Coaching, executive coaching

Having A Psychology Background Helps with Executive Coaching

In step with the nearly global current of optimization, leaders are likely to examine every potential facet of their organizations that can be improved, including themselves. Enter the executive coach. These specialists offer tools to executives and leaders of various tiers to improve their performance through self-, employee-, and organizational examination. Though executive coaching professionals emerge from many fields, a background in psychology tends to provide the most robust results.


Defining the field: What is executive coaching?

Executive coaching as a prominent profession took shape in popular understanding in the 1980s. Also termed performance coaching, the practice of training leaders in the business world is dotted with thinkers, systems, and approaches. Many popular tools for assessment exist and undergo frequent revision. One of the earliest examples is the GROW model developed by Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and Sir John Whitmore.

The acronym breaks down as follows:

  • Goal
  • Reality (Present situation)
  • Options and/or Obstacles
  • Way forward

This model is one of many but offers an effective survey of the general goal of executive coaches. As Tom Cerni, Guy J. Curtis & Susan H. Colmar put it in International Coaching Psychology Review, “Executive coaching aims to enhance the effectiveness of leaders and performance of organizations (Nelson & Hogan, 2009) by connecting the who (talented employees) and the how (leadership development) with organizational goals and strategies (Wood & Gordon, 2009). To achieve these outcomes coaches first need to develop a personal understanding of themselves and their responses to change (Kemp, 2009).”

Testing is important but these tools are primarily for establishing a baseline. What counts is the practitioner’s technique for implementing these skills to match the needs of his or her client. Finding someone who knows when and how to use them is not as simple as looking for someone with the title, executive coach.

A lot of options for choosing an executive coach

To the untrained eye, the field is rife with potential coaches. From sports to legal professionals, with a motley assortment in between, many candidates from many backgrounds assume the title for themselves. Stratford Sherman and Alyssa Freas write in the Harvard Business Review, “Barriers to entry are nonexistent—many self-styled executive coaches know little about business, and some know little about coaching. At best, the coaching certifications offered by various self-appointed bodies are difficult to assess, while methods of measuring return on investment are questionable.” This quote comes from 2004.

Choosing wisely – Find the right executive coach for you

Two years prior, in 2002, another seasoned veteran and fellow contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Steven Berglas recounted horror stories of executive coaches untrained in the psychological discipline. Dr. Berglas received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duke University. The experiences he shares recount damage done by executive coaches who only knew part of what they were doing and his efforts to fix them, saying, “I believe that in an alarming number of situations, executive coaches who lack rigorous psychological training do more harm than good.”

The damage is often a result of good intentions. Professionals that have seen success in their fields and within their contexts want to share the methods of their success. However, the results are not always translatable. Behavioral approaches derived from sports coaching may miss important underlying factors in leaders dealing with nuanced issues. Grooming managers in one business niche may not equip a coach for dealing with other specialties or leadership positions.

In the years since the International Coaching Federation has done some work to standardize the practice and insert reliable credentialing into the field. Certainly, the ICF adds a layer of trust and competency to a resume, but it’s not a sure-fire sign that someone is the right fit.

The Right Toolbelt: Psychology background for the executive coach

In the years that have followed, strong arguments have been made for a psychology background as a requisite for an effective executive coach. As of this writing, no peer-reviewed arguments have been made against executive coaches possessing a background in psychology. Dr. Stephen Palmer and Dr. Michael Cavanagh point out that trained psychologists “bring a host of psychological theories and models that underpin, and bring depth to, the coaching relationship. These include an understanding of mental health; motivation; systems theory; personal and organizational growth; adaptation of therapeutic models to the field of coaching; research into effectiveness, resilience and positive psychology.”

The right toolbelt is an integral part of ensuring that coaches are not addressing symptoms while ignoring the cause. Without these skills leadership and organizational issues can be exacerbated, either through worsening relations and behaviors or through undue emotional strain on the leader receiving coaching. Dr. John Reed’s (a Forbes Council Member) recommendation expressed 2018 in Forbes is that even a previous C-Suite should have some educational background in psychology. He says, “the ex-executive-turned-coach should have at least a master’s if not doctoral training in organizational psychology or a related social science.”

The right focus: A psychological lens

While most branches of psychology can help equip an executive coach with the skillset to understand the person, Dr. Reed introduces some stipulations about those trained in the more traditional disciplines, saying, “the ex-therapist pitching coaching services also needs MBA training from a strong program and substantial business experience.” At this point in executive coaching’s evolution, it can be insufficient to possess training in psychology alone.

Enter the industrial-organizational psychologist. These psychological specialists are uniquely positioned to understand the human and the business elements of leaders’ needs. “They’ve gone through the rigor,” says executive coach and  Industrial-Organizational Psychology Ph.D., John Behr. “They understand the leaders, the personnel, and the organization.” But for Dr. Behr, his education is merely the bedrock of his approach. In his sessions, John most values dynamic critical thinking. This means that a set of coaching tools is not all he demands of himself. “To let the process unfold,” says Dr. Behr, “you have to be in the moment with every session. That means no autopilot.”

As a mentor to several retired executives who want to become coaches themselves, Dr. John Behr finds that “business acumen can take you a long way and help with offering tactical advice, but it’s an often-prescriptive role that doesn’t always equip a person to help another find their own way to success.” Beneath his experience, the psychological training Dr. Behr has received has allowed him to get creative on top of a scientific process.

“Quantifying and defining leadership, personnel retention, job satisfaction, that’s all there, but that’s not all there is.” Dr. Behr returns, time and again, to the process of giving and taking atop a rigorous scientific approach. “There are times when a leader needs to be led to their own answers, and other times the leader needs an answer outright, and it takes a very intentional presence to recognize those needs and not get lost in a coaching template.”

Precisely defining the field of executive coaching proves elusive. Part of that elusiveness is a continually evolving clientele that faces continually changing demands. A background in psychology equips coaches with the means of understanding people in their various roles and needs as well as their mendable pitfalls. Yet, to stand apart from strong, well-equipped coaches, one must bring a deliberateness and an extra degree of consciousness to meet a leader wherever she or he is in their journey.