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I’m quite regularly asked what seems like a very basic question: What does an executive coach do, exactly? It’s something I like to hear from time to time, because it’s good to go back to basics once in a while and really think about what we, as executive coaches are here for.

Where does executive coaching stand in the grand theme of things? Is it therapy by any other name? Is it a place to find a strategic sounding board or is it about training the so called ‘soft’ skills that have become so essential to leadership? Perhaps you prefer to describe it as a ‘helpful conversation’ and if so, I would add that it takes a lot of skill, awareness and relationship to make it ‘helpful.  One of the most useful explanations was in the Harvard Business Review, which pointed out that executive coaching spans both teaching (or consulting, more accurately) and therapy:

5 Reasons for excutive coaching

So after a lot of thought, here are my five reasons to use an executive coach:

1) It’s not about ‘fixing’ you, it’s about making you a better leader

Not so long ago, if a company hired an executive coach it usually meant that someone in a senior position in their organisation was seen as ‘troublesome’. But that has changed. The Harvard Business Review carried out a survey  of 140 of the most successful and well-known coaches in the US, to understand what they do and what they saw as the future of executive coaching as a service. They almost unanimously agreed that the reasons why executive coaches are hired by companies has changed over the past 10 years. Whereas before, companies usually engaged a coach in order to fix toxic behaviour, today coaching is all about developing the capabilities of high-potential performers.

48% of the coaches taking part said that the primary reason that they were hired was to develop high potentials, or to ease a transition within the company. 26% said they were hired to act as a sounding board, while just 12% said it was to address a particular set of behaviour. That also helps to explain another key finding of the survey: that the executives that tend to get the most out of coaching are those that have a strong desire to learn and improve their leadership skills.

2) It’s good to learn

There never comes a point where anyone can say, yes, I’m the best leader I can be. The best leaders know that they are always learning – learning about themselves but also learning about the shifting needs of their business and the people they lead. An effective leader of 20 years ago would look nothing like an effective leader today; leadership has changed, which means that leaders must also adapt.

3) Andy Murray has one

Forbes magazine has pointed out that an executive coach has become a status symbol. That’s rather a simplistic way of looking at it, but it’s true to say that many people in positions of power, and those at the top of their field, have someone in their lives who essentially carries out the role of executive coach. Someone they trust, that they can talk to and bounce ideas off, someone who understands the challenges they face on many levels.  Barack Obama had David Axelrod, Rory McIlroy has Michael Bannon, Andy Murray has Amélie Mauresmo. We all need someone who makes us better at what we do.

4) It’s lonely at the top

A study by Stanford Business School found that while almost two-thirds of CEOs don’t receive any form of executive coaching or leadership development, almost all of them said they would like to, and that they enjoyed and valued the leadership advice they had received in the past. One of the authors of the report made this salient point: ‘Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, it’s concerning that so many of them are going it alone. Even the best-of-the-best have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.’

This is backed up the HBR survey, in which 132 of the 140 respondents said that their focus during the engagement had shifted from what they had originally been hired to do. Most said that the process had begun with a business bias but then moved on to ‘bigger issues’ such as their general purpose in life, and how to be a better leader. This is a reflection of the type of relationship that should develop between coach and executive – it begins on a formal footing but if it’s right, the coach becomes a trusted and valued confidante, someone to discuss your thoughts and ideas with.

5) Power affects the mind

Another study, by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in the US, found that, as the researchers put it, ‘power diminishes perception and perspective’. In other words, the more power you have, the more likely it is that you become self-centred and self-assured, but not in a particularly positive way. The research argues that powerful people are more likely to dismiss or misunderstand the views of those below them in the pecking order.

A leader who understands this and, most importantly, addresses it will be way ahead of the pack. Dr Douglas LaBier, a renowned business psychologist and director of the Center for Progressive Development in the US, [see for more about him] argues that self-awareness is crucial to leadership, and that it can be developed through coaching. The higher up you move in any organisation, the more you have to deal with psychological and relationship-based issues. That means that leaders have to be astute and emotionally intelligent – or, as Dr LaBier puts it, ‘you can’t know the truth about another without knowing it about yourself’.

Empathy, compassion, collaboration and the ability to connect with others are essential leadership skills – and yet being in a position of leadership seems to diminish them. The good news is that these are skills that can be developed – and it’s something that, at Space2BE, is particularly close to our hearts.