Are Executive Coaches Too Nice?

By Brian Underhill, PhD

There is a particular brand of ice cream I do not eat.

It has nothing to do with the product ingredients, flavor varieties, or even the brand’s political views.  It has to do with (yes, I know this is immature) a long-held grudge associated with one of the few times I was fired as an executive coach.

About 15 years ago, four of my most-talented colleagues and myself were inaugural coaches for an ice cream company’s first ever 360 feedback and coaching program.  We were all thrilled to be included, as this looked like a fun company.  We each dutifully reviewed the top brass’ 360 reports.  We then worked individually with them one-on-one, in sessions that (at the time) felt quite productive and fulfilling.  I still vividly remember the accomplished feeling that hit me having reached that breakthrough moment with one leader in particular, as I helped him relate his leadership challenge to his side hobby as a private pilot.

Three days later, the call came through; it was our “smile sheet” feedback scores being delivered to each of us by the boss.  I was expecting decent-to-wonderful results, especially, since I'd only received great scores in all my past efforts.  So then expecting nothing less, the words seemed to strike my eardrums in some sort of muffled slow motion: “They aren’t re-hiring you.  They said you were too tough on the participants.  All the coaches were.  We’re replacing all of you."

What??  I was too tough on the participants?  I'd never heard that before.  If anything I thought I was too nice!  Now that feedback was “cold” (pun intended). 

Over the years, I've put up with plenty from my coached executives: missed appointments, uncompleted homework assignments, or not actually practicing the new desired behavior in between sessions. I’m sure you’re familiar with the line, or at least some variation of it - "We've just been absolutely up to our necks, so I had no time to try and be nice to people this past week!"  Up to a point, we coaches have all probably let some of this slide.  While I don't let this go on for long, I know I allow more of this than I ought to.

As executive coaches, we constantly struggle with finding this right balance.  The balance between being a friendly, safe place to dialogue, vs. the being the iron fist in really holding executives accountable - to hold their feet to the fire.  We struggle with the balance between opening new positive avenues of growth vs. hitting them over the head with very harsh and often negative 360 feedback.  The balance between offering encouragement and support vs. speaking dead truth.  And this balance is not an absolute - every coaching case is very different, and so is each coaching contact.

Research says coaches are too nice (depending on who you ask)

In fact, recent survey results have actually shed some light on this dilemma.  We polled nearly 100 organizations, several hundred external coaches, internal coaches and even 60+ executives for our study Executive Coaching for Results (Click here for information on downloading).

We asked all groups: “How do you feel about how much coaches challenge leaders?”  Choices were simple: “Coaches challenge leaders appropriately”, “At times, coaches could challenge the leaders more”, “At times, coaches are too hard on leaders”.

The good news is for the most part, executives were satisfied.  80% of executives who had worked with a coach indicated that their coach challenged them appropriately.  This is great news for all us coaches, as it seems like we are mostly hitting the mark in this always-elusive balance.

In fact, executives represented the most optimistic group in this category, compared to external coaches (72% say "Coaches challenge leaders appropriately), internal coaches (61%) and – bringing up the rear – organizational respondents (only 57% agreeing with this statement).  This is even better news - executives are more pleased with our level of challenge than any of us practitioners are!

But let's look at this a different way: 18% of executives indicated coaches could challenge them more vs. just 2% that feel coaches are too hard.  While this affected a minority of polled executives, the leaning is still toward needing to challenge more.  The learning for coaches: when in doubt, a coach could always err on the side of a bit more challenge.

Organizations definitely want coaches to challenge more:

At CoachSource, we collect countless “intake forms” each year – forms generally completed mostly by an HR business partner when requesting coaching from us.  More often then not, we see statements such as (actual quotes from our forms):

  • "We need someone to challenge the coachee’s thinking in a direct, clear manner."
  • "Coach that needs to challenge him." 
  • "Need a strong personality who can hold this leader accountable and really challenge her to tell things as they are." 
  • "Susan should have a female coach who is assertive and firm (yet likable!), and will hold Susan accountable." 
  • "She is a really upfront person and is not patient for anyone subtle.  Just cut through the chase and tell her."

In fact, our intake form offers a choice: would the leader work better with a coach who is “relational and subtle” or “clear and direct”.  Which gets more checks?  I’ve only seen “relational, subtle” checked once - ever.

