Everything you need to know about business development for leadership and executive coaches

The biggest question we get from aspiring coaches — whether internal or external — is, "How do I become credible and attract clients?"

There are many people who make their living offering to answer this question for you, and their results are suspect. In fact, one event that inspired this article is that someone I know in this field recently posted an article with the headline, "Not making high six figures as a coach yet?" However, I know this person and the last I heard from him, he was living in a trailer park and had never earned more than a few thousand dollars from coaching clients. If people like that are offering to take your money to show you how to get coaching clients and market your services online, hold onto your wallets.

The purpose of this article is to take away the hype and share with you what I believe is the truth about successful business development for coaches. The advice here also applies consultants and other professionals. It is based on my two decades of experience having a full coaching and consulting practice.

The good news about the advice below is that there are no gimmicks or hype. The strategies allow you to be totally natural and authentic, and fit them to your own style.

The bad news about the advice below is that there are no gimmicks or hype. In other words, there are no silver bullets. I don't have any instant online secrets to share with you that will bring you thousands of leads within a month without much work on your part. I don't have a seminar to sell you that will double your revenues with a 30-day money back guarantee. Building a professional practice takes work, especially the old school work of building relationships with other people (gasp!). You can't hide behind Twitter, a LinkedIn consultant, automated content marketing strategies, or a binder filled with marketing ideas written with infomercial style hyped-up descriptions about how great these ideas are. The Internet can be helpful to you, but you are still going to have to get out there and build relationships with other people based on the value you can bring them.

If you want to hide behind your desk and wait for the phone to ring, or you need someone else's 10-part formula for building a 7-figure coaching practice, stop reading now and call a bankruptcy attorney.

Here is what it takes to develop a leadership and executive coaching practice:


First, you need substance as a coach. This might sound obvious, but if you were to survey the majority of successful coaches in the market today, most will tell you that 80 per cent of coaches practicing in the corporate world today — or trying to — have no right being in that space.

There are a couple of reasons why. First, coaching as it has evolved today came from a life coaching model. The main coaching association and the largest coach training programs all have their roots in coaching people to be better in their lives vs. better as leaders, executives, and managers. Many of the people who have graduated from those programs have little or no corporate experience or the ability to engage corporate leaders or managers. In fact, their approach is so fluffy and light weight that they turn off these people and hurt the coaching industry as a whole.

Some coach training programs have tried to remedy this by insisting that coaches have an advanced degree. However, an advanced degree alone is rarely an indication of substance. Last week I got a call from someone with a Ph.D in psychology who was thinking of getting into coaching. By the end of the call, I was convinced that he didn't need a coach training program so much as a psychiatrist. Others with advanced degrees have so much schooling and so little experience that they are too academic and theoretical to be of any use to clients (assuming they can find a client to work with them).

Finally, the way to get a designation as a coach is by documenting hours. Unfortunately, those hours don't have to be good hours and there are many ways to finesse the documentation of those hours.

All of this is good news for coaches who have true substance: solid and practical coach training along with a track record of achievement and relevant experience — through an appropriate combination of solid academic achievement, leadership experiences, and/or other work and life results.


Second, you have to have something valuable to offer.

Coaching in and of itself is a task, a thing that you do. It is just a feature. Ho hum.

Many coaches combine a coaching designation with a passion for some kind of leadership fad and think that's value. It's not. In fact, it is no different than what some religious groups do on Sundays when they go into neighborhoods and knock on stranger's doors to share what they think is great news. What do you want to do when these folks knock on your door on a Sunday? You want to hide and hope they go away.

The same is true of potential clients who see a coach who isn't offering value. It doesn't matter which neuro-scientific fad you have attached yourself to this month. If you can't find a way to solve a pressing problem that your target market is facing, and provide them with a good 5 to 10  times your fees in value, you are not likely to get hired.

No one wants to go to the doctor and get undressed — unless they are in a lot of pain.  Similarly, no one is going to hire a coach unless they have a serious challenge and see you as a credible professional who can solve that challenge.

Therefore, step two in attracting clients is figuring out — from the client's point of view — why on earth they would hire you.

In my case, I just go back to the very first two clients I ever had. Each came to me with a different problem. The first said, "My Board of Directors can't agree on a strategy." The second, a technology CEO, said, "I love tech but I hate dealing with people." From there, I asked good questions and got hired to help them. Fifteen years later, the majority of my clients still come to me with those problems, although I also hear others: "Our culture is changing too slowly," "My organization can't grow fast enough to keep up with demand," and "I need you to work with a leader who can't communicate effectively."

