by Susan Cramm

How to Work with an Executive Coach

Aug 01, 20055 mins

Six ground rules for successful coaching engagements.

While most people have heard of executive coaching, few have personal experience working with a coach. Here’s my view of the profession and process from seven years of working as an executive coach.

Truth be told, I was asked to be a coach before I knew what one was. Fortunately my ignorance wasn’t career-limiting, because no one else knew either. Over the past 15 years or so, executive coaching has emerged as a practice and is making a real difference in the lives, careers and businesses of many.

There are plenty of references that describe the various types of executive coaching, the benefits, and the ideal approach to selecting and working with a coach (for example, “The Wild West of Executive Coaching,” Harvard Business Review). But I find that the literature falls short when it comes to disclosing the caveat emptor realities of executive coaching. If you are thinking about investing in executive coaching services, keep the following in mind.

Coaching is optional. You cannot force someone to participate in coaching. I have a client who wants me to work with one of his direct reports, but that person is not interested. In fact, the only thing the direct report is interested in developing is his golf game. While it might be possible for me to sell him on the benefits of coaching, it is ethically important that I pull back: A coach can’t change someone who is not interested in changing himself.

Coaching relationships are long-term. Once someone clicks with a coach, she is likely to stay with that coach, in some capacity or another, over the long haul. The initial relationship will be the most intense. With the foundation built, subsequent interventions will be targeted and efficient. Just as with a well-loved doctor or mentor, it doesn’t make sense to discontinue a relationship that continues to be useful. Senior managers who benefit from coaching and have their own budgets will find some way to pay for it, even if it’s not within company policy.

Coaches work for the client. My client’s interests trump those of his supervisor or company—regardless of who is paying the bill. Managers have input on the expected outcomes, but they cannot control the process or determine how their subordinates define success. I have a client who wants to start his own business in five years, and his motivation to change is driven by this objective. As a coach, I must respect this objective and help him move toward his goal.

Even in this type of situation, however, there’s no conflict of interest 99 percent of the time, because the resulting behavior changes will benefit the company, thereby enhancing my client’s career prospects there and increasing the likelihood that he will remain with the company.

Coaching focuses on the soft stuff. The hard business issues—such as organization, strategy, measurement targets, processes and road maps—are the easy stuff of coaching. Ultimate success lies in the more difficult work of shoring up, mitigating or leveraging soft skills—including the ability to assign the right people to the right roles, gain commitment to a strategy, develop strong relationships, communicate effectively, manage up and delegate. Recognize that better soft stuff will lead to the right hard stuff, and give the coach room to work on both.

Coaches must deliver. Executive coaches are sometimes called “performance coaches”—a term I love. I agree that “coaching that focuses on business performance is key to improvement in executive performance” (from “Coaching: No More Mr. Nice Guy,” Gallup Management Journal). It is essential that coaching goals include the “what” of quantitative business improvement (for example, project success) as well as the “how” of qualitative behavior changes (such as stakeholder alignment). Coaching should be guided by business needs, fueled by proven business theory and practices, and grounded in the work that is on the client’s desk. The best coaching engagements are iterative and require contracts that are short-term and measurement-focused.

Coaches aren’t nice. When someone hires a coach, she is agreeing to change. But because people like the idea of change better than the reality, the best coaches practice tough love. One of my clients tells me in the same breath how difficult and how beneficial coaching has been for him. Good coaching sessions are simultaneously stimulating and exhausting. Most clients look forward to the beginning and end of each session, but not to the hard work in between.

As with any profession, there are good and not-so-good executive coaches. If you decide to work with a coach, do your due diligence and manage the relationship as you would with any professional services provider. If you do so, you have a good shot at embarking on a business-building relationship.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. E-mail feedback to