Expanding The Career Coaching Toolkit

Coaching Trends and Opportunities

COACHES HELP CLIENTS expand their skills, tools, and perspectives.  We are proud of our abilities to help people becomes extraordinary and fulfilled.  While we challenge others to reach beyond their comfort zone, to take risks by trying new approaches, and use reflection to broaden horizons, it is time to issue the same challenge to ourselves.  What are we doing to expand our toolkit and stretch our thinking?  What can we do to prepare for coaching’s future?  The key lies in our willingness to check our assumptions, expand our toolkit, and meet evolving client needs.

Career Coaching is growing rapidly.  A 2012 study by International Coaching Federation found that worldwide coaching had grown into a US $2 billion business, which is double what it was a few years ago.  With this rate of growth and with an increased recognition of coaching’s value, it is time to look in the mirror to confirm that we have not become too content with our current practices, models, services, and perspectives.

Foundational Coaching Practices

Sports popularized the benefits of coaching.  Celebrated athletic coaches attain optimal performance using skill development, effective planning, and rewards.  This role was easily transferred to the workplace.  Similar to the specializations provided by offensive and defensive coaches, business coaches have also developed areas of expertise.  Workplace coaching initially followed three models:  performance maximization, personal work-life quality, and executive coaching.  Certainly, the delineation between these approaches can blur, but separating them can disclose trends and identify future opportunities.  Examining their roles, goals, and skills reveals their distinctions.

Performance coaching concentrates on enabling clients to achieve new levels of accomplishment.  Whether the client was a “diamond in the rough” needing polishing, an individual struggling to develop new skills, or a professional seeking assistance to handle specific barriers, performance coaching targets behavioral change, skill enhancement, and increasing initiative.  By employing relevant data, constructive feedback, competency analysis, effective problem solving, and contracting skills, a performance coach guides clients to identify and commit to a performance improvement plan.

Performance coaching protocol typically follows three steps: first, the identification of desired performance levels; second, an assessment of current performance; and finally, the preparation of a development plan that identifies tactics to bridge the performance gap.  Developmental plan components involve establishing clear expectations, timelines, and measures of success.  Consequently, key skills for this approach include negotiation, influence, planning, metric development, conflict management, and learning and development theory.

The second foundational coaching practice, personal life coaching, spotlights quality of life and personal fulfillment.  The core of the personal life coach model centers on personal awareness, interpersonal skills, wellness, work-life balance, and self-fulfillment.  This coaching function strives to build confidence, encourage introspection, clarify values and interests, and identify options to improve work-life balance.  The personal life coach practices include clarifying personal goals and values, reflecting on the level of satisfaction, examining choices and coping techniques, evaluating stress levels, identifying key interests and reflecting how to enhance satisfaction.  Personal life coaches employ skills from multiple disciplines including psychology, sociology, communication, health and wellness, and spirituality.  Personal life coaching helps clients discern new ways to improve their level of satisfaction and fulfillment.

The third foundational coaching model, executive coaching, targets a specific group:  top executives and managing directors.  Executive coaches use their skills in systems analysis, organizational development, cultural diagnosis, ethics, succession planning, governance, leadership, and partnership.  In the US, executive coaches command premium compensation, which might contribute to the growing number of coaches selecting this approach.  In addition, the growing amount of stress at the executive level, as well as the pace of change, probably factors into the expansion.

Most executives experience loneliness at the top, suffer from time crunches, confront a wide variety of stakeholders, and struggle to cope with change.  Due to the need for confidentiality and the ability to safely examine alternatives, executives frequently seek a trusted sounding board or a devil’s advocate to challenge their assumptions.  In addition, input on sustaining a legacy, building leadership bench strength, planning for succession, creating a high functioning executive team and implementing strategic change are topics for investigation.  Therefore, executive coaches focus on investigating challenges and consequences, reflecting on past decisions and practices, and considering creative solutions that offer clear benefits.  By presenting a window to look at the landscape with new eyes as well as a mirror to reflect on their own practices, it is no wonder that the benefits of executive coaches are heralded by many CEOs.

All three of these coaching models offer a high level of service.  However, as issues become more complex newer approaches are necessary.  Foundations, after all, are a starting point rather than a terminus.  They are meant to be built upon rather than clung to and memorialized.

Coaching’s Future

Since we all know that we will reside in the future rather than the past, we must prepare for our future by expanding our practices, toolkits, assumptions, and expectations.  Certainly, we will continue to use the coaching practices that have served us well, but new strategies and protocols are required for our new challenges.  Just as coaches challenge their clients to reach beyond their comfort zone, coaches must also continually enhance their skills and services.  Two new avenues have evolved: career coaching and executive alignment coaching.

