"I want a coach who has done my exact job before – but bigger!"

By Brian Underhill, PhD, CEO, CoachSource

“I’m told I can be too hard on people,” said the executive, a director of product development at a Silicon Valley start-up.  “I guess that means I need to do a better job of bringing people along.”

“Tell me more about that…” I asked, trying to gather vital information in order to help me nominate a handful of coaches for him to select from.

A few minutes later, the dialogue turned to my favorite (but often dangerous) part of the intake conversation: “So what traits do you want in an executive coach?” I asked.

Even I was not ready for what he would say next…or at least not in one fluid breath.

"I want a coach with an engineering background who has run product development in the Silicon Valley, at the SVP level, for a company of at least $250M or more, with a team of at least 25, spanning  5 or more countries, separated by 8 or more time zones, who has brought a product from inception to market in less than 18 months.  Oh yes, and speaking fluent Mandarin would be a plus.”

Translation: “I want a coach who has done my exact job before – but bigger!”

With over 1000 coaches at my disposal, I’m pretty good at finding that proverbial “needle in a haystack”.  But in this case, I had to wonder, “Do you really need this haystack needle to solve ‘being too hard on people’???”  (Then again, a needle might help in this case.)

Let’s put this another way - Does a coach really need to have done the job of the leader being coached in order to be effective?  And, if not, how does one change the perceptions of executives and HR accordingly?

The Issue

Our research has repeatedly demonstrated that executives (and organizations who hire coaches) WANT business experience.  In our 2012 study [LINK TO STUDY], 85% of executives selected "Business Experience" as important to their selection process (92% of organizations made this same selection).    

And we see this trend appearing repeatedly in our new assignment intake process.  Just last week, a client rejected every bio that did not have C-level P&L Fortune 500 experience listed.  Another client wanted a former sales executive-turned-coach, saying "We want a coach who has been there, done that.  Someone who has carried the bag before.”  Our standard "new assignment form" includes a checkbox for "I want a coach who had former executive experience" – a box that has come to know the check mark quite well.

BUT let’s be honest here: the vast majority of today's seasoned executive coaches do not originate from C level / line management roles.  They come from fields/professions in psychology, human resources, leadership development, I/O psych, organization development, consulting, training, education...you get the idea...

The market supply is not directly meeting market demand.  Houston, we have a mismatch.  (And this mismatch extends beyond Houston.)

Two Key Criteria

In my role of screening 1000+ coaches, I’m basically trying to ascertain two key elements:

1.     What type of business experience does this coach have?

2.     How do we know if they are any good as a coach?

This generally means many coaches seem to fall into one of two key camps:

The executive-turned coach

I received a call a few years ago from a former president of a major, major company – a company the entire world would recognize.  He met my mentor Marshall Goldsmith at some point.  “I’m retiring," he told me. "And Marshall said I should become a coach, so I am going to be a coach now.”

Most business-experience-seeking clients would be wowed by his resume (and the price tag).  He had no training as a coach, no degree in any field having to do with human behavior / personality / psychology / etc.  He did say he always liked coaching his staff when he was the boss, and that was the extent of his coaching experience.

How do we know he would be any good as a coach?  What kind of "coaching" is he actually doing?  Could it actually be mentoring or advising instead?   Is he supposed to give advice? (see my very animated blog post on the topic here)

Nonetheless, I always screen coaches for their former business career, the more experience the better...the more "line management" the better.  We capture all of this in our online database,  including which functions a coach has spent the most time in.

However, with these coaches, I then turn my attention to determining whether or not they would actually be good coaches.  What type of training do they have?  What degrees and certifications?  How many years have they been coaching?  How much of their total business revenues are solely coaching-related?  Oh, and what is it that they think coaching is?

The coach-turned executive

More commonly, most coaches we meet will usually have deep experience in coaching and related fields such as consulting, psychology, human resources, leadership development, etc.  Many held staff positions in organizations previously (i.e., VP HR, director of OD, L&D specialist, etc.).  All have had at least 5 years experience coaching, an advanced degree in the field, and often one or more coaching and instrument certifications.  

But when I ask about business experience, many point to their former internal staff roles (not bad) or their challenging experience running their small coaching/consulting business (not impressed).

In general, we know these are likely qualified coaches - it is just their former executive experience is limited - or nonexistent.  (Don’t tell anyone, but did you know both Marshall and myself have never held a Fortune 500 executive position?)

