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The Path to Executive Coaching: How to Become an Executive Coach

Interested in becoming an executive coach, but not sure where to begin? If so, join us as we walk down the path of becoming an executive coach. For those who are currently executive coaches, reviewing the path to executive coaching can help you mentor others on their journey to becoming a thriving executive coach.

Step 1: Understand what coaching is

The first step to becoming an executive coach is understanding what an executive coach is. By having a clear understanding of what executive coaching is, you can ensure that you are investing your time and energy into your desired career.

“An intelligent person is never afraid or ashamed to find errors in his understanding of things.” - Bryant H. McGill

Executive coaching is active listening

Executive coaches must be skilled active listeners. The ICF’s 6th core competency is active listening. They state that executive coaches focus on “what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated in the context of the client systems and to support client self-expression.” Active listening considers a “client’s context, identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs to enhance understanding,” summarizes what is said, recognizes when there is “more to what the client is communicating,” “notices, acknowledges and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues,” uses the client’s non-verbal and verbal language, and “notices trends in the client’s behaviors and emotions across sessions” (ICF, n.d.).

Active listening is a skill built and used by executive coaches during each session. Vistage Chair and executive coach Robin Stanaland explains “unless you are truly curious and can be an active listener, being a coach will be hard for you. You need to ask questions to hear the answer, not to come up with the next best question or a solution, but instead to really listen” (2021). Active listening acknowledges the power of silence and questions.

Executive coaching clarifies goals

Executive coaches ask questions and help their clients clarify their goals, challenges, and skills. They help CEOs and business leaders “visualize,” “set goals for the future,” and clarify “strengths and areas for growth” (Stanaland, 2021). Executive coaches help their clients set goals and develop strategic plans to achieve these goals (TheExecutiveCoachingForum, 2015). They do this by asking powerful questions and helping clients “uncover underlying thoughts, emotions, and energy” (iPEC, n.d.).

“We must see people in terms of their future potential, not past performance.” - Sir John Whitmore

Executive coaching facilitates growth

By identifying goals and strategies to achieve these goals, executive coaches facilitate the growth of their clients. A coach's ability to facilitate growth is the 8th core competency of coaching according to the ICF. They state that executive coaches partner with their clients “to transform learning and insight into action” (ICF, n.d.). Executive coaches hold their clients “accountable” for their progress towards their goals (Stanaland, 2021). Growth and skill development is a key return on investment that CEOs and business leaders receive from executive coaches (Philips & Philips, 2005).

Executive coaching is asking questions

An important characteristic of executive coaching is staying curious and asking questions. Asking questions provokes thought and creates new understandings in the lives of CEOs and business leaders that receive executive coaching.

Executive coaching is for executives and their organizations

The Executive Coaching Forum’s handbook for executive coaching defines executive coaching as, “a process to benefit the leader and his/her organization. Working with goals defined by both the leader and the organization…” (2015). Executive coaching focuses on executives, their goals, their skills, and the effect that they have on the organizations they lead. Executive coaching accounts for the impact an executive has on the organization as well as the impact the organization has on the executive.

Step 2: Understand what executive coaching is NOT

Those new to executive coaching will confuse counseling, consulting, advice-giving, and other helping careers with executive coaching. Because of this, it is important to understand what executive coaching is not before investing time, money, and energy into becoming an executive coach.

“The ability to ask questions is the greatest resource in learning the truth.” - Carl Jung

Executive coaching is NOT giving advice

Executive coaches are not advice-givers. Instead, they ask questions out of curiosity and previous insight. Executive coaches see their clients as “experts in their own lives and businesses.” Because of this perspective, they don’t advise a client on what decisions to make and instead facilitate their “client’s discovery of their own answers” (Germond, 2021).

Executive coaching is NOT counseling

Executive coaches are not counselors. Counselors focus on mental health, trauma, and previous experiences. Executive coaches are forward-focused. They focus on their clients’ current and desired skill sets, not their past trauma or experiences. Counselors focus primarily on “lifestyle issues” while executive coaches focus primarily on “organizational and workplace issues” (Collier, 2020). Furthermore, executive coaches do not have the training to lead clients through complex mental health challenges and are encouraged to make references to mental health professionals as needed.

“A coach has some great questions for your answers. A mentor has some great answers for your questions.” - Unknown

Executive coaching is NOT mentoring

Executive coaches are not mentors. Mentors provide advice and counsel to those in the same career field with less experience than themselves. Executive coaches do not need experience in the same field as those they coach. Instead, they use their expertise in coaching methods and acknowledgment of their clients’ expertise to bring out the best in those they coach (ArdenCoaching, 2018).

Executive coaching is NOT instant income

When starting down the path to executive coaching, it is important to understand that executive coaching is not a form of instant income. It takes time to build a client base and establish your coaching practice. This is also true for those who join coaching groups such as Vistage. It takes time to build a consistent income from executive coaching. Because of this, it is important that aspiring executive coaches embrace an entrepreneurial spirit and prepare themselves financially for the time needed to grow their coaching business (Stanaland, 2021).

