By Dr. Chris Bertram
The highest performing individuals among us - in sport, in business, or any aspect of life – all share certain characteristics. For starters, these people almost always possess a fierce passion, a sense of inner purpose, to dedicate themselves fully to a given goal. Quite often these same individuals have a powerful competitive nature when it comes to being better than their competitors and for bettering themselves at the same time. This persistent urge to take greater and greater strides and to just be better than they were the day before is the hallmark of those who tend to lead the way in the world. And when things are going well – when creativity and innovation are flourishing, when teams are clicking and in group flow, and when goals are being surpassed – the rush becomes so intrinsically rewarding that the effort is barely noticed. If only it were like this every day.
The reality, however, is that more often the effort is noticed. Sometimes, as they say, the struggle is real. Perhaps the wellspring of creativity has begun to run dry, and inspiration is waning. Maybe workplace conflicts around expectations or basic personality differences have started to crop up. Or perhaps it just all seems like too much and the sheer weight of the work (and the stress that goes with it) has begun to feel overwhelming. Times like these can be exceptionally challenging for any person, even the ones who might ordinarily seem bullet-proof. It’s popular these days to say that we learn the most when we get out of our comfort zones and embrace the struggle. But the truth is, even if a person believes this sentiment in their heart, sometimes they just don’t have the tools or the know-how to manage the chaos. At times like these in business, an executive coach can be a game-changer proven to enhance goal attainment, resilience, and workplace well-being. And studies have shown that coaching interventions have had significant positive effects on performance and skills, well-being, coping, work-attitudes, and goal-directed self-regulation.
An executive coach is a qualified professional that works with individuals (usually executives, but often high potential employees) to help them gain self-awareness, clarify goals, achieve their development objectives, unlock their potential, and act as a sounding board.
Executive coaching (or coaching of any kind, really) is, at its best, a skillful blend of art and science. From the perspective of science, executive coaching should be grounded in evidence-based practices from the vast landscape of human performance-related research. Approaches may differ depending on the specific training and experience of the coaches themselves, but the goal of executive coaching should always be about unlocking the potential of the individual, the service of the client’s own well-being, as well as the client’s overall effectiveness/satisfaction in the workplace. Here a the Flow Research Collective, my own approach to executive coaching draws heavily upon the recent advances in our understanding of flow state, and its remarkable impact on rates of learning, levels of creativity, and supercharging of performance under even the most challenging of circumstances. As a researcher and practitioner of coaching for more than 20 years, these recent breakthroughs in the science of flow have been nothing short of revolutionary in terms of creating a foundation for, and an approach to coaching.
The art of executive coaching, specifically, is more about the relationship and trust between the client and the coach. Any productive rapport between an executive coach and client should be seen as a collaborative process in which two-way communication is primarily aimed at helping clients find strategies for more optimal levels of performance and overall well-being. In business, increases in performance too often focus on outcome goals (i.e., increased revenue).
Ideally however, executive coaching should focus more on process goals such as increased self-awareness, the cultivation of increased energy, creativity and flow, greater accountability, and so on. The most effective methods of executive coaching are not so much about ‘teaching’ in a way that comes off sanctimonious or preachy, but rather in ways that encourage the client to find their own pathway forward. In doing so, executive coaching is ultimately about supporting and guiding a client through a process in which they discover and take ownership of a set of skills that builds upon on their strengths and bolsters any areas in need of upgrading.
For executives looking to level-up their business and their own personal growth, or simply to manage the chaos, finding the right executive coach these days can be a challenge. The recent proliferation of the “Life Coach” space along with other more tactics-based business coaches can make the choices even more confusing. So, let’s talk for a minute about what an executive coach is, and is not.
An executive coach is a qualified professional that works with individuals (usually executives, but often high potential employees) to help them gain self-awareness, clarify goals, achieve their development objectives, unlock their potential, and act as a sounding board. One key word to pay attention to in that sentence is qualified. On this point, I would note that there is some debate about whether an executive coach should be a registered psychologist, or whether other related credentials/experiences are sufficient. To this, I would say yes and yes. Is formal training in psychology going to be an asset for an effective executive coach? Unquestionably the answer is yes. But by way of contrast, my own academic background is in the area optimization of learning and performance (i.e., not in psychology, per se), and my practical experiences are as a high-level coach and consultant for 15 years. Are these credentials and experiences likewise an asset for an executive coach? Again, I would suggest that say that the answer, at least on paper, is yes.
