In the eyes of many, executive coaches are a group of business elites who often have illustrious resumes or have been prominent figures in the corporate world. They pass on their experiences to the next generation and help executives achieve greater success. On the other hand, most executives often feel very lonely. The isolation at the top often leads to self-doubt and anxiety. Executive coaches become guides behind the scenes, helping them break self-imposed limitations.
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However, there are always exceptions. Some training programs claiming to be coaching engage in forms of mental manipulation, tarnishing the reputation of “executive coaching.” If you search for executive coaching online, you may still come across many negative reviews, and the three-stage process is one of the most typical examples. This not only troubles corporate executives, making them hesitant to enroll in coaching programs, but also poses challenges for executive coaches themselves.
So, what exactly is executive coaching, and what are the “true practices of executive coaching”?
01-Breaking the Egg: From Inside Out or Outside In?
Before explaining what executive coaching is, it’s important to clarify what it is not—coaches do not pass judgment and do not aim to shatter a person entirely from the outside.
The three-stage process is divided into self-exploration, transformation, and reshaping. Self-exploration involves looking back at past experiences and confronting neglected emotional wounds. Transformation entails shattering one’s self-esteem through methods such as humiliation. In the subsequent third stage, the shattered values are reshaped through activities like charity work, often accompanied by grand visions, similar to the way cults propagate their beliefs.
As a professional executive coach, Yan Qiuhua has encountered various questionable practices, such as entrepreneurs engaging in role-playing where executives pretend to be beggars, begging on the streets for days while enduring humiliation. Some executives find it impossible to reshape themselves after their self-esteem is shattered and cannot enter the so-called third stage. Yan explains that “coaches do not pass judgment. We don’t say, ‘You’re terrible,’ ‘You’re lousy,’ or ‘You’re doing it wrong.'”
Otto Scharmer’s “U Theory” discusses the essential steps of suspending, redirecting, and letting go. By temporarily suspending one’s own experiences and past thought patterns, redirecting towards others or a larger holistic perspective, and letting go of preconceptions to perceive the other party’s mindset, true transformation can occur, rising out of the bottom of the U-curve.
For a qualified executive coach, regardless of how executives behave or speak, the coach’s attitude remains “neutral, non-predictive, and non-judgmental.” They believe that everything has reasons and communicate with respect. Through continuous questioning, they help executives become aware of possible issues rather than providing criticism.
To become a genuine executive coach, one must overcome inner voices of “judgment, ridicule, and fear” and let go of subjective judgments. Yan Qiuhua uses a metaphor to illustrate the process, asking whether you break an egg from the inside or outside: “Many executives have always been successful, and coaches should not provide harsh criticism, as executives may not handle it well. If you try to hatch a chick by breaking the eggshell from the outside and do it poorly, the egg will break, and the chick won’t emerge.”
The key for a coach is to work from the inside, helping executives open up their thinking, hearts, and willpower. The art lies in maintaining curiosity and an open attitude, using powerful questions to create self-awareness in executives, enabling genuine internal transformation. Only by changing one’s thinking can behavioral changes become possible.
02- This Is Not About the A or B Side, It’s About Equal Dialogue
While executives are experienced, unique, and successful individuals, they are not without their blind spots and cognitive biases. This is where executive coaches come in, facilitating crucial conversations to address issues and get to the heart of the matter.
I once conducted training for a high-level executive team comprising top talents, each with at least one Ph.D. degree, an MBA from an Ivy League school, and several holding double Ph.D. degrees. However, the more outstanding these “cream of the crop” executives are, the easier it is for them to exhibit a sense of “ego.” After introducing the purpose of the two-day training and sharing the team assessment report, it took less than an hour for the CEO to enter a state of “self-assertion.”
Flipping through the report, the CEO expressed doubt using two adjectives: “The report doesn’t ‘100%’ ‘perfectly’ reflect the issues. So why are we sitting here?”
I patiently explained that no assessment can ever reach “100% perfection,” and if she wanted to discuss the assessment’s reliability, she could provide a substantial amount of related data.
However, if the CEO could step out of the “self-assertion” mode, there would be no need for an executive coach. As the CEO repeatedly redirected the conversation back to “the report isn’t 100% perfect,” after numerous attempts to steer the discussion, I paused and addressed the entire team:
“Based on the current situation, there are four possible solutions:
First, we can use the assessment as a reference without being overly fixated on it. After all, the final decisions still rely on the team’s own efforts. We can continue with the workshop to explore the development of the executive team.
Second, if you’re not satisfied, all of you have Ph.D. degrees—you can create your own 100% perfect assessment.
Third, we can reconsider whether we need to change the objectives and themes of this workshop, making the best use of these two days.
Fourth, we can skip the team development training altogether and have a team-building day trip to Chongming Island. If you find it awkward, I can spend the day separately, no problem. Thank the company for covering my two days’ hotel expenses. Of course, if you decide to suspend the project, I can leave at any time, respecting any choice you make.”
03 – Focus on People and Systems, Not Just Events
Inamori Kazuo once said, “Everything in life is a projection of your inner self.” He believed that everything that happens in life is attracted and shaped by our own minds. Executive coaches also hold this belief: events are just the tip of the iceberg, with the larger driving factors lying beneath the surface—people.
For this reason, executive coaches seek to uncover the reasons behind executive behavior. Coaches believe that every executive is an expert in their own life and work, endowed with creativity and unlimited potential, and that every action has a positive intent, even if it may seem incomprehensible to outsiders.
I was once coached a private enterprise founder who, as his company expanded, kept hiring and firing foreign executives, creating a vicious cycle. This founder was a typical authoritarian CEO, and upon meeting me, his first words were highly confrontational: “Why are we even here?”
