Inside the strange and powerful world of executive coaches
In a conference room on the 28th floor above Manhattan, a dozen private equity executives sat around a mahogany table, and once again the president wouldn’t shut up.
They were titans of industry; they rode in a private elevator to avoid the “scum” in the lobby, recalled one person who attended the meeting. However, next to them, monitoring their activity like a kindergarten teacher, loomed an “executive coach” holding a stopwatch. He interrupted the president. Too many yelps. It was time for someone else to speak.
The scene was emblematic of the rise of a new kind of power broker in boardrooms: executive coaches, once stigmatized as a corrective measure for struggling leaders, have more recently emerged as a sort of symbol of status in C suites.
“I find it unimaginable that there is a top leader of any substance…who doesn’t have a coach,” said Scott Osman, CEO of 100 Coaches, which helps companies match leadership trainers.
“The coaching world is booming,” added Marshall Goldsmith, considered by many to be the godfather of the industry.
At the high end, coaches can charge anywhere from $10,000 a month to over $300,000 for a six-month commitment, fees that are usually written off by companies as business expenses. Some trainers juggle up to 20 clients simultaneously.
Corporate figures such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg and Sundar Pichai are all said to have taken advice from coaches, which helped standardize the practice and lend credibility to the industry. But the potential for lucrative earnings, at least at the top, has also drawn throngs of self-proclaimed advisers with little experience and questionable expertise.
“A lot of people can just hang a shingle and say they’re a coach,” said Grace Ueng, CEO of Savvy Growth, which offers both consulting and coaching services.
The unregulated nature of the industry – combined with the cachet of having a personal adviser – has, in some cases, crowded boardrooms with herds of them.
A leader who hires their own coach might start bringing them to meetings, which can spark the competitiveness of other leaders who also want that perk, said Dan Pontefract, a B.C.-based leadership strategist.
He remembers having worked with a bank where four managers had brought in their own advisers, two of them in secret. The resulting dynamic was “acrimonious,” he said, with each leader clamoring to protect their own fiefdom.
“It becomes like the UN…. You have the representative – the ambassador – and behind them are like two or three people talking in their ears,” he said.
And while some executives are battling to get their own private attorney, coaches are groping the waters. “It’s prevalent, the coaches that are there, nipping at the heels of executives,” Pontefract added. “That’s where the snake oil is. And that’s a problem.
“Imagine trying to coach Donald Trump. It’s an extreme example, but there are a lot of CEOs out there with big egos.”
— Sally Helgelsen
Traditionally, executive coaches are expected to refrain from meddling in the matters they advise. “The benefit of a coach is that we’re selfless parties,” said Michigan-based coach and author John Baldoni. “When you start advocating in an organization, it’s a different dynamic, and it can really, really backfire on you.”
This approach remains the norm. But that’s not always how things turn out. In Twitter outbreakthe 2013 book about the founding of the social media giant, author Nick Bilton writes about coaching co-founder Evan Williams, legendary former Intuit CEO Bill Campbell.
According to Bilton, Campbell “often showed up at Twitter board meetings unannounced and inserted himself into the company’s business.”
The coach, who died in 2016, reportedly spoke about his sessions with Williams with at least one board member. And though he regularly told the co-founder he was doing “a great fucking job,” according to the book, after Williams walked out of the room during board meetings, Campbell would exclaim, “You gotta get rid of that fucking guy! He doesn’t know what he’s doing! (Reached by The Daily Beast, Twitter declined to comment.)
A more typical client-coach relationship might look like this: a coach is brought in to help a leader grow or improve a shortcoming, such as poor communication, bullying tendencies, or meekness.
The first step, according to many coaches, is a 360 degree assessment. During this process, the coach may attend executive meetings and client calls, and will interview 10+ peers and subordinates to gather a full picture of their mannerisms and abilities.
“The assessment is the first time for many of these executives [that] they come face to face with who they think they are versus who they really are,” said Eddie Turner, executive coach at Linkage.
Some executives crave scrutiny and guidance. “They say it’s lonely at the top. But it’s even more profoundly true than ever” because of the pandemic, said Mark Thompson, a former adviser to Steve Jobs.
Clients can discuss everything from marital issues to substance abuse issues with their coach, any topic that may affect their job performance. “I’m going to tell you things I can’t even tell my husband,” one coach recalled of a client saying, attributing their “sacred” connection to how he listened more intently than his wife.
Other frameworks are much less responsive. “Imagine trying to coach Donald Trump,” said Sally Helgesen, who has run her own firm for more than three decades. “That’s an extreme example, but there are a lot of CEOs out there with big egos.”
A coach recounted the experience of a contemporary who had been assigned to advise an executive at a major defense contractor. “What have you come to do for me?” barked the executive as the councilor walked in for their first meeting. He asked the coach to help him increase his net worth significantly. If they weren’t ready for the task, he said, “it’s a waste of time.”
Coaches are divided on where to draw the line between offering feedback and interfering. Many suggested making no concrete suggestions to customers.
“You are not here to be the hero of the story. You are here to be Yoda,” said David Nour, who founded his own coaching business in 2002.
“I don’t offer vaccines, but I coached the guy who invented vaccines. I didn’t overthrow the Ford Motor Company, but I coached the guy who did.”
— Marshal Goldsmith
On the contrary, Grace Ueng, herself a former executive, mixes coaching with consultancy work, such as helping recruit new talent, a mix she acknowledged as “unusual”.
“[Traditional] Executive coaches are not supposed to give advice. They are only supposed to ask questions. But I think it’s not that valuable,” she said. “I tell people… ‘You pay for me, I’ll end up giving you advice.’ And they want that. They love it.
Said Marshall Goldsmith: “I don’t offer vaccines, but I coached the guy who offered vaccines. I didn’t overthrow the Ford Motor Company, but I coached the guy who did. So my added value in life is not [that] I do these things. I just try to find other great people and help them.
Naturally, some engagements don’t go well. A smaller number really do not.
A counselor recalled an incident in which a trainer started a fight after sleeping with a client’s direct report. “It’s amateur time, or The Wild Wild West,” he lamented.
Even when things are going well, the industry can be stressful. The customer pipeline is difficult to predict and can fluctuate from month to month.
“It’s not, in general, a good career choice,” Sally Helgesen said. “Most coaches don’t make that much money.”
Yet the prospect of a big payday has sparked a boom in popularity, bringing with it some frowning practices.
“They poison the well for the rest of us.”
— David Nour, executive coach
Some coaches who advise tech executives have started investing in their startups, raising concerns about conflicts of interest, one adviser said. This move has become increasingly popular since some venture capitalists to require that an entrepreneur hires a coach after accepting a large investment.
To help companies screen out the most credible advisors, a number of training and certification programs have grown, led by the 27-year-old International Coaching Federation and its roster of more than 30,000 coaches.
“When I started coaching 20 years ago, there were probably one or two coaching schools. Now there are probably 50,” said Jeffrey Hull, executive director of the Institute of Coaching from McLean/Harvard Medical School.
These types of credentials can be a useful data point, but they don’t guarantee quality, several advisers said. Meanwhile, dozens of new trainers flood the market every month.
“It has become a cottage industry. Now, there are all kinds of organizations that certify executive coaches. What the hell does that mean?” complained longtime coach David Nour. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should… They’re poisoning the well for the rest of between us.”