This is an important question, but in this article, I argue that it is not necessarily the right one for a newly certified and trained executive coach to ask.
First, there are many ways to earn $200,000 as an executive coach. In my own practice, where I tend to work with executives in mid-sized companies, I charge $25,000 for a six-month executive coaching engagement. Typically 80% of clients then engage me for another six months. Therefore, in a single year, the typical client is worth about $45,000. It therefore doesn’t take too many clients — maybe five or six — to earn $200,000.
However, it gets even easier. A single executive coaching engagement typically leads to additional work: a strategic retreat, a facilitated team session, assessments, trainings for managers and up-and-coming talent, and one-on-one or group coaching for others in the organization. My business model is to have a few clients for a long time, beginning with a small engagement to get in and show what I can do.
This has worked well for me for two decades, and seems to work for my colleagues, too. For instance, one of my colleagues specializes in assessments first, and coaching second. He can give a couple of examples of clients that hired him initially for under $5,000 and have since become million-dollar clients over many years.
Now, this type of math runs a bit counter to some of the surveys that go around about coach incomes. I strongly believe that those surveys are heavily skewed towards coaches who have the time to fill out those surveys (I never do), and towards coaches who are life coaches (I have yet to meet a life coach making a good living at it), think they are executive coaches but are really life coaches and don’t know it, or who are executive coaches who position themselves as commodities and work at a low hourly rate for a few sessions with clients.
My colleagues and I come from consulting backgrounds, the kinds of firms that rarely accept engagements that start at less than $250,000. We also understand that consulting budgets from outside of Human Resources are multiple times larger than coaching budgets within Human Resources, and know how to tap into those budgets. We also know how to go after decision makers who can move quickly, often through a sole source process (e.g., without checking in with any competitors). We have a different approach and strategy than most coaches out there. Asking for $25,000 for an engagement is not a big deal for us — and in fact my clients are now telling me that I am at the lower end of the range; I know I am for larger clients. Thinking about billing $200,000 in a year is not a big deal when we have been accustomed to billing $2 million or more.
So the right question to ask is: “How can I get my first client as quickly as possible, and then ramp up from there?”
Once you get that first client, you can show your value and then expand your presence. From there, you can keep that client for a long time and repeat the process with other clients. If you can’t get your first client, it is irrelevant to think about any income target, small or large.
Getting that first client — one that has lots of potential — is the hardest part. Initially, it can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, like the mythical character Sisyphus. It feels like putting 10 units of energy in to get just one unit out. Many coaches give up. If you are persistent and don’t give up, and if you follow the business development guidance we teach in our executive coach certification program, you are likely to eventually close that first engagement. Once you do, earning your target income becomes a much clearer path.
No other program gives you the tools to provide ongoing value to clients, and also position yourself to attract clients — along with ongoing support — to have the best chance for success. If you aspire to be a successful executive and leadership coach, working with leaders, business owners, people in career transition, and up-and-coming talent, you should strongly consider joining our executive coach certification programs as soon as possible.