Current organizational concerns with identifying and retaining key talent contribute to the growth of career coaching.  The need for an expanded “bench strength” after so many firms reduced staffing during the recent recessions but still desire to attract new talent while retaining their current key talent means that career management is a critical arena for all employees.  Combining the organization’s need to retain talent, a “war” for new talent, and a workforce that expects fast promotions continued learning opportunities, and an expectation that work is significant, increases the demand for career coaches.  With flatter organizations offering fewer promotions and constrained resources for development, career planning has shifted from an organizationally-provided career ladder to an individually-driven approach requiring individuals to identify their goals and positioning themselves for advancement.

Career coaches guide clients to examine multiple career projections, since moving up is not the only way to develop their career.  Jointly, the coach and client identify areas of interests and assess the projected fit between their aspirations, the required competencies, and the anticipated responsibilities.  When expectations are aligned, a development plan is crafted to outline the steps to attain the targeted position.  The individual development plan identifies the key competencies, methods for mastering a new competency, a proposed timeline, and a template for discussions with their current managers to gain their support.  Successful career coaches possess many of the skills of the performance and personal life coach in addition to an ability to discern career patterns, identify areas for opportunities, evaluate the requisite resources, craft a reasonable timeline, encourage reasonable risk-taking, develop key milestones and monitor and recognize progress.

While the client base for career coaching is broad, advanced executive coaching has a narrower audience.  Executives struggle with the stress of facing ramifications of the global recession, growing complexity and competitiveness, accelerating customer expectations, increasing regulations, and a necessity for innovation.  Advanced executive coaching, which is also called strategic coaching, alignment coaching, decision coaching, and organizational coaching; offers an advanced level of executive coaching combined with aspects of both an organizational development and strategic consultant in a trusted one-on-one partnership.

Major studies have found that change implementation is a major barrier to a successful strategic plan, restructurings, mergers, and transformation initiatives.  The troubling fact is that the success rate of change ranges from 11% to 30%.  Since the vast majority of efforts fall short, executives must review their communication plans, implementation strategies, and action planning.  The “school of hard knocks” where new initiatives are launched without careful analysis is becoming more dangerous than ever.  Lost revenue, customer defections, public relations blowback and brand dilution can lead to bankruptcy, a hostile takeover, or loss of market share.  To succeed, executives need to fully delve into opportunities, operating assumptions, and potential consequences.  Failing to effectively plan equates to a plan to fail.  Energies remain disjointed, goal confusion proliferates, roles and resolution paths dissolve, and silo thinking spreads.  A trusted guide is needed to ensure success, remove potential blinders, and balance short- and long-term thinking.

Executives face many more options than the standard duality of a simple fork in the road.  Most executives focus on their tried and true practices or the current leadership fad from re-engineering to scorecards.  Advanced executive coaching or alignment coaches expand options preventing an over-reliance on legacy or whim, ensuring that short- and long-term impact is fully understood, pressing for effective implementation planning and encouraging a full risk analysis.  Even when the right path is selected, getting the organization coordinated and supportive of key goals is not automatic, despite carefully crafted taglines, banners, and speeches.  Strategies, new initiatives, and new ventures have to be managed, and aligning energies and resources is key.  Success does not flow from a vision or strategic goals, it stems from effective execution that aligns energies, properly allocates resources, revises systems to support new goals, trains people for new responsibilities, and rewards those who produce results.

At first look, this coaching role might be confused with that of a strategy consultant, which it is not.  Table 1 distinguishes this coaching model from strategy consulting in terms of different focal points, skill sets, and expectations.

Table 1

Strategy ConsultantExecutive Alignment Coach
Goal:  Develop strategic vision & market positionGoal:  Plan implementation & change management
Skill set:  Strategic planning, market research, industry knowledge, market analysis;  writing skills; persuasion; trend analysis; applying technology, financial analysis, business model analysis, consultingSkillset:  Organizational development, change management, priority and organizational life cycle analysis, thinking skills, influencing skills, motivation, team dynamics, systems thinking
Role:  Expert; PrescriberRole:  Coach, Detective, Questioner, and Guide
Focus: Market and external realitiesFocus:  Organizational life cycle, support for change  and integrated execution
Time Frame:  Short-term contract for long-term projectTime Frame: Extended partnership for short- and long-term projects

While the strategic consulting firms garner headlines and attention, the executive alignment coaching process operates with less fanfare.  Helping others make the right decision at the right time in the right way to get the right support is a delicate and complex art employing discernment, judgment, and high levels of trust.  The following example illustrates how an alignment coach contributes without prescribing business decisions or an action plan.

