The Psychologist in Executive Coaching

Executive coaching is a fast-growing industry, 30+ years old with global revenues in the billions of dollars. In terms of consumer protection and service quality control, however, it lags far behind many industries you and I count on every day.

Unbelievable But True
Valued professions like medicine, law enforcement, education and the ministry have all established clear admission standards for training, education, certification, licensure and ongoing skill development. Strangely, executive coaching, with the potential to shape so many industries and to affect so many people’s employment satisfaction and productivity – has not.

Here’s a common example – we use often since it is clear. The doctor you go to for annual physicals may not be the most talented physician in the world but what can you be assured of? Well, you know without question that he or she had to be smart, disciplined and dedicated enough to perform well in high school, graduate, perform well in college, graduate, earn admission to medical school, graduate, earn admission to an internship and residency program, graduate, take the medical board exams to be licensed, pass them and then, over time, continually educate her/himself to stay current in a medical specialty (e.g. internal medicine) – all just to earn and then to maintain a medical license, the required ticket just to work and compete in the medical field.

What does an executive coach currently need to do to work in that industry? Absolutely nothing. What training, experience, expertise and service quality can we consumers of executive coaching be assured of? None. How long has the executive coaching field been aware of this critical problem? 3 decades or more.

The Solution
We’ll talk about solving this problem in this article and the series of articles that will follow it – based on the recent book Pinpointing Excellence: The Key to Finding a Quality Executive Coach. Readers say the book’s popularity is based on its simple purpose – arming consumers of executive coaching to evaluate and select only the highest quality coaches – in a field without quality requirements or consumer protection.

Put simply, consumers can now expect, insist on and measure executive coaches on their depth in 4 areas: psychology, business, coaching and ethics. Let’s look in this article at a key, fundamental, non-negotiable requirement in executive coaching – psychology or to use another term – behavioral science.

Psychology Depth
In coaching over the past 2 decades one assumption has been safe for me to make about executive clients: they are motivated, goal-oriented, persistent, professionally educated and/or street smart, and energetic – at a minimum. They often have other interesting characteristics. They are always complex and unique individuals.

Since clients are always complex and unique, there is no substitute for understanding specifically how and why each person thinks, communicates and otherwise behaves differently. Each truly effective coach needs the training and skills to grasp the client’s perspective and situation, his or her particular challenges and opportunities – so these
can be addressed successfully.

Obviously, then, the coach needs to be skilled in detecting and evaluating psychological strengths (e.g. critical thinking) and challenges (e.g. narcissism) which help or hinder executive development and success. These diagnostic skills and the insights they generate would not be needed if executives were all simple and identical, right? All kidding aside, though, when these diagnostic skills are limited or absent, executives can be seen by their ‘coaches’ in general, oversimplified and stereotypical ways – leading to poor service.

So of course, as a consumer of executive coaching services, you would take for granted that every reputable coach – obviously – would have significant skill and expertise in psychology. How could he or she do even decent executive coaching without this tool kit?

The unfortunate truth, however, is that most people calling themselves ‘executive coaches’ have little to no substantive education or knowledge in psychology. Hard to believe, you say? Ridiculous as it may sound, the majority of the 50,000+ practicing ‘executive coaches’ globally have no foundation in psychology or other behavioral science. Many thousands are loose out in the marketplace, hoping consumers will overlook or not pin down their missing training.

How did these people get into the executive coaching market in the first place? you might wonder. The answer is again simple – there have never been professional entry requirements in psychology or, for that matter, any other discipline for becoming an executive coach. This is true today as it has been for 30 years or more.

So again – why are we bothering here to talk about psychology? Well here are just a few essential skills and talents needed by highly skilled executive coaches – insist on them:

  • Identifying and evaluating individual characteristics in executives which can potentially aid or derail their professional growth. These diagnostic skills are applied using disciplined interviewing and a wide range of valid and reliable psychological assessment instruments. These characteristics in executives can include, for instance:
    • Personality
    • Leadership
    • Insight
    • Self-awareness
    • Problem solving
    • Emotional intelligence
    • Adult learning
    • Management
    • Interpersonal preferences
    • Critical thinking
    • Conflict management
    • Career development
    • Behavioral change
    • Stress management
    • Individual/Group behavior
  • Accessing, understanding, applying and generating research and thought leadership on the sample list of executive characteristics above – along with many others relevant to executive growth and advancementYou might wonder “Where and how would executive coaches acquire this psychological know-how?” and here are typical channels:
  • Substantive work experience as an psychologist or related behavioral scientist (e.g.
  • Graduate education and training in psychology from a well-regarded university
  • Continuous education and training in psychology

Classic Pitches
In previous articles in this series, we have pointed out that most executive coaches enter the marketplace from 2  directions. They come from retired or experienced executives. They also come from people unsatisfied or unsuccessful in their current careers or businesses who simply switch their title to ‘executive coach’. A relatively small number of coaches enter the market with substantial psychological experience and skill.

Again, as noted in previous articles in this series, here’s a reminder: every executive coach, regardless of his/her origin, must develop and practice a pitch or ‘value proposition’ to promote their services. With rapidly increasing quantities and qualities of executive coaches, the volume of these pitches is bewildering to those of us who listen
and mind-numbing to the rest. We can count on these pitches being confusing, contradictory, incomplete and, of course, self-serving. Here’s one related to psychology that is just classic. If you hear it, run!

“I’m an experienced coach and really have always been a ‘student of human nature’ in observing and learning from clients and other people. I’ve been told that I’m just naturally gifted and intuitive in understanding others so I just haven’t needed to take time for formal psychological training – and my coaching has been going fine.”


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