Brian Underhill's picture Submitted by Brian Underhill March 11, 2019 - 8:35pm

“I’m told I can be too hard on people,” said the executive, a director of product development at a Silicon Valley start-up. “I guess that means I need to do a better job of bringing people along.”

“Tell me more about that…” I asked, trying to gather vital information in order to help me nominate a handful of coaches for him to select from.

A few minutes later, the dialogue turned to my favorite (but often dangerous) part of the intake conversation: “So what traits do you want in an executive coach?” I asked.

Even I was not ready for what he would say next…or at least not in one fluid breath.

"I want a coach with an engineering background who has run product development in the Silicon Valley, at the SVP level, for a company of at least $250M or more, with a team of at least 25, spanning  5 or more countries, separated by 8 or more time zones, who has brought a product from inception to market in less than 18 months. Oh yes, and speaking fluent Mandarin would be a plus.”

Translation: “I want a coach who has done my exact job before — but bigger!”

With over 1000 coaches at my disposal, I’m pretty good at finding that proverbial needle in a haystack. But in this case, I had to wonder: Do you really need this haystack needle to solve ‘being too hard on people’??? (Then again, a needle might help in this case.)

Let’s put this another way — Does a coach really need to have done the job, of the leader being coached, in order to be effective? And, if not, how does one change the perceptions of executives and HR accordingly?

The Issue

Our research has repeatedly demonstrated that executives (and organizations who hire coaches) WANT business experience. In our 2012 study, 85% of executives selected "Business Experience" as important to their selection process (92% of organizations made this same selection).    

And we see this trend appearing repeatedly in our new assignment intake process. Just last week, a client rejected every bio that did not have C-level P&L Fortune 500 experience listed. Another client wanted a former sales executive-turned-coach, saying "We want a coach who has been there, done that. Someone who has carried the bag before.” Our standard "new assignment form" includes a checkbox for "I want a coach who had former executive experience" — a box that has come to know the check mark quite well.

BUT let’s be honest here: the vast majority of today's seasoned executive coaches do not originate from C level/line management roles. They come from fields/professions in psychology, human resources, leadership development, I/O psych, organization development, consulting, training, get the idea.

The market supply is not directly meeting market demand. Houston, we have a mismatch. (And this mismatch extends beyond Houston.)

Two Key Criteria

In my role of screening 1000+ coaches, I’m basically trying to ascertain two key elements:

  1. What type of business experience does this coach have?
  2. How do we know if they are any good as a coach?

This generally means many coaches seem to fall into one of two key camps:

The executive-turned coach

I received a call a few years ago from a former president of a major, major company — a company the entire world would recognize. He had met my mentor Marshall Goldsmith at some point. “I’m retiring," he told me. "And Marshall said I should become a coach, so I am going to be a coach now.”

Most business-experience-seeking clients would be wowed by his resume (and the price tag). He had no training as a coach, no degree in any field having to do with human behavior, personality, psychology, etc. He did say he always liked coaching his staff when he was the boss. And that was the extent of his coaching experience.

How do we know he would be any good as a coach? What kind of coaching is he actually doing? Could it be that his is mentoring or advising instead? Is he supposed to give advice? (see my very animated blog post on the topic here)

Nonetheless, I always screen coaches for their former business career — the more experience the better, the more "line management" the better. We capture all of this in our online database, including which functions a coach has spent the most time in.

However, with these coaches, I then turn my attention to determining whether or not they would actually be good coaches. What type of training do they have? What degrees and certifications? How many years have they been coaching? How much of their total business revenues are solely coaching-related? Oh, and what is it that they think coaching is?

The coach-turned executive

More commonly, most coaches we meet will usually have deep experience in coaching and related fields such as consulting, psychology, human resources, leadership development, etc. Many held staff positions in organizations previously (i.e., VP HR, director of OD, L&D specialist, etc.). All have had at least 5 years of experience in coaching, an advanced degree in the field, and often one or more coaching and instrument certifications.  

But when I ask about business experience, many point to their former internal staff roles (not bad), or their challenging experience running their small coaching/consulting business (not impressed).

In general, we know these are likely qualified coaches — it is just their former executive experience is limited, or nonexistent. (Don’t tell anyone, but did you know both Marshall and myself have never held a Fortune 500 executive position?)

For these coaches, I turn my attention to learning what business experience they do have and their executive level coaching experience. What levels do they most often coach at? What size of company? For how many years? Does the coach carry with them the credibility to work at the executive level?

What’s the Answer?

Our most popular coach was a former COO and CEO (of a company you've heard of), who left to get his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Fielding Institute. He began his coaching career about 10 years ago and has been mostly booked solid ever since. One solution is to clone him — except that is not yet possible, plus he has since retired.

Do we recruit more P&L C-level executives to leave their companies and enter the wonderful field of coaching? Send them back to graduate school, train them and then wait while they gather hundreds of hours of coaching experience? Not a likely solution.

So what is that key solution?

Let’s conclude with a further look at some of the most sought-after criteria found in our research:

“Ability to build rapport, trust and comfort with coach” – 100% executives selecting

“Experience and skills as a coach” – 96%

“Experience dealing with specific leadership challenges” – 85%

“Business experience” – 85%

Also, “Area of specialty as a coach” – 88% of organizations selecting

If you notice, all, but one, are coaching characteristics — the markings of a good coach. Someone who is deeply experienced as a coach, with specialty in the executive’s area of struggle, who can build rapport and establish trust with the executive.

In the end, coaching expertise trumps executive experience. Executive experience can help improve rapport-building and empathy but is not a replacement for coaching expertise. Our clients are encouraged to remember great coaches do not have to have carried the bag in order to be great coaches. A coach need not have done your job — and bigger — in order to be effective.

And don’t forget, a seasoned coach has likely worked with hundreds of executives from different functions, companies, industries, countries, and brings with him/her great wisdom gathered from that vast experience. THAT should be the experience we are looking for.

What do you think?


Read More: Executive Coaching for Results: The Definitive Guide to Developing Organizational Leaders 



Since my executive operating  experience is long and deep and I received my leadership coaching certification from Georgetown University and I am certified by ICF (PPC)  and have over 15 years experience coaching, I believe the combination of significant operating experience along with coaching certification and experience puts me in a good position to relate executives in any industry or function.  The strong business experience allows me to be a more focused listener and to ask key questions to get to the core of issues.