The Definitive Guide to Executive vs. Business Coaching

Executive coaching and business coaching continue to rise in demand and popularity. It is increasingly common to hear business owners and executives talk about their “coach.” You will also hear terms used like “life coach,” “leadership coach,” “organizational coach,” “process improvement coach,” “management coach,” or “performance coach.” However, the most common terms used in business are executive coach and business coach. 

What is Coaching?

houston business coaching

First, let’s define what we mean by coaching. The International Coaching Federation (ICF), established in 1995, has become the largest and most widely recognized organization within the coaching profession. They are also the organization that sets the standard for ethical conduct and practice for professional coaches. ICF defines coaching this way:

“Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” 

This broad definition provides a good starting point, but it is helpful to differentiate coaching from consulting and mentoring for more clarity. These concepts are often confused. A consultant is someone who possesses some particular skill or expertise. 

They use their subject matter expertise to help an individual or organization improve in a specific way. Typical specialties include technology, marketing, management, and sales, just to name a few. Consultants bring their knowledge and expertise to solve problems and improve outcomes.

executive coaching

Mentoring usually implies instruction for a younger person or a novice in a given endeavor or field of study. A mentor comes alongside an individual who lacks knowledge or experience, and they help that individual get started down a new path of learning. This new learning path may be personal or focused on a particular skill or body of knowledge.

These definitions should only serve as a framework for thinking, as a coach sometimes steps into the role of instructor and mentor, as well as the role of a consultant. Real-world experience does not always fit neatly into our categories, but this can serve us well as we fine-tune our understanding and expectations.

What is Executive Coaching?

Executive coaching derives its name from the target audience – executives. However, an executive may be a business owner, a not-for-profit director, a corporate senior level manager, or a public sector official. The common characteristic is that this person has a significant level of responsibility for other people within an organization, and they have the power to put plans, actions, and policies in place.

Executive coaching focuses on the decision-maker, aiming to help them become a more capable and effective leader. Thus, executive coaching and leadership coaching are often one and the same. This means that executive coaching will impact the executive and their team.

I often say that through executive coaching I help leaders increase their leadership capacity and effectiveness, as well as help them improve their team capacity, performance, and results. Executive development is necessary to grow and scale a company or organization.

Executive coaching is not limited to just the senior leader. It is a valuable tool for developing leaders throughout an organization. Lower-level leaders, such as department managers and team leaders, can also benefit from executive coaching.

Executive coaching conversations will often zero in on topics such as:

Executive Leadership
  • Professional and organizational goals
  • Personal and team strengths and weaknesses
  • Strengthening leadership competencies and execution skills
  • Organizational excellence and performance improvement
  • Identifying skill gaps and strategizing to minimize or eliminate them
  • Culture building
  • Communication skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Conflict resolution
  • Change management
  • Stress management and life balance
  • Team building
  • How to help individual contributors become effective managers
  • Practical tools that help leaders achieve their organizational objectives

Eventually, almost every leader is capped by their capacity, no matter how effective or productive they are. John Maxwell refers to this as the “Law of the Lid” (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John C. Maxwell.) Maxwell states, “Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness.” 

In other words, the leader’s capacity will determine the organization’s capacity. You must grow as a leader to see your company or organization grow. And to truly scale up your business, leadership must extend throughout the organization. The value of executive coaching is that it enables you to raise your leadership lid and thereby raise the lid in your organization.

What is Business Coaching?

Business coaching focuses on improving the business and is guided by the business owner. It is important to note that business “consulting” is guided by the expert, the consultant. 

However, business coaching is facilitated by the business coach, but the business owner directs it. 

What does this mean?

Setting business priorities

The business owner determines the priorities in business coaching (vs. consulting). They identify the critical areas that need immediate attention and improvement. The business coach may facilitate this identification process collaboratively, but the owner sets the priorities.

As the coaching relationship continues, the coaching conversations will often zero in on topics such as:

  • Plan execution
  • Tracking and measuring team effectiveness
  • Process improvement and documentation
  • Training employees in processes and company culture
  • Mid-course corrections
  • Organizational structure – do we have the right people in the right seats
  • Marketing strategies
  • Sales training and improvement
  • Cash flow and profitability
  • Reading and using financial statements
  • Personal productivity and organization; de-cluttering
  • Focus and priorities
  • Mindset – overcoming limiting beliefs
  • General business management

It has been suggested that business coaching suits small businesses better, while executive coaching is more for a larger organization. It has also been suggested that a business coach should have experience in successfully running a small business. While, in general, this seems to make sense, I would not hold this idea too rigidly.

Executive coaching improves business outcomes by maximizing leadership performance. In contrast, business coaching improves business outcomes by maximizing processes, systems, and strategies. What is true about both is that the key is clarity and execution. And having an ongoing relationship with a competent coach will provide this.

Which Type of Coaching is Right for Me?

