In part 2 of my series on executive coaching, I’m sharing the coach-specific insights from my 80+ interviews with executives and coaches, and how they’ve changed the way I coach. If you’re looking for the data, you can also refer to Part 1 of this series or visit Part 3: How to Find an Executive Coach.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned and how I’ve applied it to my day-to-day work.

Coaching is an experiential good

What I used to think: Finding an executive coach is like finding a personal trainer for fitness. We’re starting with a specific goal in mind, and the coach develops a program to help achieve it. Finding the right coach is a matter of matching needs to skills and backgrounds.

What I missed in this thinking is that topics like leadership, interpersonal effectiveness and operating businesses are incredibly complicated. Relative to these topics, fitness is pretty straightforward. It’s not just about the coach having the right background, it’s about finding a partner with not just the skill but a compatible style to work with you.

The key insight is that coaching is an experiential good, something that needs to be experienced to be properly valued and understood. Like a book or movie, you don’t really know its value to you until you actually experience it. It explains why 50%+ of executives of the executives I spoke to found coaches from asking their network for referrals. They want someone who’s seen the movie before to tell them that it’s good, rather than relying on impersonal search and websites.

How I apply this as a coach:

  • Build the coaching equivalent to a high-quality movie trailer. The best way to help someone evaluate an experiential good is to make it easy to understand what you do, like watching the trailer before the movie. For me, this takes on the form of written content and trying to impart value from spending time together. If you read what I’ve written, you can get a better sense of how I think and work. If you spend time with me, I try to make sure we both learn something from the time.
  • Invest effort on word of mouth referrals. Because coaching is an experiential good, execs rely on recommendations from their network to find a coach. This means that people you know are the ones most likely to introduce you. I dived into the world of coaching without a particularly deep understanding of how I was going to build my practice, and this insight makes it clearer how I should spend my efforts.

Coaches help answer the why and how

What I used to think: Coaching is analogous to tutoring. It requires effort to build a new skill and expertise, and coaching is a faster and more efficient way to reach these goals.

What I’ve learned since is that while it can be helpful in this way, that’s not the defining value. It’s less about what you need to do, and more about why or how to do it.

There are a lot of avenues to build new skills or gather advice: courses, books, blogs, podcasts, building a trusted mentor network, etc. They are likely superior on some level to having a coach, because coaches are not the most qualified person to help. They are just one person who may or may not have a lot of direct experience in the area that you’re tackling. If you are looking for direct targeted advice in a situation someone who’s put together an entire course or a group of people who have lived experiences in your topic likely has better insights than what a coach can offer.

Where a coach really helps is in the space of discussion and motivation. The coaching sessions create a safe space to talk about what’s top of mind. Founders and executives are often under intense pressure, and they don’t necessarily have people who they can safely talk through a situation with. Finding dedicated time to talk through all of the pros and cons, what-if’s, or what-else’s while getting feedback on what makes sense and what isn’t can be incredibly helpful as a way to move forward. Coaches can then layer on the structure and accountability to tie these conversations to action.

How I apply this as a coach:

  • Emphasize structured thinking over frameworks and concepts. Previously, I felt structured content was an important part of the value to coaching. I’ve come to feel this is less useful for the founders I work with, because many are already experienced operators who don’t need frameworks or tactical advice. Instead, they benefit from the space to work through their thoughts with a partner. My focus has shifted toward the rigorous thinking to “work a problem” by examining it from all angles.

The process of finding a coach is horked

What I used to think: Execs know what they want out of a coach, and it’s not difficult to find someone to help meet that goal.

I was wrong in this assumption on so many levels. I didn’t realize how fragmented the coaching industry is. There are coaches everywhere! Coaching as an industry is growing incredibly fast, in part because anyone can declare they are a coach – and they are! This messy situation means there are a lot of coaches and it’s difficult to sift through them.

In addition to the vast number of coaches to sift through, executives often don’t enter coaching conversations with specific goals in mind. This is problematic because when asked how to maximize the value of coaching, many of the executives I spoke to gave the advice that you should think about “problem-solution fit” and how well the coach fits your problem. How can you do this without knowing what you’re trying to achieve?

Furthering the issue, even if they do have a defined problem it’s a challenge to locate the right coach even if you are asking your network for referrals.

It’s a coaches role then to help guide and educate on what coaching is. Many of the conversations I have are as much about helping identify goals and troubleshoot potential solutions as they are about the work I do.

How I apply this as a coach:

  • Embrace the need to educate. Now that I’ve learned how broken this process is, I’ve embraced the idea that working with potential clients is an education process. I encourage them to frame clear goals, talk to multiple coaches, and help them assess whether or not coaching is the right way to address their goals.
  • Articulate my own approach clearly. I’ve spent time articulating my own approach, what it’s like to work with me, and what they should expect. And point out the differences so they can gauge their preferences. The more I can help them understand what I offer (and don’t), the easier it is to find a great long-term fit.
  • Build my coach referral list. I’ve made an active effort to meet other coaches and get to know what kind of work they do. It’s my own small addition to helping someone manage the messy search process.

In Conclusion

My understanding of the business of coaching is constantly evolving, but getting the opportunity to talk live to 80+ executives and coaches has helped sharpen my perspectives. I’m glad to be able to share some of my insights and welcome feedback if you have any! Coming in the future is part 3 on how to find an executive coach — please subscribe if you’re interested in hearing more.