“Please tell me, why are we here? Today’s meeting is about analyzing your current challenges and pain points, so why don’t you start?” responded Yan Qiuhua calmly.
After hearing the founder’s account of the constant hiring and firing of foreign executives over the past two years, he explained the reason behind these frequent terminations: “Because I am the founder, and when our philosophies clash, I can’t exactly fire myself, so I have to let them go.”
This was an interesting response. Many people complain about CEOs being autocratic and unfeeling, but when you sit down with the CEO in person, you realize that the reason behind the layoffs is actually quite simple: “I can’t possibly fire myself, right?”
“So, are you hoping that every executive becomes a mini version of you?”
“Of course not, I need them to bring in new insights and perspectives.”
“But when their philosophies clash with yours, they all get fired, and in the end, you’re left with mini versions of yourself. So, what is your reason for hiring foreign executives?”
As I recounted this, the private enterprise founder suddenly had an “epiphany” and began self-reflecting.
Throughout the interview, I repeatedly emphasized that an executive coach is like a mirror, helping entrepreneurs see themselves. Coaches focus not on the phenomenon of layoffs but on the reasons behind them, guiding executives to recognize their own issues through continuous questioning.
In the face of entrenched thinking patterns in executives, coaches interact with them as equal partners, allowing them to see themselves in the mirror and have a more positive impact.
It’s worth noting that executive coaching is not psychological counseling. Psychological counseling focuses more on the past, while executive coaching looks towards the future. Just like when the private enterprise founder realized his lack of inclusivity, the executive coach invited him to envision the future and think about what kind of presence foreign executives would have in that future.
Former NASA director Charlie Pellerin believes, “Where your focus goes, your energy flows.” If you focus on solutions, you’ll get more opportunities; if you focus on problems, the problems will become bigger.
Therefore, what executive coaches value most is not just the events themselves, but understanding the entire person—the beliefs, values, emotions, assumptions, and environment behind them. Furthermore, executive coaches need to think from a more systemic perspective to help executives experience “epiphanies.” When executives expand their perception of height, depth, and breadth, their understanding of the culture (i.e., the temperature) they create will also change.
04 – Don’t Obsess Over “CC”
As a master-level executive coach (MCC), one of the things I most frequently tell my clients is “Don’t obsess over CC.” In the coaching world, having the “CC” (Certified Coach) designation doesn’t necessarily make someone a great coach, and conversely, being a great coach doesn’t always require holding a “CC” certification. So, how can you differentiate and choose an outstanding executive coach?
The term “CC” is derived from the ICF (International Coach Federation) certification system, which categorizes coaching credentials into three levels: ACC (Associate Certified Coach, requiring over 100 hours of practice), PCC (Professional Certified Coach, requiring over 500 hours of practice), and MCC (Master Certified Coach, requiring over 2,500 hours of practice). According to this professional certification system and standards, the more practice hours one accumulates, the more proficient their coaching skills become.
However, being highly skilled in coaching techniques doesn’t automatically translate into being a “coaching maestro.” Additionally, some individuals manage to attain PCC or MCC certifications within a relatively short period, which some might consider to be a less rigorous path.
Many executives seek the guidance of executive coaches to address “management challenges,” but these are often just surface-level problems. The underlying issues remain hidden, and coaching maestros use guidance, inspiration, and questioning to help executives break free from their mental constraints and find answers to their problems. However, having a coaching certification doesn’t guarantee the ability to truly help executives solve these issues.
While some people possess excellent coaching skills and hold multiple certifications, they may struggle to maintain an authentic and stable coaching presence. These coaches may employ various techniques but lack true depth. On the other hand, some business executives may not hold a “CC” designation but have extensive practical experience and the coaching skills necessary to become coaching maestros.
The essence of coaching is to accompany clients. It requires both the ability to empathize and connect with clients, as well as the ability to step back and guide clients to see the bigger picture, broader context, processes, frameworks, and systems. Effective coaches should be able to provide psychological support and act as business advisors. Executive coaches address deep-seated issues and help executives undergo shifts in awareness and thinking. They assist clients in finding their “Aha Moment” and expanding their thinking in terms of depth, breadth, and height. This shift allows executives to break free from recurring problems, leading to behavioral changes. When their thinking evolves, executives can reach a state of “Self-Coaching,” where they can truly liberate themselves from external assistance.
“Organizational culture is actually determined by the organization’s leaders. The characteristics of the leaders will shape the entire organization. Many people seek out executive coaches with specific problems in mind, hoping to find solutions. However, the role of an executive coach goes beyond that – it involves uncovering the iceberg beneath the problems and changing an individual’s thinking and mindset,” said Yan Qiuhua.
This is also the essence of why executive coaches exist – to use questioning to touch the heart, enlighten the mind. Whether it’s a CEO with a perfectionism issue who demands 100% accuracy in reports, or a business founder who seems like a “ruthless tyrant” by constantly firing high-level executives, executive coaches help them break out of their “information cocoon.” They provide a fresh perspective for individuals to recognize their potential shortcomings.
“An executive coach is a companion who ensures that high-level executives continuously have opportunities for self-reflection and expanding their thinking throughout their long careers in management. At the same time, an executive coach needs to challenge executives gently, coaxing them out of their blind spots and confronting their issues. An executive coach also acts as a catalyst for new thinking, helping executives and teams open a new door to see the countless possibilities in the world,” according to Yan Qiuhua. In her view, when leaders change, the entire organization changes with them. The value of an executive coach extends not only to the individual executive but also to the entire organization, leading to overall effectiveness.