For these coaches, I turn my attention to learning what business experience they do have – and their executive level coaching experience.  What levels do they most often coach at?  What size of company?  For how many years?  Does the coach carry with them the credibility to work at the executive level?

What’s the Answer?

Our most popular coach was a former COO and CEO (of a company you've heard of), who left to get his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Fielding Institute.  He began his coaching career about 10 years ago and has been mostly booked solid ever since.  One solution is to clone him – except that is not yet possible, plus he has since retired.

Do we recruit more P&L C-level executives to leave their companies and enter the wonderful field of coaching…send them back to graduate school, train them and then wait while they gather hundreds of hours of coaching experience?  Not a likely solution.

So what is that key solution?

Let’s conclude with a further look at some the most sought after criteria found in our research…

“Ability to build rapport, trust and comfort with coach” – 100% executives selecting

“Experience and skills as a coach” – 96%

“Experience dealing with specific leadership challenges” – 85%

“Business experience” – 85%

Also, “Area of specialty as a coach” – 88% of organizations selecting

If you notice, all, but one, are coaching characteristics – the markings of a good coach -   someone who is deeply experienced as a coach, with specialty in the executive’s area of struggle, who can build rapport and establish trust with the executive.

In the end, coaching expertise trumps executive experience.  Executive experience can help improve rapport-building and empathy, but is not a replacement for coaching expertise.  Our clients are encouraged to remember great coaches do not have to have carried the bag in order to be great coaches.  A coach need not have done your job – and bigger – in order to be effective.

And don’t forget, a seasoned coach has likely worked with hundreds of executives from different functions, companies, industries, countries – and brings with him/her great wisdom gathered from that vast experience.  THAT should be the experience we are looking for.

What do you think?


Erin great article. Thank you for the research resource. It reminds me to add to my portfolio all of the Fortune businesses who were my clients as a National Acccount Manager in my former corporate career. It is great to see that coaching expertise trumps executive experience. At the same time my clients appreciate a coach who has business accumen and cross industry experience and appears to run their own business like a CEO.   You mentioned many coaches are challenged in running their own businesses.We can also be viewed as "executives" by being CEO's of our business. We can make sure our client correspondences and agreements are professionally written.  We can examplify integrity by doing what we promise when we promised. CEO's take the time to work on their business, to be visionaries. I schedule my W.O.M.B time weekly, "work on my business" to look for ways of constant improvement and to make sure it is well managed. Executives run their businesses from a set of core values, they define their culture. If coaches have team members or staff we have the opportunity to orient our team to our core values and build the behaviors that represent the business culture we want to achieve. By bringing expertise and executive presence into our coaching more executives will see us a viable coaches,

Brian, I really like the way you've laid out this issue. I would add one point. There is a risk in hiring a coach who rose up through the ranks of one or two companies. They've spent years internalizing what it takes to succeed in that culture. It's wired into their habits and one of the reasons they've thrived. How much harder it becomes to let go of these assumptions and habits so they can truly understand the cultures in which their coaches are embedded. What got you here...

Brian, Great post - you may have seen this, but it brought to mind an article from CCL (see "Myth 4") at http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/publications/lia/lia29_5myths.pdf. The article suggests that not only is it not automatically value-added for former executives to coach executives, but in fact they may be worse at it due to over-relying on their own experience and a directive approach. I thought your data told a very useful story and thanks for sharing. When I was getting certified years ago, a senior executive turned coach told me - "a heart surgeon doesn’t have to have had a heart attack to save a patient’s life.” Best, Nihar Nihar Chhaya Executive Coach www.partnerexec.com nihar@partnerexec.com

