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Dancing in the Moment as an Executive Coach

Episode #1028: Severin Sorensen interviews musician and executive coach, David Highley PCC, on his journey from the world of music to a thriving career in executive coaching. Severin and David talk about ways in which David’s music career inspires his coaching today, the importance of “dancing in the moment,” the benefits of training, and the use of learned concepts and skills in coaching. Learn to “dance in the moment” during executive coaching sessions by tuning into this episode of the Arete Coach podcast.

About David Highley

David Highley is an executive and leadership coach out of San Diego, California. David has been an executive coach for ten years—coaching clients worldwide via Zoom. David started his journey to executive coaching through his career in music. David was a guitarist and musical professional for 32 years. From there, he began a career in the English Government and quickly climbed the corporate ladder. After realizing his success in the corporate world, and the world of music, David decided to pursue executive coaching.

In 2012, David completed the University of San Diego’s leadership coaching program and became a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through the International Coaching Federation (ICF). David has a passion for coaching executives and leaders of high impact, namely those who lead large organizations that focus on societal or environmental change. In his coaching practice he strives to incorporate unconditional positive regard and the practice of listening in the moment.

Today, David continues his coaching career whilst playing and recording music in his free time. David has greatly impacted the lives of those he coaches and offers great insight to how the world of music can influence the practice of executive coaching.

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Transcript_David Highley_Podcast #1028
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Key highlights

David’s journey to executive coaching

Timestamp 01:39

David started his journey to executive coaching after graduating college and starting his music career. David’s father was a “musician by passion” and an engineer by trade. David shares that he thinks he carried his father’s frustration that he was not a musician by trade. Because of this, David entered the music industry after graduating college and felt that in order to make money, he had to stifle his creativity.

He shares that the music he made the most money on was “very, very” repetitive and had a tendency to be the “same music all the time.” As a result, he left the music industry and moved to working for the English government. During his time with the English government, David quickly climbed the corporate ladder and was introduced to his own executive coach. Soon David decided that he wanted to take the skills he learned from the music industry, his background in psychology, his experience in the corporate world, and his education about executive coaching and pour it into a career path of executive coaching.

Dancing in the moment

Timestamp 12:15

Like his father, David tends to notice “process and design.” David relates this to how musicians play jazz. In jazz music, musicians have to be in the moment while understanding “harmonic structures, ideas, and concepts.” David shares that these ideas and concepts move to the back of the mind while the musician pays attention to the present music. “That’s exactly what you’re doing with the client” states David. When working with clients, David believes that, just like the jazz musician, “you are swapping out these concepts in the back of your mind…as you try and bring the right thoughts, feeling, or concept, or exercise to that moment.” Like the jazz musician, the executive coach can practice “dancing in the moment” with their client while integrating concepts and ideas they have received from their own training and experience.

Genuine connections

Timestamp 14:38

David has used social media to grow his coaching practice and has found that “going into these new relationships just with the intent of really getting to know someone, yields way better results than trying to come at them with some sales pitch.” David shares a story of how he met a business leader online who ended up connecting him to a government minister and environmental minister. David attributes the network he has made to genuine curiosity and friendliness. Severin relates to this and shares that during conferences he will meet other executive coaches and build his network through genuine discussions about panel discussions and speeches.

In-person coaching versus virtual coaching

Timestamp 20:58

David coaches clients all over the world through virtual coaching. In his experience, coaching through Zoom has offered increasing flexibility. However, Zoom also requires executive coaches to pay attention to all the details presented in the visible “window of a person.” David takes note of what is worn, the environment around his clients, how they lean forward or back in conversation, what they are saying, and how they are saying. Severin relates this to “a new version of management by walking around.” Instead of noticing the environment and mannerisms of a client in person, virtual coaches have to take special notice to the actions of their clients.

David’s structure of coaching

Timestamp 22:47

David describes his coaching as “putting this person’s business interests at the center of the coaching.” However, he shares that sometimes that has to be changed because other relationships or events “might be having a significant effect on who they are” or their business. He shares that approximately 80% of his coaching is business-focused while only 20% focuses on his clients’ personal lives. David coaches his clients for a minimum of 6 months and likes to treat it like a project. “We start with the end in mind and say, ‘let’s have 5 or 6 statements of purpose, which tell us what we’re trying to achieve.” He makes sure that his coaching is targeted and goal-oriented to ensure desired outcomes.

Tension and release

Timestamp 27:53

When discussing the potential metaphors from the music industry that can influence executive coaching, David shares “the idea of tension and release.” There are sections of music that are tense and sections that are relaxed. These sections and dynamics create a story line for the audience. In the same way, executive coaches challenge their clients—creating tension and a push to achieve greatness. Sometimes these tense moments are moments of silence and contemplation which build a client’s understanding of their goals and skills, ultimately pivoting them onto greater success.

Unconditional positive regard

Timestamp 30:42

When asked what he wishes he learned earlier on in his coaching career, David shares the concept of unconditional positive regard. He states that unconditional positive regard is having “to ask questions and to allow a little silence, and to try and hold back your own agenda with the absolute faith that your client has everything they need in order to get where they want to go.” Unconditional positive regard reminds David that his clients are capable of learning to solve their own challenges.


Timestamp 33:48

As David and Severin discuss the importance of challenging clients to achieve their goals and better their business practice, David asks Severin for his experience and opinion on how “clients can sometimes be challenges to the coach…and how maybe younger coaches deal with that.” Severin relates to this statement and focuses on the “level of listening” that he had in his early years of coaching. Delivering value, quality of listening, and staying curious are main factors of coaching that Severin focuses on when evaluating his coaching. Severin shares a story of how he had developed a musical skill to the point of which he would have had to practice for hours a day before becoming any better. Executive coaches must practice in the same way. Severin states that “there comes a point where elementary things have to change, you have to learn new patterns. And if you’re not willing to do the work, it’s really hard.” Executive coaches must continually challenge themselves and focus on delivering value, listening, and staying curious.

Identifying the goal

Timestamp 40:39

When David starts his executive coaching sessions, he likes to do a quick exercise where he asks, “Now what do we need to have achieved by the end of this session?” In his coaching, David likes to get his clients “really clear on where they’re going, what their vision is, even if that’s only in an hour’s time.”

Quality checks

Timestamp 42:47

When faced with what he feels like could have been a failure, David always quality checks his coaching from his client. He does this by asking questions such as “How could we make this better?” or “How are we performing against your goals?” David shares that “it’s very easy to make coaching engagements extremely successful just by regularly checking in on the quality of the engagement.” Severin shares that he also does this sometimes during coaching session. This helps him and his client redirect if necessary.

Training and accreditation

Timestamp 47:58

When reflecting on how the executive coaching industry has changed, David encourages today’s executive coaches to get accreditation. It helps others identify the credibility of executive coaches and helps coaches further enhance their practice. For aspiring executive coaches, David recommends reading, training, and practicing. “You’re going to learn to be a coach by doing a course that’s over a period of many months that will allow you to fully integrate the concepts and for you to change as a person…” states David.

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