VIEW FROM THE TOP: Executive Coaching Comes of Age

Written by: Mark Holtshousen - Executive Coach | Head of Global Talent at MTN Group  created on: 28-04-2020


As I near twenty years in the executive coaching industry, I am increasingly being asked by aspiring coaches how to succeed, by organizations how to select and best utilize coaches, and by prospective coaching clients about how to choose coaches. The executive coaching industry, landscape and profession have evolved. What started out seemingly as a fad, has become the gold standard in executive development and personal investment - that despite little regulation, and the continued attempts by misguided individuals to start ‘life coaching’ businesses over the years. The more recent moves by the big consulting firms to get in on the action only attests to the effectiveness of professionals who have thrived, and clients who are increasingly requesting the services of a coach.

The great coaches have learned that there is no need to defend the profession, as their clientele are some of the most discriminating and discerning individuals out there.

The rate of change in the world today has rendered the shelf-life of learning and development initiatives as almost obsolete. New content is outdated before it even gets into any curriculum in most cases. The research indicates that the skills required in the future can’t be acquired through traditional means, suggesting that coaching will only increase as the most viable modality for learning, and become more prolific at every level of development. This is good news for new entrants and signals the need for increased differentiation within the profession. With more coaches available and with more diverse offerings than ever before, it’s easy for companies and clients to get lost. This potentially leads to overspending where it’s not needed and underspending where it is, as well as choosing the wrong person with the wrong offering. It can also be frustrating for aspiring coaches, as little is taught to them about their career track, with most of their development focus on theories, models, and frameworks. The result is that many aspiring coaches don’t make it, fading into allied professions, and buyers of coaching end up disenchanted with the service.

Evolution of the Industry

As the profession evolves, so will coaches and client organizations. Companies who previously secured the services of a few large vendors or coaching consortiums have recognized the inconsistent caliber of coaches provided, and the tendency of these consortiums to utilize cheaper coaches to maximize profit - while marketing their coaches as fit for the Chief and Executive suite (C and E suite) to justify high rates. For this reason, companies should become more demanding in their selection criteria of coaches. This selection should be based on the coach’s reputation, experience, track-record, credibility, niche, and qualification - as memberships in professional bodies continue to fall short of their purpose. Great coaches will become equally demanding of their clients, refusing to be treated or contracted as traditional vendors or suppliers.

I have described this relationship before as one of mutual privilege - where both the client and coach recognize the exclusive and sacred nature of the relationship.

Client companies who do not demonstrate flexibility in handling coaches simply won’t be able to secure the best ones, and coaches who are not prepared to take on clients matched realistically to their level of expertise simply won’t get work. Young coaches and new entrants to the market need to recognize that they cannot charge the high rates or expect to only coach the leadership cadre, and that there is no shame in needing to grow and gain experience. Coaches need to become more flexible in terms of session and programme length with the trend being to shorten both, as well as offering both virtual and face-to-face engagements.

Great Coaches

I’m often asked what makes a great coach, and the truth is it’s a combination of art, science, and experience:

The art component relates to natural gifting

I use professional sports as a parallel. If I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, even if I trained in the same way they do, ate the same food they did, and mentally prepared with equal rigor, while I may become a reasonably good swimmer - I innately do not possess the physique and DNA of an Olympic athlete. The same is true for great coaches, there’s an X-factor that’s difficult to put your finger on - but when you’re in the room with them, they comfortably own it. They have a natural intuition about a niche clientele as a result of their own character, reflection, and self-awareness. They can subsume and articulate the client’s experience, resulting in rapport. They authentically and naturally have both influence and presence, the result of confidence in their skill and credibility from their track-record. They have a predisposition to quickly create trust and field uncomfortable conversations, where they seamlessly blend their experience, theoretical skill, and diagnosis into transformative applied wisdom. They are confident in their ability to uniquely add value, allowing them to be respectful yet not fazed by power. CEO Magazine articulated it well in my biographical sketch in 2007, “... a confidence characteristic of the few considered artists in their fields, and the presence to authenticate it...”. Natural gifting accelerates a coach’s growth and experience, as it allows them to gain exposure to more senior clients earlier in their careers.

The science part relates to expertise, and in the case of coaches this involves exposure to and immersion in the best and continuous learning and coaching practices.

