentiated in a crowded market. Buyers were less interested than they had been in the past in welcoming coaches into the business as strategic partners; more inclined to treat us transactionally as suppliers of discrete coaching assignments.

The bulk of the evening was framed around small-group discussion of these issues. On the one hand, we spoke with implicitly shared assumptions about what our proposition is. On the other, it was difficult to specify what each of us meant when we spoke of executive coaching. There was a spectrum of positions – from clear focus on one-to-one executive coaching to coaching being part of a portfolio of interventions. On closer questioning, the distinctions between these polarities became blurry. Most of us were covering a diversity of positions in the market. In conversation with a prospective client, we would largely share an intention to elicit what the client’s need for support might be and to work from there on specifying possible interventions that we could make. What differentiated people was more their psychological disposition in the market – at one end, being a “gun for hire” afraid to be defined as one thing, lest that was too limiting a marketing proposition, at the other end, “sticking to who I am” and saying no to everything else.

Psychological disposition turned out to be an important theme. Frustratingly, it’s easier to turn prospects into clients if one is not desperate to do so. This is a function of characteristics which are unrelated to positioning – such as cash flow, life stage and so forth. Being free to walk away from work enables one to put aside one’s ego and bring more focus to the person in front of you. Most of us in the conversation that I was in agreed that finding the client’s pain was a surer route to developing business than putting forward one’s own value proposition in the abstract.

Perhaps the freshest thinking came from those who were newest entrants to the market. One is developing a coaching model delivered via internet messaging and chat apps. This drew a sharp intake of breath among those practitioners who saw coaching as predicated on face-to-face interaction. But for 20- and 30-somethings in the workforce, messaging apps are how they are comfortable communicating. They’re woven into the fabric of their lives. Precisely because the users can’t be seen by the person to whom they’re talking, they may be more comfortable disclosing sensitive aspects of themselves by means of the these technologies than in-person. Why shouldn’t coaching adapt to the realities of how people are living their lives?

By the same token, technology may be changing how we show up for chemistry meetings. Should you Google a prospective client and consult their LinkedIn profile before meeting them? There was a view that younger clients might expect this and may well be offended if you turn up unfamiliar with their public profile. Some seasoned practitioners were resistant to this approach, preferring not to form preconceptions of prospective clients before meeting them in order to be able to deal more attentively with the individual before them. Either way, the concern was to turn up with good energy and expose your prospective client to your best self.

No conclusive answers. But a clear sense that the market for coaching is changing around us. How each of us responds to this is a matter of judgment based on our appreciation of the distinct value that we offer. But sharing notes in this way with other practitioners can help coax us out of our comfort zones and perhaps inspire new approaches – both in how we market ourselves and what we market – which might keep our practices fresh and relevant.

Image courtesy Yorkshire Photo Walks.

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