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In the first coaching session with a client, it is not uncommon to learn about a leader’s varied attempts to change. These attempts frequently include attending a management course, reading a popular business book, or simply setting goals on paper or in a fancy mobile app.
I’ll never forget one of my first coaching clients who shared how much money he had invested in annual leadership workshops that involved screaming, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and even walking on coals. While some of these methods can influence attitude and sometimes elicit change, executive coaching is recognized for its powerful ability to affect deeper and sustained behavioral change.

A key reason why executive coaching is such a powerful intervention for creating change is because it entails the focused involvement of another person. Thus, the intrapersonal growth achieved in coaching is a result of an interpersonal journey. But how can an outsider with little-to-no background about an executive’s intricately complex world just step in to add value and affect real change?

Based on our cross-sector coaching work at AIIR, we typically find that leaders possess the answers to their problems, even before the coaching has started! Indeed, it is their very knowledge, drive, and brilliance that has elevated them through the corporate ranks into their current roles. However, a second common finding is that these leaders rarely have the time, structure, or reflective mindset to identify, experiment, implement, and reinforce those answers.

In this context, the real value of engaging an executive coach is not to receive more advice, training, or answers. Instead, the value of a coach is helping the coachee discover the answers that reside within, but are often times competing with other ideas, forgotten, or simply buried. A coach helps their executive client access these answers by:

  • Creating a safe space to detangle head (thoughts) and heart (feelings) so that leaders can be more purposeful and deliberate in their choices to do (hands).
  • Asking probing questions that stimulate thought and encourages a leader to think through a challenge that may be unnatural or feel risky to explore alone.
  • Sharing observations about cognitive and behavioral patterns that the coachee may knowingly or unknowingly engage.
  • Serving as an important source of accountability and support as the coachee pushes beyond the safe perimeters of his or her comfort zone.
  • Modeling curiosity, reflective-listening, patience, experimentation, and an action-oriented approach to translating insight into action.

For a coach to effectively execute on the above, there must be a rock-solid coaching relationship. The research is very clear that a coach’s ability to form a trusting and positive coaching relationship is the strongest predictor for coaching success (3). This data implies that even more important than a coach’s methodology, background, tools, or certifications, the relationship between coach and coachee is “one of the most significant factors in effective coaching” (4). The opposite is true as well. According to Peterson (2010), inadequate trust and lack of chemistry often lead to “premature termination” and breakdown of the relationship (3).

Based on this research, in next week’s blog post, I will take a closer look at the important aspects of a successful coaching relationship, as well as how those aspects can be leveraged by coaches, HR, talent management, and business leaders alike.

  1. Haan, E., Duckworth, A., Birch, D., and Jones, C. (2013). Executive coaching outcome research: the contribution of common factors such as relationship, personality match, and self-efficacy. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65(1), 40-57.
  2. McKenna, D. and Davis, S. (2009). Hidden in plain sight: the active ingredients of executive coaching. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2, 244-160.
  3. Peterson, D. and Zedeck, S. (2011). PA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 2: Selecting and developing members for the organization. APA Handbooks in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (pp. 527-566).
  4. Riddle, D., Zan, L., and Kuzmycz, D. (2009). Five myths about executive coaching. LIA, 29(5), 19-21.

Jonathan Kirschner is the founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting. He is based in the Philadelphia area. As a business psychologist, coach, entrepreneur and technologist, Jonathan is passionate about creating value for leaders, their teams, and their organizations.