Coaching is a science and should be studied as such. Traditional academic institutions have thankfully formalized coach training, allowing for new and blended theories to be introduced along with academic rigor. Unfortunately, they sometimes lag older training vendors with history in the industry in terms of depth, resulting in diligent practitioners pursuing both avenues over time. Contrary to popular belief, experience in allied professions really does not count in this space (unlike mentoring where it is key). Human resource practitioners, psychologists, learning and development experts, business leaders and management consultants often think they can easily transition into coaching, failing to understand that this is a profession in itself. While common coaching skills are valuable for use in almost any environment and context, comparing the use of these to professional coaching is akin to comparing good personal hygiene to being operated on by a skilled surgeon.

The experience part relates simply to the number of hours coaching clients and is probably the greatest barrier to entry in the market.

A seasoned executive will quickly tell if you are a seasoned executive coach. The questions you ask, the way you relate, the illustrations you use, the parallels you draw, the way you are able to track their career and development trajectory, all quickly reveal the length and extent of a coach’s experience. This does not disqualify novices from entering the market, in fact it builds the case for novices to enter far earlier - and for clients to use the appropriate level of expertise at the right junctures. Companies and individuals should be selecting coaches realistic about their own requirements. You don’t need a heart surgeon to treat a common cold, and you don’t start out as a specialist when you enter a profession.

The Top-End

The C and E suites, successful entrepreneurs, and high-profile individuals are generally extremely time sensitive, have low thresholds of patience, and expect significant value from their coaches every time they see them. This simply doesn’t come but through art, science, and experience. You literally need to be able to do a 60-minute miracle every time you see them - or you’re out. This may be a tall order, but it’s what that market requires - and will pay for. There’s another element the top-end of the market expects, and it goes beyond pure coaching to the coach’s ability to leverage their tenure in the industry to provide input based on working with similar clients over the years, and it is based on the coach’s experience. Coaches have traditionally been steered away from this, but I think it’s changing as the industry comes of age and produces mature coaches that bring both themselves and their expertise to the relationship. This is what the top-end wants - the coach as a uniquely experienced professional, and not just generic coaching expertise. It is only a seasoned and experienced coach that can comfortably field both roles ethically. In my mind the requirement is justified. If a coach has been working with leaders successfully for years, surely, they bring with them learnings from those countless intimate conversations that will prove valuable to other leaders. At the top-end of the market many clients have previously been coached in their careers, and they expect more than sitting in a room and being asked questions to develop self-awareness.

The client has become more sophisticated at the top-end in terms of having already experienced coaching, and the profession has matured to produce highly experienced and uniquely skilled niche coaches.

These clients expect a different kind of value from their coaches, maintain lifelong relationships with them, and will pay them privately to secure their services in particular. It means that coaches working at that level need to be able to read the client almost intuitively, deliver quickly, and demonstrate value sustainably. They need to bring themselves and their years of experience to the party in a non-directive way, yet in a way that allows the client to derive the value of an expert who has the history of working with leaders over the course of entire careers. These coaches hold a meta-view of working closely with multiple leaders, allowing them to bring a perspective that transcends the client’s experience and foresee what the client can’t. Generally, these coaches will operate from private practices, as they are more comfortable in environments that serve them, than serving the commercial interests of another business. They are accessed through referral rather than through marketing initiatives and may run waiting lists based on capacity constraints and portfolio life commitments, having diversified and scaled back after years in the industry.

The Next Generation

Finally, let me comment on the need for young coaches to enter the industry. It’s generally accepted that one only reaches the master coach stage after several years and hours in professional practice. Executives and successful entrepreneurs are getting younger, and so should the coaches available to work with them. That means we need younger new entrants, so that like their client counterparts, the teachers will appear when the students are ready (a technically incorrect metaphor). It also means that seasoned coaches and clients need to support young new entrants to the market. There are few ways to accelerate the growth of a coach, but mentorship by seasoned coaches and exposure to clients are probably the best available. The business case for this is sound - providing good novice coaches to middle management at conservative rates. It will however require that client companies do the work to source these individuals, and that seasoned coaches promote them into client companies. Coach supervision is just a step in the right direction. We’ve got to give new entrants the appropriate growth opportunities, just as we do in other professions, and we’ve got to get realistic about who can deliver what and at what price. Much of the disenchantment I have seen in the industry is the result of incorrectly matching coach to client. We do neither party a favor when we match to save money, or secure large vendors to simplify the process.

At the end of the day, relational chemistry is the catalyst which allows a coach to bring their expertise to bear in the room. Without it you have nothing.

The coach’s ability to create that chemistry is largely the result of their ability to build rapport or create mutuality in the relationship. Matching coach to client is dependent on the unspoken understanding that the two parties are equally proficient in their own domains. To match unequal parties is tantamount to unethical in my opinion. Matching equals allows for both parties to enter the relationship with confidence and emerge with life changing results.