And in the aforementioned research, a noticeable 42% of organizations selected “At times, coaches could challenge the leaders more”. 

The thought does not escape me that perhaps organizations are hoping an external coach can come in and deliver a hard message that they themselves have been unsuccessfully - or perhaps unwilling or unable – to deliver to the high-powered executive.  In fact, those of our coaches who seem to be able to portray a strong, pervasive demeanor during HR interviews are often those put forward to meet the executive next.

So, what do we take from all this?

  1. Coaches are generally doing a good job in the balance between clear/direct and subtle/relational, in the eyes of executives
  2. If anything, coaches should lean toward even more directness when in doubt
  3. Be aware our corporate HR clients will often prefer a coach with greater directness
  4. When in doubt, always ask your coached leader how they feel you are doing in this balance

And finally… a great coach should know better than to hold a grudge.  And in my night job as a church musician – I should know how to forgive.  And so that’s what I did; Setting my calorie-counting application aside, I went to the store to treat myself to this brand’s finest mint-chip ice cream.  Writing this article reminded me that it was time to do as our good friend Marshall Goldsmith continuously says; it was time to “let it go”.

And what timing, as I looked on the label I found this ice cream brand has since been bought by an international food & beverage brand.  I guess it is safe to indulge now!


About the Author:

Brian O. Underhill, Ph.D.  Brian is an industry-recognized expert in the design and management of large-scale executive coaching programs.  He is also the Founder & CEO of CoachSource (, which boasts over 900 coaches in 42 countries.


Hi Brian: Good article on not only your experience with the ice cream executives, but also an excellent exposition on what executives want. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that mint-chip is also my favourite.While you mentioned not holding a grudge or lingering resentment about the experience, and, of course, forgiveness is always easier when ice cream is involved, I wonder how you would handle the same situation today given your additional 15 years of experience. That is, as an executive coach how might you handle the boss's "summary" and decision to not hire again. Would you do anything differently when you receive that news?Part of the reason I ask is that it is not unusual to get feedback that is in contrast to what a coach had expected to get. And is it possible to characterize the reaction to that feedback as "coach-like" or just too startling?Cheers.Rey Carr

Brian, great post on an oft-discussed dilemma -- how to balance the "create a safe space" part of my work with the "let me smack you upside the head" part of my work.  I just had a situation like that today and I was so torn, asking myself, "do I handle this like YOU handle it, with a baseball bat; or do I hold my coaching stance?"  I held the space, and was glad I did.  By asking a powerful Q, I helped him realize how what he was doing was alienating one of his peers.  Sometimes the most direct form of coaching is simply holding up a mirror and asking, "do you see what I'm seeing?"  

Thanks Brian. I often get feedback from clients that a session with me is like a workout at the gym. They leaving feeling somewhat exhausted yet renewed and inspired. If we are not mutually accountable in the coaching relationship, then I can't help a client be accountable in their job. Clear contracting and agreements at the beginning are crucial.

This article was sent to me by an online group of coaches in India.  Here was how I commented on Brian's excellent article:I know Brian Underhill very well. He is a very nice person. He is not one of those tough guys who has to learn to soften up a bit. His article was framed around not eating a certain brand of Ice Cream. What he wrote about is a key ingredient to this dish we serve up as coaches. I think another analogy is using the "glass is half full or half empty." The people we coach and the leaders above that person can easily fall into the "half empty" viewpoint. Whatever level of challenge we bring to the engagement they will say it was too much or not enough. Our best defense is a continual checking in as to whether we are sinning from too much or too little toughness/challenge. That way, at the end of the assignment the client can only choose from being very happy with our approach, or point out they were dishonest with us along the way.

Great article Brian.  And I agree!  It does seem that clients in the HR department prefer the "tougher" coaches for their senior executives.  Coaches who are perceived as "nice" don't seem to see as many opportunities at the higher levels of the organizations. 

Challenge is how I was trained, yet today's style through some major international organizations is at least a 90 degree turn to nice. I think it "depends" on the objective of the coaching - whether it's true "coaching" or a combination of training, coaching and intervention. The term coaching is a huge container for many types of interactions.

Thank you for bringing our image out into the open, as we rarely focus on ourselves long enough or often enough to truly assess if we set the right tone and the "why" we were recruited from internal HR-OD-TD services. This was a pleasure to read and very useful. 

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