“Live your message: practice what you preach. That’s where credibility comes from.” - John C. Maxwell

Step 3: Experience coaching

If you are interested in being an executive coach but have never experienced executive coaching, having your own executive coach can give you a first-hand experience of what it is like to receive executive coaching. It also allows you to see what executive coaches do up close and personally. Having your own executive coach can also help you continue your journey towards being an executive coach. They can help you establish your goals and hold you accountable for accomplishing your goals. In Episode #1047 of the Arete Coach Podcast, Jill Douka discusses the importance of even the most seasoned executive coaches having their own coach. Adam Harris in Episode #1008 of the Arete Coach Podcast states that “the first thing” aspiring executive coaches should do is get their “own coach” because it will “challenge” their mindset and “thought processes.”

“The main purpose of education isn't just to receive a certification that leads to a career, but to become a well-rounded person in so many aspects of life.” - Edmond Mbiaka

Step 4: Develop your knowledge and skills

While there are no specific certifications or experience required to be an executive coach, it is important for those entering the executive coaching industry to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for coaching their future clients.

Certification and training

Certification and training are a great way to lay a “strong foundation” for “long-term success” in your executive coaching career (Hudson, 2019). By investing in certification and training, you can develop the “skills, tools and techniques” necessary for coaching success. Furthermore, by investing in training and certifications, you establish your reputation and legitimacy. This can help your services stand out from your fellow coaches (Hudson, 2019).

“Learn continually. There’s always one more thing to learn.” - Steve Jobs

However, what’s most important is getting high-quality training and certifications. There are three core executive coaching organizations, the ICF, EMCC, and CEE, that each have varying requirements.

Skill development

Executive coaching requires a variety of skills such as communication, leadership, active listening, and mindfulness. It is important for future executive coaches to examine what skills they have and what skills they should invest more time in developing. For example, if communication is not a strong suit of an aspiring executive coach, they can take training courses specific to communication or work with their own coach on developing these skills.

“Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.” - William Arthur Ward

Step 5: Adopt the stance of a life-long learner

Learning never ceases for the high-impact executive coach. Skillful and successful executive coaches adopt the stance of a life-long learner. They stay on top of current economic and business trends that can potentially impact their clients. The best executive coaches keep their ear to the ground for new research and insight that might help those they coach. They continually learn new coaching methods and techniques from their peers and other business professionals. Advanced executive coaches invest in “continuous learning and development” by researching their “own effectiveness as a coach,” teaching and coaching others, accepting feedback and “consultation” from coaching peers, and by helping other executive coaches (TheExecutiveCoachingForum, 2015).

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” - Ken Blanchard

Step 6: Find your tribe

There is a famous African proverb that states “if you want to get somewhere fast, go alone. If you want to go the distance, take a team.” This saying is especially true for those wishing to start a career as an executive coach. By finding a tribe or a group of peers to connect with and learn from, new executive coaches gain access to a wealth of information, knowledge, and insight from those with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. By connecting with your local executive coaching groups, networking with other executive coaches, or listening to executive coaching insights such as the Arete Coach Podcast, newly developing executive coaches can speed the growth of their coaching practice and further develop their coaching skills.

Main takeaway

Although there are no legal requirements to complete before starting a career as an executive coach, the best executive coaches take intentional steps towards growth, knowledge, learning, and the development of their coaching skills. By learning more about the executive coaching industry, experiencing coaching themselves, gaining the necessary skills and certifications, adopting the stance of a lifelong learner, and joining the executive coaching community, aspiring executive coaches will have the potential to enter a fulfilling and high-impact career.


ArdenCoaching. (2018, July 18). Four Things an Executive Coach is NOT. Arden Executive Coaching.,Mentors%20provide%20advice%20and%20counsel.

Coacharya. (n.d.). Coaching Organizations.

Collier, C. (2020, October 15). What’s the Difference Between Executive Coaching and Therapy? - Dr. Cherry A. Collier. Dr. Cherry Coaching.

Germond, G. (2021, January 29). Why Giving Advice Rarely Works — And What Great Coaches Do Instead. iPECCoaching.

Hudson, F. (2019, February 15). How to Become an Executive Coach: The Why and How of Professional Certification. iPECCoaching.

ICF. (n.d.). The Gold Standard in Coaching | ICF - Core Competencies. International Coaching Federation.

iPEC. (n.d.). What is Executive Coaching. iPECCoaching.

Philips, J., & Philips, P. (2005). Measuring ROI in Executive Coaching. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 1, 53–62.

Stanaland, R. (2021, October 1). Become an Executive Coach With This 8-Point Checklist | Vistage. Vistage Research Center.

TheExecutiveCoachingForum. (2015). Executive Coaching Handbook 6th Edition October 2015 (6th ed.).

Copyright © 2022 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.

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