8 point checklist to become an executive coach
The executive leaders and business owners who are proactive about seeking outside perspectives are the ones who are able to the push the boundaries of their businesses and cross new thresholds of success. The insights provided by an experienced mentor can help a CEO identify blind spots, see their biggest business challenges with fresh eyes, and grow the more personal aspects of their leadership style.
As a Vistage Chair, I am an executive coach for small and midsize business CEOs who are competitive and growth-oriented. As a Vistage Chair, I also get to be part of a community of executive coaches from around the world.
The successful coaches I know ask thought-provoking questions, are great listeners, good problem solvers, and they tend to be people who have a passion for developing leaders. Executive coaches help leaders enhance their abilities, including their strategic thinking and their interpersonal skills. An executive coach challenges in a “care-frontational” way and guides a leader through difficult decisions and situations.
You do not have to be a teacher or consultant to become an executive coach. You must be a curious person who is willing to challenge someone’s thinking and approach. Your role is to be like a mirror, and help the executive see what they cannot see for themselves. It’s not an easy job, but it is rewarding.
If you are a seasoned executive considering your next career step, here’s an 8-point checklist for discovering if you have what it takes to become an executive coach.
1. You have a fundamental understanding of business
An executive coach should have been an executive themselves and should have had P&L responsibility. It is helpful for them to have been in that role so that they can identify with the CEO when they’re challenging them or when that CEO is going through troubled times. I think it’s really important to the CEO or a business owner that their coach has “been there and done that.”
As an executive coach, you have to be careful not to be a consultant. You may have a lot of knowledge and experience, so it can be hard to not tell people what to do. Instead of telling them what to do, a coach’s role is to question the leader and enable them to find their own answers.
2. You know how to ask good questions and be an active listener
You have to be someone who doesn’t have to talk all the time and someone who has the ability to not one-up the other person.
So for example, if someone tells you, “I went skiing this weekend and I had a great ski trip,” you can’t jump into, “Oh, I went skiing there too.” You have to ask another question. “Oh, really? What slopes did you ski?” You have to dig in and get the person to share their experience. And they may never know that you have the same experience, you must be able to keep that quiet. As a coach, you have to remember it is not about you.
There are a lot of books you can read on how to ask great questions. But unless you are truly curious and can be an active listener, being a coach will be hard for you. You need to ask questions to hear the answer, not to come up with the next best question or a solution, but instead to really listen.
Let’s say you have specific experience in an area of business, and your CEO asks for your specific advice, you could say, “If it were me, I might do this.” Or you might give the CEO a few options to consider. But the majority of the time you’re not doing that—you are simply guiding them to their own conclusion through your questioning. This is the right approach because the solution has to be theirs. They should succeed or fail on their own with their coach’s support.
3. You can help a CEO visualize and set goals for the future
The key is to be able to help a business leader achieve their goals and move in the direction they want to go. As an executive coach, it’s my role to help a CEO clarify their vision and goals and help them see aspects of their business and their leadership that they cannot see for themselves. A coach plays the role of devil’s advocate in defining the vision and then holding the leader accountable for implementing strategies to get closer to that vision.
4. You can identify a leader’s strengths and areas for growth
An executive coach should be able to identify each CEO’s strengths and areas where they can improve. For example, I coach one CEO who is high-performing and one CEO who is not. I can definitely see the difference between the two and need to meet each of them where they are to help them develop the skills they need to move in the direction they want to go.
As an executive coach, it is important to perform a leadership assessment first, then create a plan for development based on the data gathered and desired outcomes the CEO wants to achieve.
5. You can challenge a CEO and hold them accountable
Difficult conversations are going to happen. These discussions happen in a supportive and confidential space, and they may be uncomfortable, but they are necessary.
An effective executive coach will push a CEO, maybe sometimes to the point where the CEO gets uncomfortable. A CEO might leave a session thinking, “I’m not happy that she made me talk about that, but I am glad she pushed me to confront it.” If difficult conversations don’t happen, there would be no learning or transformation and therefore no way for the CEO to overcome the problem. An executive coach is there to push leaders to be the best they can be.
6. You are willing to support CEOs through difficult times
My personal mission is for the people I coach to remember me as a person who challenged them to make the changes they needed to be a leader who makes better decisions and ultimately gets better results in their business and in their life. As a coach, you often have very difficult personal conversations, and it is important to me for my clients to know that they can count on me to be there day or night. I believe a good coach provides that support. You do whatever it takes, and you are the person people call when there is a crisis or just a problem they need help solving.
CEO isolation is a real thing. It is lonely at the top, and being a leader’s confidant is a very important role. There are topics some CEOs can’t talk about to their spouses, employees or friends, but they can always find a non-judgmental and welcoming ear in their coach. They want one person who can be a sounding board, someone who has no agenda and is focused on what is best for the leader.
I like to say that as a coach, you play on the five-yard line with your CEO, asking the tough questions to help them make great decisions: “Do we punt? Do we pass? Do we run?” You’re providing support to the leader in that critical moment of the game. If a CEO needs anything, the executive coach is there to find them a resource that can help.
7. You are an entrepreneur at heart
In addition to the above-mentioned qualities, to become an executive coach you also need the right mindset for running a new business. I do think you have to be an entrepreneur at heart in the sense that you are starting an executive coaching business from scratch. This is a solopreneur endeavor. You’re by yourself, and you don’t have employees to depend on.
Often, those who are considering executive coaching used to be corporate executives who ran a company and delegated work. Starting an executive coaching business includes grunt work and you are the one making all aspects of the business happen every day.
8. You have the financial runway to get started
From a Vistage Chair perspective, I tell others who are considering this path that they can absolutely make a fantastic income, but they need to have a good solid year as their financial runway to get the business going. You will be setting up your business, which includes recruiting member CEOs for your peer advisory group. Having financial security during that time will help you to focus on jump-starting your business.
So you want to be an executive coach?
I think being an executive coach and Vistage Chair is a privilege. You have to have a passion for helping people, patience to meet them where they are, and strength to push them further than they ever thought they could go. You have to have a natural curiosity. The two greatest skills of executive coaching are to question and to listen. You should have a drive to develop individuals and to be someone who helps others on their leadership journey. Coaching CEOs and business owners is not easy, but it is a very rewarding way to spend your days.