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Differences in Personal and Executive Coaching

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I define executive coaching as coaching individuals with the presumption that coaching will in some way impact that leader’s performance in the workplace. The coaching objective of developing the client’s leadership skills is the underlying agenda for at least part, if not all, of the coaching.

My definition does not go as far as stating that executive coaching agenda shared between the client and coach must have stated business outcomes as defined by the organization.  As we will see in my section on Executive Performance Coaching, the organization business outcomes are significant – lower attrition and higher executive performance.  However the agenda of the coaching is driven by the client. This is a starting point that focuses on the executive’s ability to bring their strongest self to the workplace perhaps including the executive’s health, life/balance and other personal concerns.  In this respect I add to the conclusion of Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, in which Mary Beth O’Neil writes: “Being, learning and doing do not trump the need of our clients to produce business outcomes.”[iii] In Executive Performance Coaching the executive is the business outcome = their retention, job satisfaction and enhanced performance.

When coaching outcomes are specifically tied to organizational strategy, the coach often must have organizational expertise. Mary Jane Knudson’s article in Executive Coaching and Business Strategy speaks to the need of the executive coach to have “a sophisticated understanding of organizations” in order to best serve the client.[iv] I would agree an executive client is well served by a coach who has business and organizational expertise, but there are many executive coaching engagements that do not require the coach to bring these skills to bear.

Agenda-Setting is Key

Where the two practices diverge is in the setting of the coaching agenda, i.e., the goals the client and coach co-create. In personal coaching the agenda’s focus is on the client and the client’s personal growth. Coaching often begins with a discussion of the areas of the client’s life that are either fulfilled or lacking, such as family, spirituality, health, social, fun, or finances. Personal coaching assists clients in building fulfilled lives where the clients can optimize the lives they desire and build skills in communication and connection. The goal is for the clients to have a more conscious approach to building their lives as well as address the beliefs, values and emotions that underlie their choices.

Executive coaching agendas are focused on the presumption that the coaching will in some fashion influence the client’s performance in the workplace. In executive coaching, discussions often relate to strategy, team optimization, emotional intelligence, professional development and organization systems, structure, and staffing as well as culture and values. The coach may assist in the informational learning of the client by co-creating learning opportunities around best practice in these areas.

However, since personal factors are ultimately part of what hinders performance, executive coaching will also include transformational learning around values, emotions, assumptions and beliefs. Because of its transformational elements, coaching around work and leadership goals is often transferrable to the client’s personal growth. And coaching around personal issues is often transferrable to the client’s professional or leadership growth. The key differences reside in the setting of the agenda.

Types of Executive Coaching

Distinct categories of executive coaching are defined by different underlying objectives. What we see in each of these executive coaching scenarios are different levels of organizational influence on the client’s goals and coaching process.  This degree of influence will impact the level of sophistication required by the coach in understanding the organization.

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