Opportunities for Consultants Who Offer Executive-Level Coaching

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jun 18, 2008

Although labor market news is filled with gloom and doom, the fact remains that many of those at the executive level are nearing retirement. Therefore companies want changes in leadership to occur with little disruption to the work being accomplished, says Ann Ruschy, an executive recruiter with the Bailey Group in Minneapolis. To increase the chances of a smooth transition, progressive companies are investing in the development of the next generation of key leaders, through executive level coaching, she says. Companies are pursuing executive level coaching because it has been found to be a good investment, producing “better, more effective leaders” who boost productivity, encourage loyal and engaged workforces and have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line, she says.

Diane Brennan, president of the International Coach Federation (ICF), has been an independent coach and consultant since 2000. Prior to becoming a coach, Brennan spent more than 20 years in senior management, executive and clinical practice positions in the health care industry. The trend to expand coaching beyond the executive level has created a demand for coaching across levels, she says. The reason for that is organizations are seeing “a high return on investment,” which supports the claim that coaching works, she adds.

Rich Gee, an executive coach and principal of Rich Gee Coaching in Stamford, Conn., says just five years ago most coaching focused on C-level executives. “As with personal trainers, coaching is now quickly becoming mainstream and branching out to all areas of the company,” he adds.

Different Types of Coaching

Coaching at the mid-level is different than traditional executive coaching. “Supervisors and managers are on the front lines of performance and need to develop the skills needed to move collective effort,” says Diana Keith, a business psychologist and principal of M-Level Systems Consulting in Boca Raton, Fla. Many of the clients being coached are often “missing people skills in regard to coaching their management teams and keeping a solution-focused culture running at top speed,” she says.

In addition, at the mid-manager level, there are not as many constituencies to deal with, Gee says. “When you’re in the top levels of a company, you have customers, the board, investors, Wall Street—in addition to all of your internal customers,” he says. At lower levels of the organization, coaching is simpler, but not easier, because at that level, there is an added focus on interpersonal and leadership skills, he says.

Eric Herrenkoh, a management consultant and coach, has worked with CEOs and senior executives as well as middle-managers and front-line supervisors in financial services, architecture, retail and other industries. “In my experience, supervisors and line managers need a different kind of coaching than senior executives,” he says. Supervisors and line managers generally need help to become effective managers, including developing their skills in setting goals, providing coaching, providing accountability and delivering effective performance reviews, he adds.

Marcia Reynolds agrees. Reynolds left her corporate HR/training position in 1995 to start an executive coaching and leadership development firm, Covisioning. The consultancy’s clients range from CEOs to managers and are located around the globe. There is a distinct difference in coaching executives and mid-level managers, she notes. “For executives, they’re hiring a thinking partner to help them discuss decisions, expand perspective, balance home/work, strategize future possibilities and work through difficult issues,” she says. Coaching of supervisors and managers is usually based on a particular need because they have some problems, she says. “It is more about problem-solving than enhancing their leadership capability,” she says.

Ruschy has observed the same types of needs among supervisory and mid-management groups. “Coaching for middle managers is about preparing them for future growth,” she says. Some coaches focus on leadership or management skills training, such as communications, team building, hiring and performance management that will help a client increase job performance, she says.

Independent consultants can capitalize on these opportunities by developing coaching programs that are focused specifically on the needs of individuals at this level, Herrenkohl says. “The standard program can incorporate management assessment tools with training sessions and group and individual coaching,” he says. Each program can be tailored to achieve the specific goals of a company, division or department. In that way, consultants can create cost-effective programs that can help groups of managers improve their management results.

Skills and Background Needed

Coaching is not teaching or instruction,” Gee says. “The client does the work—you guide and push them to get to their goals on their timetables.”

Brennan agrees and stresses that coaches need to recognize that coaching is about partnering with clients to help them be successful—and not about being the expert. Coaching is about the client being the expert in their world and the coach helping them to create a plan and a process toward success, she says. “We’re experts in the process of coaching—the client is the expert in the work they need to do,” she says. “If you feel like you need to be the expert and you need to tell folks what it is they need to do, that’s not what coaching is about,” she says. However, HR professionals bring a great background to the field of coaching. That background, when supported through the development of specific coaching skills, can put them in position to provide these services, she says.

Gee agrees. HR consultants need to bring their inherent HR skills to bear and have the ability to understand the client’s area of expertise, he says. For example, the field of information technology differs from sales, which is different from finance, so a consultant needs to use the knowledge and tools developed in HR areas and embrace different departments’ work habits, personalities and learning patterns, he says.

Sally Haver, senior vice president of business development for The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, a division of Kelly Services, Inc., in New York, says her organization required executive coaches to have advanced degrees in areas such as “organizational development” or “leadership development.” Those coaches must have significant in-house corporate experience, as well as at least three years on the consulting side of the business, she says.

Reynolds is a “master certified coach” with 16 years of corporate experience, which enhances the consultancy. “The training is imperative to really understand the distinction between coaching and offering guidance,” she says. “I recommend anyone who is serious about coaching take this path,” noting that the training should be certified through an ICF-accredited organization.

In addition to formal training, successful coaches need several abilities, Gee adds. Those abilities are:

  • Listening skills, because the trainer does not solve a client’s problems; a client’s problems are solved by the client.
  • Getting people to step out of their comfort zone.
  • Getting associates to focus on what is important and what is not.
  • Acknowledging accomplishments while empathizing when a client is down.

Coaches who have spent some time in the trenches can provide an important perspective, Keith says. “Supervisors and line managers spend a lot of their time dealing with people problems and putting out fires,” she says. Coaches who have been in the position of dealing with people will be able to determine what skills need enhancing and, based in part on their experiences, provide the proper training to increase the skills that are needed.

The demand is there. For HR consultants with the right background and credentials, coaching can present significant opportunities. Building success is the same in coaching as in other areas of practice, Haver says. “As always, getting your foot in the door for independent consultants is an exercise in self-marketing, networking, web site establishment, credibility establishment with the corporate community and an ever-expanding list of coaching success stories that can be written up and shared with prospective clients,” she says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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