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Differences in Personal and Executive Coaching

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Two kinds of client learning. If successful, both personal and executive coaching encourage two types of learning. The first, informational learning, broadens the client’s scope of knowledge. The second, and more important, is transformational learning, a change in the client’s internal understanding of how she or he makes meaning. Transformational learning is powerful in its ability to make significant change in the personal and executive clients by bringing to light the assumptions, values, beliefs or emotions that underlie their choices.

The Definition of “Executive Coaching”

Personal or life coaching has the personal growth and transformation of the client and the client’s life as its primary objective. However, there is no specific, industry-agreed-upon definition of executive or leadership coaching. The varied ways I have seen coaching deployed in diverse organizations with differing goals have contributed to my understanding of what is meant by “executive coaching.”

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.

However, my definition does not go as far as stating that executive coaching must have business outcomes as the primary agenda held by the coach and client. In this respect I differ with 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]

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.

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