The point is, while there is certainly some nuance in how we can define a qualified executive coach, we again need to focus on an approach that is rooted in science blended with significant practical experience and the ability to guide and support a collaborative approach personal development.
There are two key ways to think about return on investment for anyone who hired an executive coach: financial and personal.
From a bottom-line perspective, a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring found significant impact of executive coaching in terms of increased value at ROI. Further to the bottom line, Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found that employees are far more likely to stay with a company that actively fosters their leadership potential and generally treats them well.
From a more personal perspective, the impact of executive coaching can be profound. Reports of improved self-awareness, improved decision making, better health and wellness, as well as improved job-satisfaction and productivity have all been linked to a commitment to executive coaching. One study from 2018 showed that executive coaching can actually alter the brain’s electrical rhythms and promote a state of mind that correlates to higher levels of self-reflection and associative learning.
So, whether your interest in executive coaching is based on an interest for better overall health and wellness or making more money (and let’s be honest, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive), the fact is the evidence in support of executive coaching is robust.
Whether your company is facing significant internal challenges or if you’re simply forward-thinking and looking to optimize your existing human resources, executive coaching may provide the answers you are looking for.
The delivery of executive coaching can take several different forms. In certain cases, especially when geography and schedules afford, regular face-to-face meetings can prove ideal. However, more and more these days, advances in educational technology platforms have made online delivery an increasingly popular method for executive coaching. Hybrid models can also be explored wherein less frequent face-to-face meetings can be used to supplement ongoing online sessions.
The duration of an executive coaching program can vary quite widely depending on the situation. In certain cases, the achievement of certain pre-determined developmental goals can signal the successful completion of the program. But in other cases, where the goals might be much longer-term, coaching programs may continue for an extended period. In most cases, however, you should expect to see significant results within a year.
Where there was once perhaps a stigma surrounding the idea of ‘needing’ an executive coach, today the practice has become something companies proudly boast about. And as the industry continues to grow, there are more and more people jumping in to fill the void created by a new unmet need. As this happens, and as cottage industries such as ‘life coaches’ continue to proliferate, there will always be an inherent risk of less experienced individuals representing themselves as qualified executive coaches. With this in mind, a growing level of caution is indicated. As mentioned at the outset, qualifications matter, and should be carefully heeded.
A second area to be mindful when considering hiring an executive coach is that of confidentiality. The free sharing of information between coach and client is critical and happens when there is trust in the confidentiality of the process. Care should always be taken to establish the boundaries of confidentiality at the outset of any coach/client interactions.
In an industry with annual revenues approaching $15.0 billion, the popularity of business and executive coaching is clearly on the rise. With this rapid growth, many new companies have sprung up looking to grab a piece of this burgeoning market.
Harvard Business review places the price tag on executive coaches anywhere from $200-$3500/hour. That’s obviously a massively wide range, but as a general rule, the cost will depend on several key factors such as: 1) the experience and qualifications of the coach, 2) the immediate versus longer-term needs of the client, 3) the potential impact of the executive coach on a company’s bottom line, 4) whether the fee agreement Is based hourly rates or more retainer-type agreements. In any case, the most critical factor when considering hiring an executive coach is the potential for return on investment both in human and financial terms.
The best way to prepare for executive coaching is to start by reflecting on your mindset. Do you have a tendency to see your potential/capacity for learning (or that of others) as a fixed quantity, or do you believe that you are capable of growth? Do you tend to see challenges or struggles as things-to-be-avoided, or do you lean-in when the going gets tough?
In order to really prepare yourself for executive coaching, you have to start cultivating a growth mindset. Begin a process of reframing your relationship with struggle as an opportunity to learn. Start believing that we are all capable of being a little bit better every day. And remember, we don’t (or shouldn’t) just go to the dentist when you need a root canal. We recognize – within the physical domain at least – that functioning only at the level of damage control is far from optimal. Where executive coaching is concerned, a healthy dose of prevention and strategy building is the path towards performing at a more optimal level.