Erin has pointed out several inherent biases that many executives bring to the coaching process.  I can't say that I would argue with a manager who prefers having a coach who's actually done a job like theirs, only bigger!  This makes good sense if you approach coaching from the following perspective held by many C-Level managers I've work for and with:1 ."The purpose of coaching is to tell people how to do their jobs".  Senior managers and executives are paid to be experts in their business, to act decisively, and be sure of themselves in their dealings with others.  This reinforces the erroneous assumption that an effective coach must bring the same, or even pronounced, business experience to be able to "direct" clients in the right direction.  It is legitimate for senior managers to want a coaching experience that is pragmatic, action-oriented, and gets results.  However, they must understand the difference between a "coach", an expert in changing  thinking and behavior to become a better leader, AND a "mentor/advisor/consultant", who can/will provide specific direction and advice on business decisions.  2. "A coach with line management experience will be more pragmatic and business-focused" .   Many of these managers assume that coaches without line management experience are "human relations" types who will waste their time asking open-ended questions and encouraging them to reflect on their navels.  It's ironic that many of the managers-turned-coaches I've collaborated with bring much more pop-psychology and "woo woo" factor to their coaching than most coaches would ever consider. The lack of education/experience in legitimate psychology, business, and behavioral science is, in my opinion, at least as problematic as the perceived deficit in line management experience for coaches.3. "Only someone who's excelled at the game I play can coach other players".  The question I often ask senior managers, both in interviewing for coaching assignments and when working with them is, "How many coaches of superbowl champions were star players in the NFL?"  The answer is, almost none. In 1984, half of the league’s head coaches ­— 14 of 28 — had played in the NFL. As of 2014, the number has dropped to only six.  Two of the winningest coaches of all time, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, never played in the NFL either.  The ability to excel at coaching has little to do with having actually performed a functional or line management position.  The point is, having "played the game" of management is really no indicator at all of the skill or effectiveness of a coach that someone may choose to work with.4. "Only someone who's done my job (only bigger) could possibly teach me anything".  Not all senior managers are narccisists, but many possess a healthy (and in some cases unhealthy) dose of inflated self-worth.  Consequently, behind the need expressed by at many senior managers to want a coach who has line management experience is the belief that they have nothing to learn from someone who hasn't met, if not exceeded, their own personal and career achievements.  In most companies, having an executive coach confers status and importance (especially if you are an effective senior manager), so the perceived status and importance of the coach's background and experience is of equal concern to these individuals.  5. "An experienced manager will stay focused on the business stuff". Even for the most enlightened and motivated people, coaching can be a threatening proposition.  I believe that many senior managers prefer working with ex-manager coaches because they assume they may bring a more empathic (if not forgiving) perspective to the coaching process and not get into the messy world of feelings, motivations, blind spots, derailers, and impact of their behavior on other people.  The perceived "safety" of working with an ex-manager who has walked a mile in the client's shoes and who may "go easy" on the client because of that is another potential reason that senior managers may prefer a coach with line management experience.Thoughts?Tim Athey Ph.D

Well, not always, but you know what I mean. When I was a management consultant in Ernst & Young's Technology, Communications, and Entertainment Group many years ago, I had just received my MBA from Yale University. I basicallyhad 3 years of work experience in junior roles, and I was put in front of senior execs, with just a little E&Y training. My first client was a national brand in the midwest, steeped in tradition, 100 year old firm. I was to go in and help themimprove their business. It would have been a joke, if I wasn't being billed at $400+/hr (back when that was a lot of money).I am a quick learner, and was able to provide enough insight into their issues to protect my job when the client cut 90%of our team due to budget constraints. I was told my greatest value was my personal insights to their team culture, andspecifically, to my recommendation on how they could form and manage their teams more effectively across companyboundaries of age and race. It was an interesting 8 month assignment that won me many friends, and I learned so much I couldn't even begin to tell it all here. My point is that I was able to add huge value, despite no relevant experience. However, like the title of my post says, the customer is always right. A senior exec wants to talk with a senior exec. Now, we could talk them out of that, which may or may not work, or, we can do what sports teams do. The last time I watched anathletic event, there was at least 5 coaches standing on the sidelines team coaching. Why not provide a senior exec a teamof coaches. Sure, you get the 40 year experience coach, and then you get an OB coach, perhaps a junior coach that relates better to Millennials, and maybe a specific industry coach. Inevitably, one of them will emerge as the client favorite, andthat person becomes the point person, and coodinates the other coaches on the "team." I see from your study that cost of coaches came in at almost the lowest percent, in terms of how a client chooses a coach. Presumably, they wouldn't mindpaying a few times more for the whole team, and having rather outsized egos, which is almost a requirement today to be ina stressful, high profile, high expectation role, the client should feel very well cared for by their coaching "team" and notmind the higher price tag. The coaching gets delivered by each coach, led by the favored coach, and everyone goes homehappy. I would also guess that the resultant advice would be better by the team...teams usually outperform even the mostskilled of us individually. You would need to manage utilization rates and figure the economics on this, but my sense is thatthere is a strong business case and model to support this direction. My 2 cents.    James@WhiteHotCloud.com

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