You may need both! 

Indeed, every business owner and senior-level leader can benefit from both, and many professional coaches offer both. It comes down to priorities. 

What does my company or organization need most at this point? Start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. Is my business struggling to remain profitable and cash-positive?
  2. Do I have an effective strategy for generating new business?
  3. Am I, as the business owner, pulled in too many directions?
  4. Am I, as the business owner, tired, exhausted, or burnt out?
  5. Does the business depend mainly (or entirely) upon me as the owner?
  6. Do I lack a well-defined budget for my business?
  7. Do I lack a current, written business plan?
  8. Do I lack clear goals and traceable metrics for my business?
  9. Do I lack organization and structure?
  10. Do I have frequent customer complaints?

You probably need a business coach if you answered “Yes” to all or most of these questions. 

If you answered “No” to most of these questions, then consider the following:

  1. Do I have a clear, articulated vision for the future of our organization?
  2. Do I have company values that are shared by all and that shape the culture of our organization?
  3. Are my systems and processes documented and followed by all?
  4. Do my people have all the tools they need to be successful?
  5. Do I have the right people in the right seats and effective hiring and onboarding system?
  6. Do I have an effective, documented training process for my staff roles?
  7. Am I executing a plan for leadership development throughout my organization?
  8. Are my key team members and I maximizing our strengths and potential within the organization?
  9. Am I, as the owner/executive, able to devote the majority of my time to work “on” the business (vs. working “in” the business)?
  10. As the owner/executive, can I take an extended vacation (e.g., 2-3 weeks) without fear or “hiccups” in my business?
  11. Is my business able to maintain reasonably good margins financially?
  12. Am I, as the owner/executive, compensated appropriately?

You would benefit from executive coaching if you answered “No” to all or most of these questions. If you need a business coach (as defined above) that should probably take priority over executive coaching. As you research and interview a prospective executive and business coach, use these questions to guide your inquiry. 

Leadership Coaching

Some will gravitate toward one or the other, either business coaching or executive coaching. Other coaches will have expertise with both. I’ll say more about selecting a coach a little later, but what’s important here is that you have clarity about what you need and expect from a coach. Be sure your business is stable and profitable before embarking on executive coaching.

What Should I Expect from My Coaching Experience?

Because our backgrounds and experiences vary, the expectations of coaching clients tend to vary significantly. When some people think of coaching, their primary reference point is sports. A sports coach is very different than an executive or business coach. 

In fact, sports coaching varies quite a bit from little league coaching to high school coaching to college coaching to professional sports.

Strategy & Motivation

From my experience, when people come from a sports coaching orientation, they want strategy and motivation that leads to execution and desired outcomes. They often want simple answers and quick results. They want concise, pithy, motivational input. They want practical tips and techniques, as well as behavioral solutions.

Thoughtful, Reflective Questions

Well-trained and experienced coaches may utilize this approach to a small degree, but the client will be surprised by a talented coach’s thoughtful, reflective, probing questions. The client will also be surprised by the slower pace required for deeper introspection. So be honest with yourself and with the coach you are interviewing. Let them know what you expect and hope for, but then be ready to be presented with some good questions to challenge your thinking. At that point, be open to negotiating so you can align expectations.

As mentioned earlier, some clients come into a coaching relationship really expecting a consultant who will give them all the answers. They want a guru who will give them the magic bullet to crack the code of business growth or executive excellence. If you need a consultant to help you attain a specific business outcome, you may want to a consultant rather than a coach.

Challenged Through Discovery

If you are trying to solve a big problem such as poor lead generation or declining sales, ask the prospective coach if they have expertise or experience guiding clients through these significant challenges. Your struggle may be financial performance, HR issues, technology, or other specific needs. Many coaches bring the expertise and consultative skill set that you want. But if they are a well-trained and experienced coach, be prepared for them to challenge you personally as a leader and manager. Be prepared for them to ask probing questions about your mindset, limiting beliefs, and personal values.

As the coach guides you through discovery, planning, and execution, don’t be surprised if the conversation leads to a personal question like, “What do you want your epitaph to say on your tombstone?” Again, let the prospective coach know what you are hoping for and let them tell you if they believe they can help you. And if they say “yes,” ask them to describe the coaching process. 


Good coaches will lead you to think deeply about your values, strengths, and ambitions. They will encourage you not only to solve the presenting problems but also to understand the mindset and the unconscious dynamics within yourself that hold you back or that cause you to repeat the same mistakes.

Business Therapy

I never present myself as a “therapist,” and I never attempt to resolve deep-seated emotional problems. I know my limitations as a coach and do not hesitate to refer people to the appropriate professional to address issues outside my scope. But when people have a meaningful introspective experience, “therapy” is all they know to call it. 

The bottom line is that you should have the expectations and process conversations with a prospective coach before you engage them. If you don’t, they will likely bring it up because the coach will want clarity to ensure that they deliver the value you desire.

leadership coaching

What is the Coaching Process?

