written by Angie Morgan & Courtney Lynch

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

The difference between these two fields can seem nuanced, yet a simple way to discern them is to differentiate management and leadership – you manage things, you lead people. 

An executive coach focuses more on “things” of management; leadership coaching relates more to the “people” aspect of a leader’s responsibilities, which includes culture and business transformation.

What is Executive Coaching? 

Executive coaching is a more traditional approach to professional development.

It’s when a third-party coach engages with senior leaders (executives) and serves as a sounding board for them as they contemplate business decisions, helps them strategize on organizational initiatives, and is available to them to provide motivation and encouragement because, as the adage goes, it’s lonely at the top.

An executive coach is a great resource for senior leaders because they serve as a thought partner and safe place for them to “think out loud” and share their ideas prior to launching them across their organization.

An executive coaching relationship can focus on the following areas of a leader’s responsibilities:

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

It’s also typical for executive coaches to help their clients navigate relationships – such as key internal stakeholders, board members, and external community and industry partners needed for success.

What is Leadership Coaching? 

Leadership coaching is an emerging field that, unlike executive coaching, isn’t exclusively for senior leaders. It’s often provided for all levels of management, high performers, and anyone in between who has the will and commitment to advance.

Leadership coaching is a more holistic form of development, as it focuses on behaviors that allow leaders at any level develop skills that help them influence outcomes and inspire others. Leadership skills can be thought of in the following three domains: leading self, leading others, and leading the organization. Leadership coaching also emphasizes self-awareness, communication, and cultivating behaviors that promote connection and engagement.

The following are often focus areas in 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 why they need a coach, they realize they could benefit from a hybrid approach to their growth – that is, they need support both on their business management and leadership style. Or, rather, an executive coach who also can facilitate their leadership development and/or a leadership coach who can support their business management.  

This awareness is important when selecting a coach.

When many executives are charged with finding a coach, it’s often advised that the “fit” has to be right in order for the relationship to work. While true, this additional piece of criteria also makes for a successful coaching relationship: their coach’s “experience.” By experience, not just a coaching certificate (like those offered through the International Coaching Federation). While certificates can be valuable, here are additional pieces of criteria that can speak to a coach’s experience:

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

The latter piece – the bottom line – is key. Either executive or leadership coaching is a significant investment of both time and money. An experienced coach is able to discuss the type of return a leader can expect from their time investment, as well as the investment their business is willing to make on their behalf.

An experienced coach is also able to advise their clients on both the management and leadership responsibilities they have to the business. This comes in handy when executives are navigating challenging landscapes; being able to differentiate between what can be managed and what needs to be led will allow any leader to be successful in the situation they find themselves in.

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. The behaviors they’ve relied upon to get them to where they are aren’t helping them get to new levels of success.
  • They recognize that they could benefit from external support while leading a change initiative, like a new project or acquisition, or spearheading an impending business transformation.
  • An executive is preparing for a promotion, or just landed a promotion, and needs additional support to be successful in their new role.

In any of these situations, having an outside, third-party who can help them navigate their strengths and weaknesses, or provide them a fresh set of eyes on their scenario, can be a tremendous value-add.

It’s important to note that coaching isn’t therapy; if an executive is experiencing challenges related to past events, or is struggling with either marital or family challenges, a licensed therapist is best for these situations. A way to differentiate therapy from coaching is to think about therapy as a look into the past to understand the present; coaching focuses more on the present to help shape 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 is unable to commit to frequent coaching conversations, as well as any “homework” that ensues from these conversations, then that’s a sign that a coach might not be beneficial. In lieu of a coach, they can find a mentor or an external group where they can meet other executives at their professional level whom they can gain ideas, insight, and advice from.

Finally, while many businesses do have internal coaches, often it’s best for executives to seek counsel and support from external sources so that they can broaden their perspective on their situation from a neutral third-party.

Selecting the Right Coach

While both executive and leadership coaches have the potential to bring value to their clients, it’s important for clients to have a clear understanding of the skills they’d like to see developed within themselves. When talking with prospective coaches, it’s helpful to hear their experience in developing these skills, possible case studies, and a potential path a client can expect when building a specific skill. This level of understanding – for both the client and coach – helps set the stage for a successful relationship and coaching program.

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