Written by Angie Morgan & Courtney Lynch

Professional coaching isn’t a new concept. What’s new is the range of coaching available. And many senior leaders wonder about the difference between executive and leadership coaching.

While the difference can seem nuanced, a simple way to differentiate is to contrast management and leadership. You manage things, you lead people. 

An executive coach focuses on the “things” of management. Leadership development coaching focuses on the “people” part.

What is Executive Coaching? 

Executive coaching is a more traditional approach to professional development.

An executive coach engages with senior leaders and serves as a sounding board for business decisions. They help strategize on organizational initiatives. They provide motivation and encouragement.

An executive coach serves as a thought partner and a safe place for senior leaders to “think out loud.”

This type of coaching relationship can focus on the following areas:

  • Business planning
  • Strategy development
  • Decision-making skills
  • Career management
  • Stakeholder relationship management

What is Leadership Coaching? 

Professional leadership coaching is an emerging field that isn’t just reserved for senior leaders. It’s for leaders at all levels – anyone with the will and commitment to advance.

A leadership development coach provides a holistic approach. They focus on helping clients develop skills to influence outcomes and inspire others. Leadership skills can fall into three domains: leading self, leading others, and leading the organization. Coaching leadership development emphasizes self-awareness, communication, connection, and engagement.

The following are often focus areas in professional leadership coaching programs:

  • Exposure to blind spots that, left unchecked, could be career derailers
  • Gaining support in navigating through uncertainty
  • Moving from transactional to transformational communications
  • Rebuilding culture

Executive and Leadership Coaching – a Hybrid Approach 

When many executives contemplate needing a coach, they realize the benefit of a hybrid approach. Most leaders recognize they need support in their business management AND leadership style.

This awareness is important when selecting a coach.

When charged with finding a coach, executives are often advised to find the right “fit.” Part of this fit includes the coach’s “experience.” While a coaching certificate (like those offered through the International Coaching Federation) can be valuable, consider these additional pieces of criteria:

  • Personal, firsthand business experiences
  • The right education level, professional credentials, and/or subject matter expertise
  • Experience in leadership coaching and executive coaching
  • Track record for success with coaching and leadership development
  • A focus on ROI

The latter piece – the bottom line – is key. Either type of coaching is a significant investment of both time and money. You want a coach who can discuss the return on the leader’s time and the business’s financial investment.

An experienced leadership development coach advises clients on management and leadership responsibilities, helping executives navigate challenging situations successfully.

When Should an Executive Hire a Coach? 

Many executives wonder when, or even if, they should seek out a coach. Coaches are often valuable when:

  • An executive is “stuck,” professionally speaking. Their previous successful behaviors aren’t aiding their advancement.
  • An executive needs external support while leading a change initiative or business transformation.
  • An executive seeks support for success in their new role after a promotion.

In these situations, a third party can provide valuable guidance and offer fresh perspectives.

It’s important to note that coaching leadership development isn’t therapy. For challenges related to past events or marital/family issues, a licensed therapist is best. While therapy looks into the past to understand the present, coaching focuses on shaping the future.

Also, before an executive retains a coach, they need to ensure they’ve got the time for a coaching relationship. Most coaches engage their clients on a steady, consistent routine – at least twice a month. If an executive can’t commit to frequent coaching and related “homework,” they may not benefit. Instead, they can seek a mentor or join an external group to gain ideas, insight, and advice from peers.

Finally, even if a business offers internal coaching, seeking outside counsel allows executives to gain a neutral perspective.

Selecting the Right Coach

Both executive and leadership coaches can bring value to their clients. A clear understanding of desired skill development is crucial to choosing which one is right for you. A combination of “fit” and experience will set the stage for a successful coaching program.

Looking for additional guidance? Check out our article filled with tips on finding the right coach.

Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch are Lead Star’s founders, experienced leadership coaches, and bestselling authors of SPARK, Leading from the Front, and Bet on You. They help professionals reach new levels of success through their innovative coaching program, Year to Rise.