Don’t hesitate to ask your prospective coach, “What is your coaching process or methodology?” 

Good coaches love this question. 

They love to talk about their craft and how they help people. A good coaching process is fairly simple.

Strategic Business Assessments

Most coaches begin with some strategic questions. Based on the client’s goals, the coach may also incorporate an assessment tool early on, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, The DiSC Profile, Birkman, Kolbe, the Big Five, Clifton Strengths, etc. There are too many to name them all. 

These assessment tools serve as great conversation starters and insight springboards to help the coaching client understand themselves more deeply and thus become empowered to make better behavioral decisions.

Reflective Dialogue

I think of the coaching process as reflective dialogue that leads to insight, stronger and more effective beliefs, clarity, focus, and action. Years ago, a popular motivational speaker said, “Successful people simply practice successful habits.” Through reflective dialogue and greater self-awareness, I empower people to make better choices that lead to better outcomes and relationships. 

Accountability and Encouragement

Then the ongoing coaching relationship provides the accountability and encouragement to turn these more effective behaviors into habits. Along the way, the client (and the team) gains new learning and improved results. There is almost always personal growth and increased organizational capacity.

How long does the coaching relationship last? 

It can last as long as you and your coach want it to last. I’ve had clients feel satisfied with three or four coaching sessions, and I have some clients that have maintained our coaching relationship for more than ten years.

Discuss the frequency and duration of the coaching sessions at the beginning of the engagement. 

Stop it or continue it based on whether or not it brings you the desired value. A good coach will always make this an easy conversation. The client should never stress over having this conversation with their coach.

How do I Select an Executive or Business Coach?

As has already been stated, you need to consider what you want from the coaching experience. You should have your questions ready, and you should have a formal meeting to interview each of your prospective coaches.

Ask Business Leaders

The best way to identify potential coaches is to ask other business leaders in your community first, then make an internet search. Pick the two or three you resonate with the most and schedule an initial meeting. Coaches typically do not charge for this meeting, and most will happily schedule an initial consultation to get acquainted.

Ask and Answer Questions

A good coach will have questions for you, so be prepared to answer and ask questions. Coaches specialize in questions, so pay close attention to the quality of their questions. They don’t have to be profound, just relevant and authentic. Check your gut. Do you enjoy the questions and the style of the prospective coach? If you interview three coaches, you will have good internal data to compare them.

Numerous websites offer questions to ask a prospective coach, but you will have limited time. So let me boil it down to five questions:

  1. Tell me about your coaching process and your particular expertise. In asking this you are trying to determine if they are truly a skilled coach or just a good marketer.
  2. Tell me about your experience and your credentials. For me, experience is more important than credentials. Some corporations require that their coaching vendors have ICF credentialing. My experience has been that the ICF credentials do not guarantee the prospect is a good coach. Instead, take a deeper look at their tenure and coaching experience. Many experienced coaches like myself were coaching before credentialing was even available.
  3. Tell me about some of your recent clients. Don’t expect the coach to give you specific names and issues, but the coach should be able to describe some of their clients and talk about their work.
  4. Ask the coach for some references and client testimonials. You can also check out their Google reviews.

The Gut Check

Finally, after the interview is over, do a gut check.

Do I resonate with this person, and do I feel confident that they can deliver what I need?

Can I envision myself building a deep, trusted relationship with this person?

If it doesn’t feel right, follow your gut.

Experience Growth and Change with Glenn Smith Coaching

It is important to understand that executive and business coaching is about growth and change. The consideration of hiring a coach usually begins with a business or organizational need. We typically want something to improve our business, team, or leadership performance. 

Often the impetus for coaching is driven by a desire for greater scalability, increased capacity, or more efficient organization. But we must accept that real growth and change begin with the leader. The late Jim Rohn used to say, “For things to change, you must change. Otherwise, nothing much will change.” 

As a business owner or leader, you must be honest with yourself. Are you a customer of change? Coaching is inherently focused on personal growth and change. Only as we grow and change as leaders will our business and organizational performance improvement. Ready to embark upon a period of discovery and improvement to propel your business forward? Scheduled your initial consultation with Glenn Smith today! 

Glenn Smith is a sought-after Executive Coach with over two decades of experience. Recognized for his strategic insights and leadership training, Glenn has been a guiding force for more than a hundred successful small to mid-sized businesses. Merging data-driven strategies with profound insights into human behavior, he aids business owners and executives in realizing their fullest potential. A respected thought leader, Glenn has contributed to numerous business publications and is a popular keynote speaker. Outside his professional realm, Glenn cherishes family time and outdoor activities. He is a pilot with over 30 years of flight experience. He is also a professionally trained gunsmith and a firearms instructor. His dedication to fostering leadership and driving transformative change marks him as a premier figure in executive coaching.


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