The time and place for executive coaching

There are quite a few times when executive coaching is NOT an appropriate intervention and can actually do damage. This may seem like a strange topic for a blog about executive coaching, but executive coaches need to be clear about these out-of-bounds times. That way, we can feel more confident during the truly appropriate times for coaching.

Executive coaching works only when someone is “coachable,” and specifically only when they are coachable by you.

People are coachable when they have explicitly asked for your advice, or asked for you to work with them to solve a problem.

Here are four examples, from my own past mistakes, of times when you should not “do” executive coaching:

1. Do not provide free executive coaching, whether during the business development cycle or any other time. Executive coaching is valuable. Don’t give it away for free. The business development cycle is a time to understand your prospect’s situation and assess whether the two of you can benefit by working together. You might explicitly provide a brief example of the types of conversations and interventions you will have during an executive coaching relationship. But don’t start solving the person’s problem before you are being paid. If you do, your prospect won’t do what’s necessary to make improvements, as he or she has nothing at stake. Also, you won’t get hired as much, because you give your services away for free.

2. If a client becomes “uncoachable,” stop the process until he or she becomes coachable again. In executive coaching, you are always making sure that your client is open to your coaching process. From time to time, clients become uncoachable. They may be tired, resisting, or perhaps your relationship is not working out. At these times, stop being a coach and go back to square one. Determine if the client is still committed to solving their problem, and see if you can regain permission to coach them. Don’t coach them — or you will only make things worse.

3. If you are in a dispute with somebody, do not start coaching him or her. I am currently in a dispute with a magazine publisher whom I believe misled me and has also provided unprofessional service. It is my instinct to “coach” him about how he needs to be a more effective communicator and to demonstrate more integrity. But this approach will not get my money back, and will only inflame this person more. He has not asked for advice, and certainly will not take it from me in this situation. Instead, I should be asserting with him, negotiating a settlement, and letting him know that he has crossed a legitimate boundary with his way of doing business. Acting like a coach in this situation — while perhaps my “default setting” — will only make things worse.

4. Do not become a coach to your spouse. Ever. My wife runs a business (with her best friend) called Moms on Edge ( Because I operate a successful executive coaching practice and institute, I of course feel entitled to provide unsolicited coaching to my wife about how she can be a more effective entrepreneur. This is a mistake, and yet I still manage to blurt out advice or attempt to begin a coaching conversation. (What husband doesn’t fall into this trap from time to time?) When I do make this mistake, my wife lets me know in no uncertain terms that she is not my client, but my wife. Now, she is very open to advice about her business, and sometimes even asks me for my thoughts. But when she is not open to my thoughts, I need to keep quiet. And even then…

Of course, you never provide executive coaching to people who need deeper interventions, like therapy. From time to time, I meet an executive that I can’t help with my expertise. They seem at, or on the verge of, a serious mental health crisis. At those times, the only thing to do is to refer the client to medical attention, and be sure that they get the help they really need.

Can you provide other experiences or examples when you should not go into “executive coaching mode”?

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