Case Study in Executive Alignment Coaching

A new externally hired CEO was charged by his Board of Directors to rapidly grow the business.  Knowing that two of his staff had applied for his position, he spent time explaining his vision and plans as well as the need for fast action.  Three months after launching his vision, he recognized that the plan was floundering due to confusion and resistance.  At first, he assumed that the resistance was based on personal feelings and was potentially a sabotage attempt.  Fortunately, the CEO followed his mentor’s advice and hired a coach who specialized in alignment.  With guidance from the coach, the CEO shifted his focus from personal conflict to organizational alignment.  Using the organizational life cycle, the coach asked for evidence to evaluate where the organization was in the life cycle.  The coach explained that just like the human life cycle where there are stages or phases through which each person progresses, organizations have a life cycle.  And, just as young children have different issues than adults, start-up organizations face concerns that are different from those of mature firms.

The coach shared a six-stage organizational life cycle process, including:

  1. Birth or Re-Birth:  an entrepreneurial stage typified by technology firms where a new product or service is brought to market or an established firm reinvents itself.
  2. Growth or the hockey stick phase when customers flock to the product or service and market share grows along with brand recognition.
  3. Stature phase that is internally focused on preparing the infrastructure and policies to ensure capacity and longevity.
  4. Prime cycle when integrating and standardizing processes to use resources effectively is key.
  5. Protector phase when talent retention, support for a high performing culture, and sustaining traditions and brand are critical.
  6.  Mature phase when assumptions need to be tested, trends identified, business models adjusted and new niche opportunities seized.

This organizational life cycle template enabled the CEO to re-assess his assumptions.  With a few months’ experiences, he recognized that the firm had passed through the Growth phase and that the issues reaching his desk dealt with customer concerns over quality and shrinking profit margins.  An issues comparison chart (Table 2) of Growth and Prime Stages confirmed his thinking.  He recognized that the Prime stage issues had to be addressed immediately to avoid organizational derailment.  While the Growth stage issues were important, they were not currently critical.  Given that there were limited resources, time, and attention, expanding into new markets would be foolhardy.  Quality concerns and profit margins were primary at this juncture.

Table 2

Growth Stage IssuesPrime Stage Issues
Market growthQuality and process maximization
Fast and flexible actionCost reduction/containment
“Can do” attitude and risk-takingDeploy best practices across all units
Competitive positionImproved evidence-based decision making

By using the life cycle template the CEO recognized that his team was right to pursue quality, cost, and process improvement.  The Board’s growth-focused directive was misguided.  He had not been “wrong” in wanting growth, every firm thrives on it.  But the organization also had to be prepared for it.  He held a retreat to share his thinking and the perspectives offered by the organizational life cycle.  As a team, they considered the data, discussed the importance of balancing key priorities, and agreed on their organizational life cycle stage.  Then they were able to craft and accept an action plan that everyone could actively support.

Evidence-based leadership gained the CEO the support he wanted from his team and also framed a convincing message for the entire organization.  With so many things pulling at our heads, minds and hearts, a dispassionate and comprehensive situational analysis can win support, inform planning, and ensure effective implementation.  Flexibility is essential for our complex world.

With agreement on the goals and priorities, attention turned to implementation.  While some executives thought that their job was to create an inspiring vision and then hand-off execution to others, the coach proposed an alternative perspective.  The CEO must lead throughout the implementation process.  Provided with a template to guide implementation, the CEO stayed involved, adjusted the plan as the situation warranted, reallocated resources when appropriate and celebrated success.  He also employed aligned metrics to monitor implementation.  It is not enough to be the champion during the kick-off, a champion has to stay in the game to ensure that the expected benefits are actually achieved and sustainable.

Coaching Challenge

Like this CEO, coaches have to continually learn and explore options.  As coaching grows the categories expand.  The question is whether we continue to enlarge our toolkit or act as if new areas such as career or executive alignment coaching are beyond us.  What is ultimately important is that we serve our clients.  It may require us to stretch into areas that we have ignored or avoided.  We cannot let inertia and comfort replace learning.  We can develop new protocols, templates, procedures, and systems.

The analogy of the trapeze artist holding tightly to the rung in his/her hand and refusing to release the current handhold to grasp another bar highlights our challenge.  To grow we must honor what we have and also let it go to reach new heights.  Not having a net below us, not having insurance that we will immediately succeed and not having a guarantee that any new skill will be needed by our very next client, makes it even harder to release our firm grip.  There are many excuses to hold onto existing protocols and practices.  New ideas may be hazardous to our ego, but they are essential to our growth.  When we savor the challenge, move forward, and have the courage to meet new challenges, the field of coaching grows in effectiveness and stature.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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