Once you know the value you can bring, you can develop messages so that people think of you first when they have that need.


I have found that there are four, and only four, ways to get visible as a professional to attract clients. That's it. Four ways. Here they are:

1. Referrals. Do you want to know whether you are doing a good job attracting clients? There is one simple metric to track: How many referral conversations do you have every week? Referrals are the absolute best way to get clients. I am not talking about word of mouth, where people think of you and send people your way. I'm talking about a proactive approach in which you meet with people in your network and ask them who they know who might be able to make connections for you — whether to speak, get you potential clients, form alliances, create a MasterMind group, or just connect you to others that would be mutually beneficial connections.

If you are not having referral conversations with decision makers in your target market, you are not in the game.

Caution: Beware of being active but wasting your time. For instance, there are low-level networking groups and activities that connect you with people who will never hire you or get you in front of decision makers. Avoid these. Candidly, many coaching association meetings are like this!

2. Educational marketing. Speak. Write. Hold webinars. You want to be the go-to professional in your market. Think of yourself as an expert first and a coach second. Look at the top coaches and consultants in the field. Each and every one is out there speaking, writing, blogging, and educating their market about new ways to think about solutions to their biggest challenges. You need to be doing the same thing.

If you don't have original content, start interviewing leaders in your industry and get some.

Note that beyond free content, your range of services, or product portfolio, is also part of your educational marketing. If all you offer is coaching, consider broadening your services. Have a book, a seminar, an information product (basically a book or workbook with some videos or audios), a teleclass series — a range of solutions at different price points so that as many people as possible will experience your content.

3. Leadership roles. If you want to get in front of decision makers, you had better start hanging out with them. Get yourself into a leadership role. For instance, don't just join the Chamber of Commerce. Get on the most important committee on the Chamber. Then work to get on the Board. Be bold. Don't be just another lazy coach, because there are thousands of those and they are struggling.

You can be a leader by joining the Board of a prominent non-profit, getting active in a religious organization, being a volunteer in your child's sports program, or joining a prestigious country club. Quality is more important than quantity. Also, you don't have to be inauthentic to find leadership roles that fit who you are. In my case, I have found clients at a dumpy tennis club where I play. I never expected this to happen, but it turns out that some very successful people play at this club and I have been very fortunate to get to play tennis with them and make friends with them there.

4. Online marketing. Online marketing is a potential black hole. Be careful. There are more hucksters here willing to take your money, and there are more ways for you to suck the time out of your day than you can imagine. I have tried just about everything out there and here is the pattern: I hire a consultant who says their firm is the best; they bleed me dry, telling me that results take time; I don't get results, at least not enough to justify their fees; I fire them; a new firm comes along to explain why that firm was bad and why technology has changed and why they are now on top of the new technology and they are the best; I hire them; they bleed me dry; a new firm comes along….

It keeps repeating and every new firm tells me I am an idiot for not listening to them because this time they really have figured it out.

Here is what I have decided: Maybe somewhere out there, there really is a consultant or firm that has figured it out. If so, I am guessing they are making a fortune and not marketing online marketing services to the rest of us — at least not until their results dry up and they need a new revenue stream.

Also, in fairness to some of these online consultants, I do know some marketers who have gotten results from cutting-edge online marketing and social marketing strategies. However, they spend a lot of money and typically they are offering programs, not coaching engagements. In other words, they are selling information-type products, not relationship-based coaching solutions.

What I have found works online is to use online marketing as part of the above three approaches to getting visible:

– Develop a good clean website with educational content to show you are credible and with enough SEO to not bankrupt you but to attract people in you target market. Have a way to get contact information so you can invite your list to valuable educational webinars, get them valuable articles, and let them know if you have posted something really interesting.

– Use LinkedIn to network in ways that start online and then go old school. If you have a prospect you want to reach, use LinkedIn to find out who you know who also knows that prospect, and find out everything you can about him or her, or use your network to get an opening.

– Find opportunities to blog or write articles on high-profile websites.

– Form alliances with people who seem to be good online marketers, for instance by doing a joint webinar or program launch.

– Treat your online list with respect and send out great content to maintain your credibility and show that you have lots of value to add.

That's it. I am sorry that there is nothing magical or glamorous in the above guide. In my case, I happen to love what I do, and I love the impact that coaching can have. That is what drives me. I don't need any marketing gimmicks to get out there. I love meeting interesting business leaders, having conversations with them, asking questions, and finding out if there is a way I can help them get better results. I know that if I keep being curious and stay focused, clients follow.

Coming next….Some nuances and tips to make the above advice easier to implement. Stay tuned!

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